Hazel McHaffie

Digging for gold

In a former life I was a researcher based at Edinburgh University – OK, I know, I know, yawn yawn, not exactly an opening gambit to inspire stimulating exchanges at a candle-lit dinner, is it? But I’ve so often in my writing life has cause to be very glad of that background; digging around for facts and verifications, detail and context, comes naturally.

This past week I’ve been rummaging far and wide in readiness for a meeting with a professorial friend of mine who might set me straight on matters paediatric – of which more anon. But in the course of my own ferreting I’ve rediscovered some treasure troves on my bookshelves. There’s a brilliant set of writers’ guides on a range of topics – especially about the how, where, who, what and why of crimes. They’re a useful starting point so I don’t look like the ultimate complete twat when I consult the real live professionals who do this stuff for a living, and who kindly home in on any little inaccuracy, transforming the passable to the really authentic storytelling.

And there, sitting quietly alongside those books, was The World’s Worst Medical Mistakes. It’s no earthly use for my current writing – nobody would believe these scenarios if I put them in my novels; truth definitely is weirder than fiction in this case. But I’m totally hooked by it, in a macabre, shivery, kind of way. We all place our trust in the medical fraternity at some point in or lives, don’t we? – in spite of Bernard Shaw‘s dictum that all professions are ‘conspiracies against the laity‘ ringing in our ears. But sometimes that trust can be misplaced. Big time. Just think Thalidomide, or Dr Shipman, or Dr Crippen, or those celebrities who end up with wooden faces or fish-pouty lips after so-called enhancement.

This fascinating book brings together real human dramas and catastrophic errors that curl the toes and make the blood run cold. Dangerous drugs unleashed on unsuspecting patients; the horrors of cosmetic surgery gone horribly awry; scalpels that inflicted major trauma; imposters and frauds and killers clad in white coats and phony qualifications; instruments left behind in body cavities … enough to make one suppress all symptoms of ill health for good and just go into a quiet decline safely under the duvet behind locked doors, with a DNR placard tattooed on your chest. But spine chillingly compulsive reading for a currently-healthy seeker after information!

What’s more, some of these fearful happenings took place in my lifetime. Hmmm. Worse still, when I was in clinical practice. There but for the grace of God … But add that to the historical catastrophes, and I’m devoutly thankful I live in the 21st century in a well-regulated society, and that I’m no longer responsible for other people’s lives and health.

As for my professorial friend. Wow! He didn’t just give me a wealth of information about paediatric parameters and drugs and symptoms and the fine machinations of the medical consultant’s mind when faced with a conundrum in a little patient who can’t speak for himself. No, in reality he actually helped me thrash out a convincing storyline for my upcoming thriller. Fabulous input. I just hope no one else in the cafe was listening in to our devious and dastardly plotting – we were really into our roles!!

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