Picks and Pans Review: Hunan Hand & Other Ailments

updated 04/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Edited by Shirley Blotnick Moskow

The contributors to the New England Journal of Medicine, usually doctors or researchers reporting on their recent discoveries, are occupied mostly with complicated life-and-death questions. It has become almost a tradition for the Journal to print on a more or less regular basis whimsical letters from doctors who purport to have uncovered epidemics of "jeans folliculitis," a rash caused among teenagers who wear their jeans too tight, or "pumpkin carver's palm," a laceration that is unique to the last week in October. Some of the more than 200 such submissions in this collection are just silly, such as a list of "Hippocratic oafs" that includes "Bela Glucosi—diabetologist" and "Babbe Tooth—oral surgeon." Others, even allowing for the admirable whistling-in-the-dark spirit that inspires humor in the midst of papers about cancer and AIDS, seem unnecessarily tasteless: "Let us persuade our legislators to repeal laws restricting abortion and replace them with laws restricting tonsillectomy. For an opener may I submit: No child shall be subjected to a tonsillectomy unless the procedure is necessary to preserve the life of the mother." Most of the selections, though, will seem funny even to those who are on the wrong end of the doctor bills. One from Boston cardiologist Stephen G. Pauker takes note of a condition he calls "grand-rounds whiplash," common to the overworked medical staffs at teaching hospitals who awake with a start after falling asleep on their feet in the middle of their tours of patient wards. "Hunan hand," it is explained, is a skin irritation caused by the oils in dried red chili peppers used in making spicy Chinese food. There is a series of letters arguing the question of whether Chillingworth, the physician who was Hester Prynne's husband in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, poisoned her lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, with atropine. Another doctor reports on a case of "lawn-mower arm" caused by a balky power mower; he himself was the patient, and he writes, "The therapy recommended by this victim is avoidance of medical consultation and continued exercise of the affected limb." Then there was the Denver doctor, Michael Silverman, who wrote a poem about a jogging physician coming down with frostbite of the unmentionable: "He challenged Jack Frost/ And undoubtedly lost/ As Frostie nipped the doc's member." So he's no William Carlos Williams, and maybe you would think twice about having him called in to do your brain surgery. It's reassuring to know that there are physicians around who have more on their minds than reading X rays and seeking out new tax shelters. (Little, Brown, $15.95)

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