Our Upside Down World

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Learning from the younger generation. Pic – Optimal Hore Care

What a marvel – of sorts, given the flipsides – is WhatsApp! One gets all kinds of posts, many of which belong to the lowly dustbin, not even the dustbin of history wherefrom they may be retrieved by some future maniac. This is what a friend and colleague of mine who is a cardiologist in Canada, where he migrated to many moons ago, sent me. It is ascribed to a certain ‘Bishop Hassan Kukah’:

‘African educational systems have surprising outcomes. The smartest students pass with first class and get admissions to medical and engineering schools. The second class students get MBAs and LLBs to manage the first class students. The third class students enter politics and rule both the first class and second class students. The failures enter the underworld of crime and control the politicians and the businesses. And best of all, those who didn’t attend school become prophets and everyone follows them, leaving behind reason and commonsense.’

Since geographically we are deemed to be part of the African continent, I thought that the contents of the post may interest local readers. This is perhaps why my friend sent me the extract as I have had occasion earlier to reproduce posts that he had forwarded, equally interesting if not as cynical and revealing of what could well be some unpalatable truths. At the very least it should invite us to reflect on what is stated therein, and in what way the contents may be holding a mirror to the situation in our own country. 

For there is no smoke without fire, and obviously the ‘Bishop’, who must be having a good educational grounding, is a keen observer of his society. But I hope he remains a ‘Bishop’ and does not have ambitions of becoming a prophet, or allow himself to be conferred the title. This way he will still retain his commonsense and reason and be able to make further acute and real-life observations which I am sure will be as illuminating of the human condition.

As for me, there is at least one story that was doing the rounds when I was a junior doctor at SSRN Hospital in the 1970s that seems to corroborate to some extent what the post describes. One of the ministers was quite critical of doctors generally, except when he needed their services, and according to the grapevine this was because he had failed to obtain a medical seat when he went for his tertiary studies and had as a second choice opted for law. Other readers may have their own reading into the messages that the post articulates.

Be that as it may, for the rest of us common mortals, the best thing is to discard the cynicism and get on with our lives on the principles of honesty, high thinking and simple living. Though I grant that ‘simple’ living is becoming increasingly difficult in these days of sophisticated gadgetry and the complexities of the digital world. This is particularly the case for us senior citizens who have to unlearn so many things and learn to manipulate infuriatingly smallish touch buttons on smartphone screens that we have to squint our eyes to be able to see properly. Result: often we make errors while entering letters and digits, and have to seek help from youngsters who are so deft at handling these devices that we wonder at the world they are growing up in. Further, many of us prefer to revert to the more tangible paper world that we have been used to and that gives us a greater sense of security.

Learning new skills as all of us know becomes more difficult as we age, especially once we cross fifty years. When I was doing a fellowship in plastic and reconstructive surgery at CHU La Timone in Marseilles in 1985, microsurgery – that is, surgery to magnify and repair small arteries and nerves using a microscope – was a newly-developing hyperspecialty with transformational applications in plastic surgery. Everybody had to learn the new skills in the laboratory first before being allowed to operate on humans, and that included the professor – ‘Monsieur’ – who was the head of the department.

However, to be allowed to learn the skill on the experimental animals (rabbits), the strict rules were that one had to avoid drinking coffee and smoking, which tend to induce tremors in the fingers. This may not be visible normally but under the microscope it is very much so, and interferes with the handling of the fine instruments, so that it renders practice impossible.

The story goes that after three attempts in the experimental laboratory, ‘Monsieur’ flung everything aside and walked out, saying ‘this I for you youngsters, not for me!’ At 57 years, there’s only so much you can give up on, and he could not part with his cups of coffee and his cigarettes, though he was only a light smoker.

But he possessed what we didn’t: vast experience. That was the greatest asset to avoid catastrophic outcomes in patients. For when we have learnt a new skill, we are keen to use it as often as we can, even if a patient can be managed by a well-established treatment. This is where ‘Monsieur’ comes in, to curb our ‘knife-happy’ enthusiasm, in other words to guide us when (that is, in which cases) to use microsurgery and when NOT to operate, that is not use microsurgery.

As the saying goes, to one who possesses a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

This said, it doesn’t mean that we should shun learning, in fact we should maintain our curiosity and continue to be keen learners of things new to us, for that is what helps the brain to remain ‘young’ or its property called plasticity, as well as sparing us from developing maladies such as Alzheimer’s amongst other things. And always apply commonsense and reason for they throw much needed light on archaic beliefs and practices that have the potential to cause harm to our fellow beings, and that we must be prepared to modify or discard as the case may be. We may begin by paying some attention to the observations of the good ‘Bishop’.


Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 17 June 2022

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