The vorpal blade went snicker-snack


This month, I needed a new passport. I spent some time making myself presentable for the necessary photograph, but after showing a nicely made-up face to the booth camera I received a printed image of one which appeared to be made from Yorkshire pudding. It’s all very well getting used to seeing your mother reflected back at you in the mirror, but in the space of a decade I seemed to have jumped straight to Nanna.

I accept the body’s advance from plum to prune (what else can you do besides getting some greedy girl cheek implants?) but stubbornly try to hang on to health through diet, exercise and general restraint. It’s tedious and never-ending - but such doggedness does work. I recently heard a reporter point out that the only two British PMs in recent memory to have had the stamina for weathering storm after storm without leaving in a huff were both women: Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May. I’m a fan of neither, but have to admire their political use of the psychological endurance which evolved to see them through nine months of pregnancy without saying ‘Bugger this, I’m off’.

Over the festive season, I saw female forbearance closer to home, following my mother’s latest hokey-cokey series of hospital admissions and discharges. An NHS Christmas dinner had not been on her gift list. Our family discussions about her treatment involved A & E, nursing, technical, administrative and specialist medical staff, all of whom had clearly been trained to round off their explanations at the edges. I was at first shocked, then irritated, and finally left wondering why such a dumbing down is necessary, when a Casualty-watching nation must by now know the difference between an infarction and a cuss.

The language used by every doctor I met was worthy of a Teletubby. When did ‘poo’ enter the medical lexicon? Who decided that patients require the details of surgical procedures reduced to a Fisher Price level of simplification? And why are all options given in threes? The choice of heart surgery: none, open, TAVI. The three possible outcomes of post-stroke medication: 1 = none; 2 = stroke reversed; 3 = second stroke. Now you decide. ‘This is a crap game show’, I told the doctor. He thought I was being flippant. I thought he was being flippant. I may not have his breadth of knowledge but I don’t need everything painted in primary colours, particularly when making a life-or-death decision.

Probably as a result of the UK’s surge towards five million Type 2-ers by 2025, diabetes is one of the more widely-known diseases among the general populace. Ask anyone about cancer and they’re likely to be pretty well briefed since we all have a 1 in 3 chance (threes again!) of needing an Oncologist in our lives. But beyond that it’s often ‘dodgy knees’ and ‘dicky hearts’ which make their way to the local surgery, such is our determined lack of understanding about disease. British reticence to get a grip on death and any nasty stuff that pre-empts it is sewn into our socks from childhood - which is just the right time to start getting acquainted.

If common illnesses were discussed as part of the school curriculum, we would all be better prepared for what inevitably happens to us and our families - and be able to hold a decent conversation with a doctor without feeling bewildered. In a recent appointment with a locum GP, I paraphrased his hesitant description of my rib pain by mentioning the point where bone meets cartilage. The doctor was so surprised that I used the word ‘cartilage’ correctly, he asked if I were a nurse. Does this indicate that health providers routinely expect us to be clueless?

An interesting target in the National Curriculum for Science under ‘Spoken Language’ denotes the expected quality of pupils’ scientific vocabulary, and their ability to articulate scientific concepts clearly and precisely. ‘They must be assisted in making their thinking clear, both to themselves and others’. (Could the same mandate also be applied to undergraduate medics, with penalties for those who stray into Etch A Sketch territory?) This doesn’t need to be an ordeal: an early education in health shouldn’t be any more grim than say, learning the basics of a foreign language, which can typically stay with you forever. Yeah, so then you can order a beer in clinical terminology when pushed.

Last week, Angelina Jolie, special envoy to the UN Refugee Agency, made an appeal while guest-editing the Today programme, for politics to be taught to primary school children. Ms Jolie is about to begin working with the BBC on a new weekly show for 7-12 year olds, focusing on international news, technology and the environment. She doesn’t believe that young people need to be protected from harsh facts, and she wants her own children to possess more of them in order to engage with their fellow human beings. This is not surprising, coming from a woman whose entire adult life has been documented in (mostly) fake news items and the surreal front cover outrages of The National Enquirer.

In the UK, primary school education includes an endorsement of activity and diet as factors enabling good health. It’s a nice, non-scary introduction to our own frailties. But when a student enters secondary level schooling, they need to choose Biology to learn about disease. It’s not part of an individual’s general education to know say, the twenty top killers and their causes. Too much, too young? A child can, of course, do a simple search online when their favourite uncle has a TIA/mini-stroke/whoopsy-daisy, but it seems less traumatic in the long run to be pre-armed with knowledge. For the adult they will become, a more comprehensive health education will also save them from the sheer frustration of being baby-talked in a crisis.