Those were difficult days. Difficult in more than one sense. Professionally, there was a trickle of indifferent patients with an occasional house call thrown in. For most of these, I was either the second or third choice physician. Who would come to a young man just out of medical school, working out of an unimpressive single room and who for most of the time was found either sitting idle or reading the day’s newspapers? Most of them were also drifters whose usual mode of payment was a promise to pay tomorrow. Neither that tomorrow nor the patient would ever come.
Such was my state when I was called to see an eight-year-old boy at home. House calls those days were welcome as they brought in much-needed additional income. I went with the mother to see the boy. I found him in bed, looking fairly OK except for a fever of 103 degrees. After the usual examination and assurance that all would be well in a couple of days, I was about to leave when a young voice behind me asked if I would like to wash my hands. A bright and pretty 12-year-old stood with a soap tray and a towel near the wash basin. More to accede to her request than for any real need to wash, I washed my hands and returned home. After two days, the call came again. The boy continues to have fever and would I mind coming again to see him? Racking my brain as to what could be the cause I rushed to his home. Those inexperienced days only the worst and the rarest illnesses would come to my mind and by the time I reached his home, I was prepared for the worst scenario. I found him sitting in bed reading a comic. I examined him, found everything normal except for the temperature which was now 102 degrees, and lower than last time but high enough to cause worry. I thought it was time to get a few basic tests done to find out the cause. I asked the mother to get these done and after the ritual hand-washing, ably assisted by that charming sister of the patient, returned home.
The next two days were agony. It is every doctor’s hope when treating these cases that the fever would go away and peace would prevail. This is what I was expecting when the mother came to see me in my clinic. I went through the sheaf of lab reports she had brought. They were all normal, and she said, ‘Doctor, my boy still has fever of 102 degrees and would you mind seeing him?’ With growing desperation, I reached his home. The patient was nowhere to be found. A frantic search in the house did not produce the errant patient. Enquiries revealed that the boy was playing cricket in the next street. A sick boy with a 102-degree fever of unknown cause playing cricket! That too in the hot afternoon sun! Blasphemy. My heart sank and I sat rather heavily on a nearby chair. The ever-present assistant brought me a cup of merciful water to drink.
The mother and daughter combination succeeded in bringing the wretched boy home and forced him to lie down on the bed. I examined him. He appeared to be in fine fettle except that he resented this unwarranted interference with his cricket. I took his temperature. It showed 102 degrees! I stood there looking at the thermometer and wondering what to do next. I heard the voice of the sister asking me, ‘How do you know that the thermometer shows the correct reading?’
Yes how? I quickly washed the instrument and thrust it under the tongue of the young girl. After a minute’s anxious wait, it read 102 degrees!
It took a 12-year-old girl with an enquiring mind to spot the problem. It was such a relief to know that the boy had no fever that I almost forgot to thank his sister and congratulate her. I asked them to buy a new thermometer, discharged the patient to resume his cricket and with a dancing heart, returned home. Since that episode the young lady and I have both aged. She went on to do her graduation, post-graduation and has settled abroad. We have kept in touch; when she visits me, I see in front of my eyes a chirpy 12-year-old who taught me the home truth that common sense and an enquiring mind is often more important than knowledge in one’s professional life.