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.