I was 26 years old when I was a junior doctor working in the Bart’s and Homerton Hospital Accident and Emergency Unit. The two units tended to have very different clientele presenting with a very different set of symptoms.
One morning shift at Homerton was particularly memorable for me. A man was ambulanced in unconscious. There was not much information on him available. While the exact circumstances of how he was found is lost to memory, he was an elderly man who was fairly thin and still wearing his pyjamas. One thing I did notice when I was inserting a venous catheter was a number that had been tattooed roughly on his forearm. The ink was a greenish blue.
A quick check of his sugar levels indicated that he was almost certainly an insulin dependent diabetic in a hypoglycemic coma. I gave him a slug of intravenous glucose and, like magic, the man woke up.
“Thank you,” he said. “You got the diagnosis right.”
He had an Eastern European accent and his warm personality shone through. My next thought was how interesting it was that a comatose, anonymous body could, in a moment, become alive and animated. His next comments shocked me.
“I know it comes as a wonder to doctors how a lifeless body can turn into an actual person with just one shot of sugar.”
Had he read my mind? Was it something that other doctors had said to him from his previous hypos? With my black curly hair and name, my Jewish ancestry was obvious to him. I looked again at the number on his arm.
“Do you know what that is?” he said smiling at me.
I looked back in horror at him and simply gave him a brief nod.
We looked after him in the department until he felt well enough to leave. I shook his hand but said nothing further to him.
The man haunts me to this day. At the time I felt it somehow wasn’t right to discuss his experience in a concentration camp. I was shocked into a naive silence. What do you say in this circumstance? Did he want to relive the experience for the sake of my curiosity? Was that the right decision or even my decision to make? In my silence, I denied myself and others around me a snippet of his first hand experience.
We each regret rejecting the many opportunities that presented themselves to us in our youth. What is important now is that we never dismiss learning the lessons from the past. I remember the man’s warm smile very well. I can sense it even now as I write this.
If you found this post interesting, please like this on Facebook and sign up to my newsletter to receive more updates on my books and blogs. Adam Frosh is the author of the science fiction/ history novel, Space Taxis.