Torn meniscus 'comic caprice'

20:38, Jul 24 2012

A few years ago I wrote that surgeons were just fancy plumbers. I would like to stress now that this was a joke. Ha ha.

If I gave any offence I apologise without reservation. No-one could have greater admiration for surgeons than I do. I'm having an operation on Friday.

Our primary school teacher was called Mr Tucker. His first name was Neville, which made us giggle, and his second was Horace, which gave us a hernia.

But it was Mr Tucker who showed us that if you carefully filled a glass with water the surface could be made to rise above the rim.

"That bulge," he said, "is called the meniscus. Insects walk on it."

Now, nearly half a century later, I have discovered that we do too.


The meniscus we walk on is a wad of cartilage in the knee.

It sits between thigh bone and shin bone and stops the two of them rubbing against each other, like the wall that separates Israel and Palestine. I know this only because I reached into the back forehand corner of a squash court one afternoon, stretched, twisted and suddenly the Israelis and the Palestinians in my knee were at each other's throats. I'd torn a meniscus.

That was 18 months ago. Since then the physiotherapist has conducted several Middle Eastern peace initiatives. These have met with the same success as all Middle Eastern peace initiatives.

A torn meniscus is a creature of comic caprice. Most of the time it permits me to go about my business with only a slight limp. But once in a while, and quite without warning, it decides to lock the knee at 45 degrees. Oh how I smile.

Its other favourite trick is simply to give way. One moment I'm walking along and the next it's as if my right leg has stepped off the edge of the earth. Down I tumble, chuckling even as I fall.

Unfortunately, this whimsical injury precludes squash. And since squash is the one remaining activity that prevents me from becoming another stat in the obesity epidemic that is sweeping the land, I've decided to take a lead from the Pentagon.

To hell with peace initiatives. It's time to launch an invasion.

I have been assured that the operation is a routine one. But though it may be routine for the medical profession, there is nothing routine about it for me. This is my first experience of surgery.

People speak possessively about surgery. They do not speak of "the surgeon", but of "my surgeon"; never of "the operation", always of "my operation". This is understandable. Surgery is as personal as personal gets.

In principle, I suppose, it's little different to dentistry and I've had plenty of that. But the little difference is a vast difference. The dentist gets at you through a ready-made hole. The surgeon has to dig his own.

Not that there will be much digging in my case. The operation is an arthroscopy which requires only two incisions.

Into one goes a sort of CCTV camera. Into the other a pair of pigmy secateurs. Snip snip snip go the secateurs as they prune the meniscus back into order, and the whole thing is played out on a telly above the bed, like the invasion of Iraq.

I'd quite like to watch. Though I'm a coward of the very highest ranking, I have never been squeamish. So when I went to see the surgeon for the first time I meant to ask whether I could have the operation under a local anaesthetic rather than a general one.

I also, I have to admit, planned to butter the surgeon up, to flatter him.

I was keen to ensure that he thought well of me so that he would pay especially close attention to what his secateurs were up to. He was, after all, my only gateway to a functioning knee.

But the moment I was ushered into his presence, the notion of flattery shrivelled like a tissue tossed into a fire.

Before me stood a man of such magisterial demeanour that had it not been for my dodgy meniscus I'd have knelt.

That brow, that bearing, that stature, that air of benevolence, that inescapable sense that here was a man who without fear or favour was committed to doing good by his fellow man.

It was as if Einstein and an Olympic decathlete had simultaneously impregnated Mother Teresa and here was their sole issue.

The idea that such a paragon could be swayed by flattery was as absurd as comparing, in however jocular a fashion, surgeons with plumbers. Ha ha.

(I've written my will.)

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