Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Don't Shock a Flat-liner

I used to play golf with a cardiologist. A specialist in pediatric cardiology, recognised as an expert in his field. This was more than 15 years ago and he was over 50 then. A great chap and a fine doctor, but he wasn't in the best of form physically, and when he felt any kind of weakness in his general state, or an irregularity in his palpitations, he would gasp, grab me intensely by the arm and say, 'you don't think it's my heart, do you?'*

The point of which anecdote is to illustrate how we can lose all grasp of objective reañlity when we feel a powerful emotion like fear.

One thing I remember learning from him was the title of this post. He didn't put it that way, and he wasn't complaining about the TV (actually he was using it as a metaphor for some philosophical argument, the details of which I have forgotten). Anyhow, when the monitor goes 'beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep' in a medical drama, everyone rushes for the defibrillator, shouts things like 'charge to 360', 'stand back' and the patient bounces up and down like a dying halibut, this, though very dramatic, does not, apparently, reflect reality.

Here and here someone who knows about these things explains why not, and what really happens, and here someone else explains the conflict between the search for two different forms of dramatic tension, and how it might be resolved.

*I did try to answer him on occasions, but it didn't matter much what I said. The point is that a man who is frightened wants a friend to tell him he's at his side and there's no problem. It doesn't matter that the subject is an expert on hearts and the friend knows nothing about them.


Vincent said...

In the kind of movies I watch, the flat line on the monitor says that death has occurred. I have seen the dying-halibut routine, but this is when I would (if watching on my own) sigh and flat-line the TV.

As for your cardiologist golf-companion, surely it was his little joke, perhaps a very ancient one he'd picked up in medical school?

But a joke he repeated when the fear was genuine. For there is no such thing as a dead cardiologist. Only a corpse.

CIngram said...

I don't think he was joking, but it might have been, as you suggest, an instinctive memory of such a joke, reused for a serious purpose. But I'm more inclined to think that when reminded sharply of his own mortality, he ceased to be a cardiologist and became just a frightened human being like the rest of us.