We are born staring down the barrel

How lovely it must be to stride through the crowd at the scene of an accident bellowing, "Make way, I'm a doctor." I long to do it, writes Joe Bennett.

The calm and manly voice is no problem. I practise in the shower. The problem is what to do on arrival. I suppose I could faint. The crowd would gasp and when a real doctor arrived I could come round saying, "Sorry, never been any good with blood. No no, please treat the other guy first, I'll just pass the steth." Then run.

On my first day at university I was given a glass of sherry. The medical students were given a corpse. Each. It was pickled in formaldehyde and had to last them six years, by the end of which time it had been systematically picked apart, peered into and disposed of in an ethical manner (that is, a bin bag). And the students were now qualified to bellow, "Make way, I'm a doctor".

Medical students were fun to be with, much given to doing the sort of things that make life worth living and middle-aged people tut. We had hi-jinks that memory renders even higher.

In subsequent years I have often wondered, and by "often" I mean just now for the first time, whether the vivacity and creative destructiveness of the student medics had something to do with their pet corpses.

For there the students were, at the age of maximal vitality, with unlined skins and bladders that could hold a hogshead, suddenly presented with irrefutable evidence that it wouldn't always be so. Evidence that each of us is born staring down the barrel and fate's got its finger on the trigger.

As the virologist said of bird flu, it's not if but when, the only difference being that the virologist was wrong. And so, subconsciously, the medics devoted themselves to having a good time while they could. They took a vow to leave no lamppost unclimbed, because they knew the time would come when they could only lean against it gasping.

Had the medics ever asked, we layabout English students could have supplied the words to enshrine what they felt.

"And at my back I always hear, Time's winged chariot drawing near," covers it nicely.

But the medics didn't need words. They knew it in someone else's bones. So they danced on the edge of the abyss.

And in my experience they carry on dancing after graduation.

I have attended a couple of medical conferences, and once the tedious preambular stuff has been dealt with, the learned lectures, the unlearned after-dinner speech, the docs have shown a fierce commitment to precisely the activities they are forever advising their customers to abjure. It's too late for me to become a doc, but I still consort with them whenever possible. They may no longer climb lamp-posts or biff bicycles into rivers or rugby tackle people late at night as they leave the university library laden with books, but they do tell fine stories. For their profession occupies the keen end of life's spectrum. They see people with the onion layers of pretension peeled away, people who are peering so hard down the barrel they can read the name on the bullet.

I've recently drunk with two separate docs, Dr Ano and Dr Nymous. Neither practises where I live and neither knows the other.

Over the first beer or two I've rattled through a few of my more interesting ailments, because I know they like that.

And then I've told them that even though I've reached the age where time's chariot's virtually butting my bum and things are going to get worse rather than better, nevertheless I have resolved that under no circumstances am I going to be toddling along to their surgery or any other surgery to have my prostate prodded, that if I contract something big I don't want to know about it till it hurts, even if it means a few notional years being knocked off my allotment, and if that makes me a typical male poltroon, an ostrich, then so be it. I just don't bloody care. And then I've sat back to watch the doctor froth.

Whereupon each doctor, and remember these two encounters happened separately, smiled and said he had reached exactly the same decision for himself. Their reasons being that screening was far from conclusive, that there were numerous false positives, that the worry induced outweighed the good done, and that often when the diagnosis was correct the bullet was already on its way and quite unduckable.

"Gosh," I said. "Shall we dance?"

» Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.

The Southland Times