Diary of a hypochondriac


During another of our glaciated dinners, in which the pauses make early Pinter sound like Peter O'Sullevan describing a 36-runner sprint, I am interrupted from a reverie by a sharp question from the other end of the table. "What's that you're muttering about orders?" barks my wife. Reluctantly, I explain that, with the operation on my deviated septum scheduled for Friday, I need to get my affairs in order. Rebecca asks what I mean. "For God's sake, isn't it bloody obvious what I mean? I mean, er, I have to, um . . ." I have no idea what I mean. Getting affairs in order is what wealthy people say in films. I have nothing to leave anyone except a humidor full of cigars, an overdraft and a stethoscope.


Just when my fears about Friday's sub-muchosal resection are at peak intensity, a reader rings to advise me from experience against conventional surgery, but to go for laser surgery instead. Done under local anaesthetic, it is, says Sean Carey, quicker and less troublesome, and he gives me the number of a Harley Street clinic where a French surgeon called Kumami performs his own laser method. It does sound good, and I am paralysed with indecision.


The paralysis has passed. This morning, I called the Charing Cross hospital's day surgery unit to cancel the op - and then rang the clinic for an appointment. On Monday, I am to see a "counsellor" called Mercer to be appraised for laser surgery.


When I call my physician Sarah Jarvis to tell her what is not happening this morning, and to discuss lasers, she is much less cross than I expect. She didn't know they use lasers for this, she says, but if the method is as effective in improving breathing as the conventional one (which has an 85% success rate), she supposes it makes sense.

"What is this place in Harley Street?" she asks. "The Sleep Disorder Clinic." "Mm," says the doctor, reflectively. "Mmmmmm."


My friend Jonathan calls to check on my post-operative condition, and I fill him on in the news. "This place in Harley Street," he says, "It's not the Sleep Disorder Clinic is it?" "Why?" "I went there once about my snoring," says Jonathan, whose mobile signal is beginning to crack up, "and saw someone calchcchhhcrings and a permccchhhh London cabbie." "I'm sorry, I didn't get all of that," I say, when he emerges from a tunnel, "did you just say that this 'counsellor' chap looked like a London cabbie?" "No I didn't." "Thank Christ for that." "What I said," Jonathan goes on, "was that he was a London cabbie."


I awake from an untroubled night, reflecting anew on just how little protection hypochondria offers against serious illness. Yesterday evening, I went to a Battersea fringe theatre, the Grace, to see A Lump in My Throat, an adaptation of the writings of John Diamond, who was a hypochondriac of genuine class before he fell ill with throat cancer. It was excellent - often funny, often moving, cleverly adapted and staged, and performed with a fitting artlessness - and afterwards in the bar, John came over while I was intriguing some people with news of my septum. "Oh yes, what is happening with that?" he asked, his eyebrows congregating in obvious concern. And, in great detail, I told him all about my septum. Am I being fanciful, or could there be the stirrings of a little irony buried here somewhere?


At 98 Harley Street, in one of those over-ostentatious waiting rooms (does anyone ever play the grand piano?), I fill in a form, struggling as usual over "How is your general health?" and finally settling on "Very average, thank you." Eventually, a stout middle-aged man with a very tight perm comes in and leads me off into the world's smallest lift, and up to his rather gloomy office.

At first Mr Mercer mistakenly believes I want the soft palate operation to correct snoring - something Rebecca would be all for.

"I don't suppose, if you have both the septum and the snoring done," I say, hoping to puncture the facade of a serious consultation with a dart of flippancy, "that you get a reduction for bulk?" Mr Mercer doesn't smile. "Yes," he says. "Separately they add up to £2,280, but have them together and it's only £2,000."

As Mr Mercer runs through his patter, I interrupt with questions. What, for instance, is the success rate? "Success rate?" Mr Mercer is shocked - or not so much shocked as hurt and offended by the implication that it might not work every single time. "Success rate? I'm telling you, it's perfect." And what about side-effects and possible complications? He stares at me disbelievingly, as if I have just asked him if he likes the dinner jacket that the alligator asleep on my head is wearing.

"You're just looking for problems where there aren't any," says Mr Mercer. "I told you, it's perfect. I've had it done, my son's had it done . . . "

Another thing is bothering me, though: if the laser is so good and so much cheaper than conventional surgery (patients are in and out in half an hour, with no need for day beds), why does no NHS hospital use it? "Well, we're the only people in the country who know how to do it," he says. "So you think we're going to train NHS people?"

Mr Mercer is wearing a thick gold wedding ring with a large diamond embedded in it. It must be a lucrative business, flogging laser surgery. "Well, we do other things. I've got a nice slimming pill in from America," says Mr Mercer, referring to an unlicensed drug with a name like Subbuteo. "I've lost a stone and a half since Christmas." What does it do, then? Raise the heart rate? "I think so." So it's an amphetamine? "An amphetamine? No, I told you, it's a pill."

As we chat on, I warm all the time to Mr Mercer's magnificent transparency, and am genuinely sorry when he draws the interview to a close by arranging for me to be "assessed" by a Dr Alexander Williams (a specialist? "I think so. he's a doctor") for £85 - a fee that comes off the price of the op should I have it.

I leave 98 Harley Street and take a long walk, and return for the 1.30pm appointment to be told that the doctor is running an hour late. After I make a mild fuss, to my amazement the £85 is refunded, and I take my leave of the Sleep Disorder Clinic for what will, I suspect, be the last time.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.


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