Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Pick up a penguin

I've just so enjoyed reading The Penguin Lessons by Tim Michell. It really is a lovely read.

Whilst travelling to Argentina to teach in a private school, Tim stops off in Uruguay and stays in a friend's appartment. On his last evening he goes for a wander along the local beach whereupon he is confronted by a teeming mass of penguins, sadly all dead as a result of a carelessly produced oil slight. I say all dead, but in fact there was one feeble looking penguin just hanging on to life. It is this penguin that becomes an unlikely travelling companion for Tim. Having cleaned the penguin up (amusingly recounted by Tim), it simply would not leave his side and in consequence is 'smuggled' into Argentina and then onto the school.

It is here that San Juan (by now the penguin has acquired a name), is gradually adopted and loved, by students and staff alike. In one incident when San Juan jumps into the school swimming pool, he is joined by a student who thus far has been rather isolated and shunned because of his lack of sporting prowess, and yet who in the water swims fast and naturally in a way that leads to him swimming in the school team and gaining acceptance from peers and teachers alike.

So what's this all got to do wth life and the practice of medicine?

I think I generally underestimate just what a contribution animals can make to our lives. I'm not a particular animal lover, and I must admit they are something of a blind spot to me. As a GP I need as many tools as possible to bring relief and well-being to my patients, who often present with ill defined symptoms and impossible to classify medical conditions. they are in fact medically unexplained, and yet I suspect for many of them there is a loneliness or sadness at the root of their lives which leaves them vulnerable to all manor of physical manifestations. I wonder if a pet (ok it doesn't have to be a penguin) might be part of an answer. I recall an elderly isolated old lady living in a village near to my practice who found a reason to get up in her morning when she acquired a budgie, and another sad and poorly old lady living alone who found talking to her cats and stroking them, brought just a little meaning and joy to her life.

Being a GP over a long career, you're going to need a very large tool-box. Don't forget pets!! There's virtually no side effects, and they cost the NHS nothing (ok there's a cost to the patient), and they work. It's a win-win-win!

Take a look here http://petsastherapy.org/.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Happisburgh-a happy borough?

Happisburgh lighthouse
It was a lovely day in Norfolk yesterday and it was good to visit Happisburgh. It's a remarkable little place on the north east Norfolk coast famed for its lighthouse (the only independently operated one England)  and the devastating effects of coastal erosion.  It's fun to hear folk pronounce the name who have never been before, it comes out something like, ''Happysborough' when in fact it should be pronounced Haze-bruh! I wonder if there is such a thing as a happy town? And what would it be like to live and work there?

Of course the reality is that depression is a profound and increasingly noted experience for very many people, causing much distress to sufferers and their loved ones. And with death by suicide affecting over 6000 people in the UK every year (it's over 40000 in the US), it is a huge public health challenge .

I was thinking of this whilst in Happisburgh since I have finally got round to reading Lincoln's melancholy-how depression challenged a president and fuelled his greatness which has sat on my shelves for a few years. It is a remarkable analysis of the life long struggle that Abraham Lincoln endured as he contended with severe bouts of depression. The book is full of insights from various psychological and psychiatric studies on the experience of depressive disorders and also the various treatments which were tried in the 19th century. Most remarkably of all it tells of why Lincoln's longstanding depression in many ways contributed to his greatness as a leader at such a pivotal point in US history. His personality is a profound contrast with that of of Donald Trump!

Lincoln's melancholy is full of so many insights its hard to know where to start, but just one sample of his wisdom, forged from his own personal struggles, and for a man so well known for his seriousness, is interesting since it's notable how important humour was to him (referred to by psychologist George Vaillant as a 'mature strategy' to combat depression).

The phrase 'coping mechanism' comes from the function served by a coping, the top of the wall that protects against the elements. Humour gave Lincoln some protection from his mental storms. It distracted him and gave him a measure of relief (it's interesting that many of our comedians also suffer with depression-my note).
Humour gave Lincoln a way to connect with people. Withdrawal is an essential feature of depression, and once withdrawn a person can grow steadily more awkward in company. Many depressives find small talk to be a Herculean effort... 
As president Lincoln was asked why he would pardon soldiers who deserted for cowardice, he said, "It would frighten the poor devils to death to shoot them".

Any contribution that might help us all understand the experience of depression and offer insights into managing it, is to be welcomed. This remarkable book does both and offers a helpful view of what one might almost call the potential 'positive effects' of depression-which of course may well be impossibly hard to appreciate whilst in the midst of a severe depression.

Thursday, 1 June 2017


At the Ardbeg distillery on a rainy day
Had an excellent few days on Islay with son in law Owen. It happened to be the whisky festival week,  Feis Ile 2017. And it was really good to hear the Coaltown Daises too.  These lassies certainly make a great sound.

Islay, like its neighbouring island of Colonsay is a magical place. I'm so glad I 'discovered' the Hebrides in my late teens when I hitch-hiked up to Iona with a bunch of mates.

The quality of the light, the freshness of the air, the pace of the island, and the natural beauty never fail to lift my spirits. And talking of spirits, Owen and I did enjoy a few drams and met some fascinating people. And it was good to visit some of the distilleries. Well Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroiag, didn't get round all of them!

Yet another example of undeserved grace for 'God has given us all things richly to enjoy' (1 Timothy 6.17).

A message from the other side

No, not that side! But thank God got through surgery ok yesterday. And thanks to all for love support and prayer.