If one undertakes to write a regular column in a medical journal there may be occasions when the deadline is looming and one can’t think of anything to say, though with so much going on in the world these instances must be rare. However, if afflicted by writer’s block it is always possible to turn to a subject on which one is a world authority: oneself.

In a certain medical journal, recently a certain columnist apparently found himself in this predicament and related the following personal anecdote.

Twenty years previously he needed to consult a cardiologist. The cardiologist ‘took my medical history in a fairly standard way, barely looking up from his notes.’ Well, why did he barely look up from his notes? Surely the essence of good history taking is to establish rapport with the patient and that means looking him or her in the eye, though this did happen somewhat belatedly: ‘When he’d finished he looked me directly in the eye and asked, “Is there anything else important I need to know about you?” ’

This so impressed our columnist that his eyes welled up and he came straight out with, ‘Yes, my wife and I have 3-year-old twins, and I want to see them go to university.’ He thought, ‘It’s a perfect example of how a single good question, asked with real curiosity, can evoke a patient’s trust and transform a humdrum consultation.’

Of course that’s important, but why did the cardiologist not routinely elicit the patient’s family history including the fact that he was married and had 3-year-old twins? And obviously any parent would want to see their children grow up, even if they’re not clever enough to go to university

That’s only half the piece, and I have to say that as a reader I didn’t find it particularly interesting. But what comes next? We learn he survived, obviously, and, what gives him great joy is that the female twin has a degree in anthropology and has gone into social work, and the male twin is at medical school. (Yawn.)

Now we get to the climax of the piece. By an extraordinary coincidence, many years later the son met the cardiologist, who of course didn’t remember the young man’s father, but in spite of this he sent his best wishes. Meaningless.

Are you still awake, dear reader? If you’re nodding off, what I’ll tell you next will make you sit up! Our columnist relates that he was so struck by this coincidence that he posted a brief account of it on social media. And to his surprise it went bacterial, if that’s the right expression and whatever it’s supposed to mean, and several million people saw it. Among those millions was the cardiologist’s daughter; she saw it and wrote to the columnist, and so on, and on.

How very interesting it must be to see all this in print – for the writer.

Text © Gabriel Symonds

Picture credit: ‘Narcissus Gazing at His Reflection’ by Dirck Van Baburen. Wikimedia Commons