I think this is probably the story I have told the most often in my life, although it isn’t mine, as such. But it relates to what I said yesterday about trusting authority.
I had a girlfriend in 1972 called Maggie Wood. She was a really nice woman, from Corby, an interesting place, because it was populated almost entirely by expatriate Scots (Corby is in Northants – one of those counties that rarely makes the headlines), and I’m sorry I lost track of her. She was a trainee radiographer, and had a dry and happy smile, and she was a good poet, too.
One day, as a trainee, she was given the job of sorting out in-patients at the hospital who had come to have an X-ray taken. Her job was to give the patient a white gown, and to say, ‘Just go into the cubicle over there, take your things off, and slip this over your head, and then come out and sit in the queue.’ It was straightforward, repetitive procedure. But by accident, and without realising it, she gave a male patient a pillow-case rather than a gown.
After some time, the patient had not come out of the cubicle, so, thoughtful as she certainly was, she tapped on the cubicle door and asked if the patient was all right. A muffled voice from within said ‘Yes’. So she opened the cubicle to find a man with a pillow-case over his head. He was otherwise stark naked. She had enough presence of mind to say, ‘I think there has been a slight mistake,’ and to hand him the right clothing. Having done that, she ran down several hospital corridors so she could shriek with helpless laughter.
I’ve never forgotten that tale, and I may have embellished it – but it is a perfect example of the human instinct to obey orders. And nor was it the only story she had to tell.
On another, similar occasion, again assisting a male in-patient, she asked him to go into a cubicle and put the gown on. What she did not realise was that another (female) in-patient had already used the cubicle, and had exchanged her own gown for the plain white one provided, and had hung up her own gown on a hook. Her own gown was a slightly extravagant night dress with a very large number of buttons. On this occasion, her patient, obeying her orders, removed whatever he was wearing, and put on the many-buttoned gown left by his predecessor. Blithely, he came out, and sat in the queue with the others waiting for their turn on the X-ray machine, looking violently conspicuous, but completely unaware of the sensational effect of what he had done. It took the assembled radiographers some time to nerve themselves to tell him what he had done.
I love these two tales of Maggie’s. They sum up with perfection the innocence and trust we place in health professionals. I feel only slightly guilty that, 37 years later, I am still telling her tales. I hope she’s still telling them too.