|Roman copy of a bust of Homer,
2nd century AD, British Museum, London.
My patient is a veteran physician, quite advanced in years but mentally lucid and fully aware of his condition. His disease is incurable, and he is in need of a chest aspiration for symptomatic relief of his breathlessness. He is also impatient. “How much fluid have you drawn?” he asks gruffly every so often.
“I will give it to you in drams so they won’t understand,” I half-whisper conspiratorially. The ones that must not understand are his attending daughter who is also a colleague, some twenty years younger than me, and my assistant who is just out of nursing college. The old man responds to this prompt, and over the next few minutes we two “seniors” enact a spur-of-the-moment tutorial in history for the two juniors, and thoroughly enjoy it.
“What are the drams?” asks the daughter, rather surprised. I smile. Standing behind my patient for the tap I cannot see his expression, but I am sure he is also grinning.
“A kilogram has 312.5 of these, and an oka used to have four hundred,” I reply.1
“What is an oka?”
“It was a unit of mass used in the old Ottoman times, before the kilogram,” I inform her. “As you know, our home city, Thessaloniki, was under Ottoman rule for 480 years, until 1912 when it was liberated by the Greeks.
“We used those units quite long after that,” adds the patient.
“That’s right,” I continue. “We finally abandoned them in the late sixties. Or early seventies”
“Where did you learn all that, Doctor?” the young nurse wants to know.
“In primary school arithmetic we were taught, among other things, to convert okas and drams to kilograms and grams, and vice versa. An oka had 1280 grams. All this took place before you two were born. You could shop in okas at the grocer’s in those days. Now neighborhood grocers have gone the way of the okas — virtually disappeared.”
“How much fluid have you drawn out?” demands the patient, impatiently.
“More than a kilo, and close to an oka,” I say, trying to allay his curiosity.
Having had enough of mass units the daughter switches the subject.
“Where do you come from, Doctor?”
“One half from here and one half from elsewhere,” I respond enigmatically.
“From seven quarrelling cities,” quips the physician patient.
It is only rarely that you get a verbal cue like this, and once you do you make the most of it. So I recite, in ancient Greek and in the epic hexameter, the time-honored couplet about Homer’s birthplace:
“Seven cities vied for and claimed the wise root of Homer;
Smyrna, Chios, Colophon, Ithaca, Pylos, Argos, and Athens.”
Now the two young women look completely baffled. The old doctor’s smile is quite broad. He has forgotten his worries and looks at them lovingly, with understanding.
“It seems our schooling was quite different in those days,” he says.
The procedure is over: one and a half oka is its product. A temporary relief for the patient, a passing satisfaction for the rest of us. However, it is a pity that such an interesting and original conversation has come to an end. Who knows what the next topic might have been? Perhaps we can continue on some other occasion, if ever there is one.
ANTHONY PAPAGIANNIS is a practicing pulmonologist in Thessaloniki, Greece. He trained in Internal Medicine in Greece and subsequently in the United Kingdom, and specialized in Pulmonary Medicine. He also holds a postgraduate Diploma in Palliative Medicine from the University of Cardiff, Wales. He is a postgraduate instructor in palliative medicine in the University of Thessaly, Larissa, Greece. He also edits the journal of the Thessaloniki Medical Association.