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Saturday, 23 September 2017

Reasons why it's worth keeping up your shorthand skills

It seems like an ancient craft now, akin to basket-weaving or the making of quills, but I learned to write Pitman shorthand when training for my first career as a medical secretary in 1979. (I also learned to type on traditional typewriters with their clatter and bash and 'ting' as the carriage went back and forth when one started a new line.)


It's hard to imagine now, but in my role as a medical secretary, I would walk into a doctor's consulting room after he (in the 1980s, invariably 'he') had finished the morning surgery. He'd dictate fifteen or so letters to the patients' general practitioners or to other consultants, reporting on what he'd found or on a diagnosis, or referring patients on, and I'd scribble them down in shorthand in my little notebook in squiggles and dashes and lines and dots.

Inevitably, mistakes were made in transcribing the letters back. Doctors often dictated so quickly - some while pacing up and down while eating a lunchtime ham sandwich, having endured yet another late-running surgery.

Here are two mistakes I remember. The first one was a colleague's error. The second was mine.

My colleague worked for the Consultant Gynaecologist. She hadn't trained as a medical secretary so wasn't so au fait with the terminology and was learning on the job. One day, she took the dictation, typed up the letters, and went into the doctor's surgery room to get them signed.

She told us later what had happened.

The consultant had nearly wet himself, reading through one of the letters. We could hear his booming laugh from the secretaries' office.

'What have I done?' my colleague said to him.

She'd typed, 'Dear Doctor. Thank you for sending me your patient. I have investigated her heavy bleeding and recommend that she has a day at the sea. I will organise this as soon as I can. Yours sincerely.'

'I didn't say day at the sea,' the doctor said. 'I said D and C. Dilatation and curettage. It's a procedure to clean out the uterus. You'll have to re-type. Sorry.'

Our colleague was never allowed to forget that. We recommended each other days at the sea for months afterwards.

Jane's friends were jealous. Their doctors always prescribed tedious pills and potions. 


The second error, I will own. I was taking dictation from a Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon. When I typed up the letter, I wrote this.

'I have referred this patient with a gangrenous limb for a Baloney amputation.'

It sounded logical to me. Surgical procedures were often named after the person who invented them.

'It's not Baloney,' he said to me, when I gave him the letter to sign. 'It's below-knee.'

'Ah, that makes sense,' I said, as I took the letter off him for re-typing. 'I wondered why the operation had been given a name that made it sound like a bad idea.'




The only time I've used my shorthand lately, 35 years later, is as a party trick if an English lesson isn't going well. It never fails, even when kids are misbehaving, if you turn to the board and fill it with what looks like magic writing, and then, even more impressively, read it back to them.

The next step is to say, 'Who wants to know what their name looks like in shorthand?'

This can take a teacher right up to the bell, when she can then run into the English department and grab the biscuit tin, having survived one more lesson by the skin of her teeth.

No doubt it's a dying art: shorthand. But it still has its uses.




22 comments:

  1. 'Day at the Sea' sounds like a good prescription to me! Can you get it on the NHS?

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    1. Wouldn't that be fabulous? And maybe even 'Week in Marbella' or 'fortnight on a Mediterranean cruise'?

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  2. I'm afraid that 'art' has died within me. I took shorthand for two years in highschool and really enjoyed it. After graduation I never used it again. Sad. It was a fun thing. I ghink a dot was the wasn't it? And I think I rememer \from' ...... I should brush up on it again just for fun.

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    1. I really have to struggle now to remember it, especially all those short forms, but I think it would soon come back if I practised. I do remember that in medical terminology it was a lot quicker to write ENT in normal capitals than it was to write otorhinolaryngology in shorthand :)

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  3. Love the misheard day at the sea! I shall get some mileage from that one.Thank you.

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    1. It's one of my favourite stories!

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  4. Love this Fran! One of my faux pas was typing about a patient going deaf after small boar shooting. My consultant (after almost wetting himself) explained he meant small bore. x

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    1. I was thinking of you while I was writing this, because I know you're a med sec too. I love your story. The images!!

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  5. I never learned any shorthand and I'm wondering now, how the squiggles would look if the writer has shaky hands due to age, or any other reason. Would she still be able to read it back or would it be so much nonsense? My own once neat handwriting is more scribble these days.

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    1. I'm with you there - my own handwriting has suffered over the years because of neglect. I do most things on a keyboard. As for shorthand, I think you get to know your own shorthand so you'd still be able to read it, but perhaps no one else would, even if they knew the same script.

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  6. I think a day at the sea sounds like a real tonic though perhaps not for Gyne troubles.

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    1. I definitely need more days at the sea, BadPenny. But I don't like it when it's windy. I'm a bit of a wuss when it comes to breezes.

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  7. Don't recall any faux pas, but I do remember having to follow American author Paul Gallico around his cliff-like garden, with him dictating and me having to take shorthand on the hoof, then having to type it up on a huge Imperial typewriter. His film, The Poseidon Adventure is on - tonight? Or was it last night?

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    1. I love that image, you following him round with your shorthand notebook. He's not an author I'm particularly familiar with but looking at his Wikipedia entry I see he wrote LOADS! I ought to catch up.

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  8. Distracting a younger ... much younger ... classroom just involved drawing a mouse in a bow tie . Never failed .

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    1. Brilliant!! I think that might even work with teens!

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  9. Maybe my doctor will prescribe a day at the sea. That would be lovely, especially if he follows it up with prescriptions for a bottle of wine and a night in a beautiful hotel. You do have a photo of Jane at the sea, and I am Jane, so there's that. I never learned shorthand and refused to take typing in school because my mom was determined that I would be a secretary. She claimed I would be a good typist, and thus a good secretary, because I played the piano well. I said I would not become a secretary; I would HAVE a secretary. I'm still waiting for the secretary to show up. But I do know how to type on a computer now.

    Love,
    Janie

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  10. Ha ha, don't give up on the secretary dream! You never know! I'm the same - I often think I'd like one of those personal lifestyle people whom you hire to deal with all the appointment-making and paying-in-of-cheques and boring-admin-financey-stuff so that I can get on with the interesting things.

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  11. I certainly wouldn't fancy that baloney thing you mention...Nothing to do with shorthand, but I once got into conversation with a visiting lecturer who told me that he was researching into psychopaths in Edinburgh. I was slightly worried that we had enough of these people to be worth researching, till his further expounding helped me to understand that his interest was in cycle paths.

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    1. That was funny! I love these stories.

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  12. Ha! Great post, Fran. I've sat next to people taking shorthand in meetings. Mesmerising, and often far more intriguing than what's being discussed.

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    1. It fascinated me because it was so linked to language and sound. Mr Pitman was a clever man.

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