Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Heroes need medical care too

Liam Farrell
Rostrevor, Ireland


God Pan Hercules Polyphemus

I was driving along a quiet country road when I saw the first bluebell, its delicate beauty a promise of spring. I stopped to relish the moment, to live in the now. Birdsong, the wind rustling through hedgerows, and the disheveled dryad loveliness left me humbled. In the distance a cuckoo sang, or maybe a badger; I’m vague on ornithology.

Then the great god Pan appeared, which might have seemed surprising, but after thirty years in practice nothing surprises me, except perhaps consultants returning a phone call.

“Welcome, my child,” he said. “You have achieved . . . excuse me a sec.”

He adjusted his loincloth, which was revealingly and impressively askew.

“Sorry,” he said, with a wink. “A wood nymph just called around; comprendez?”

He started again.

“Welcome, my child, you have achieved perfect serenity. You understand that happiness comes not from the grand achievement nor possessions, but through contemplation of the eternal benevolence of the cosmos. We are star-born, and the Universe remembers.”

“I request a favor,” he continued, “My pal Hercules has a problem.”

“A problem?”



“And he has to cleanse the Augean Stables; hard shifting all that manure with a dodgy shoulder.”

A few days rest and some anti-inflammatories soon cleared up Hercules’ problem. Word spread round the Greek heroes, and soon my waiting room was bursting with Homeric valor and girded loins; an equal temper of heroic hearts and body oil.

Some were predictable; Tithonus had dementia, and Polyphemus glaucoma. But Bellerophon was allergic to horse hair, and Oedipus was actually very kind to his parents.

Achilles came in trailing a bored-looking Greek chorus. He squashed his mighty thews into the plastic chair, which gave a farting noise. The chorus sniggered.

“I usually see Asclepius,” he said. “But it’s always the same with him: ‘Sacrifice Iphigenia, libation to Apollo, blah blah.’”

“Trouble with the handmaidens again?” I asked. General practitioners are the Renaissance men of medicine; knowing the classics is mandatory.

“I was racing a tortoise,” he said. “Gave it a start, but each time I caught up it had travelled a small distance further. I was about to overtake and disprove the infinity paradox when I tripped over a golden apple Atalanta had left lying around. Now my ankle is giving me trouble. What about an x-ray?”

“An x-ray, an x-ray,” chanted the chorus.

I scrolled through his history. “Ah, your mother dipped you in the River Styx, making you invulnerable. This, incidentally, was the earliest recorded example of preventive medicine; we were going to dip all our infants until the Lancet suggested a link with autism. However, because she held you by the ankle, your ankle has no protection. But it’s just a sprain. Rest for two weeks, and no slaughtering.”

He looked concerned, obviously thinking about the handmaidens, or maybe Patroclus.

“OK, no slaughtering, but—”

“Ravishing’s okay,” I reassured him.

“And,” I continued, in a faux sepulchral tone, à la the Delphic oracle, “don’t go near the Scaean Gate.” Opportunistic health promotion is an integral part of the consultation.

“Could have been worse, doc,” he said, ignoring my dread prophecy (just call me Dr. Cassandra), “At least she didn’t hold me by the d—.”

“Digits,” I said, pre-empting the chorus.



LIAM FARRELL, MD, lives in Rostrevor, Ireland. A former family doctor and a multiple award-winning writer and broadcaster, he was a columnist for the British Medical Journal for 20 years, and has also been a columnist for the Lancet, The Journal of General Practice and the Guardian. He curates the #IrishMed and #WritersWise tweetchats and is a big-shot in the small yet dull world of medical satire. He is signed with the Feldstein Literary agency. You can follow him on Twitter @drlfarrell.


Spring 2018  |  Sections  |  Fiction

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