The amazing pictures of Helen Mirren yesterday have got me thinking about bodies. I see a lot of bodies, and I’d venture to say that in my line of work you see a larger variety than most. Fat and thin, young and old, male and female, deformed and disfigured. And it occurred to me that I’ve only ever seen one body that made me think “gosh that’s perfect”. The girl in question was nineteen, beautiful and in astonishingly good shape. She was a pole dancer at a club in London and, I suppose, rather depended on having the kind of body that makes men and women think “wow”.
Bodies are what it’s all about in GP-land. Whether it’s a fairly healthy body looking for some routine maintenance, an injured or diseased body in need of a diagnosis, a neglected body that could do with a complete overhaul, a newborn body being checked for imperfections, a physically healthy body with an unhealthy mind, an ageing body with organs slowly shuddering to a halt – most of us at some point present our bodies to our GPs for a bit of attention. Often with embarrassment, as we show our most intimate areas to a relative stranger. Sometimes with fear or curiosity or disgust or complacency.
Sometimes my patients’ bodies tell a story without them saying a word. The forearm scars of self arm, the absent breast, the bitten nails, the colostomy bag, the nicotine stained fingers, the stretch marks, the folds of obese flesh, the gnarled fingers of arthritis, and in one memorable case the tattooed numbers of an Auschwitz survivor. Then the more subtle signs, the ones you learn in medical school, that esoteric knowledge that makes you wonder whether to tell the stranger in the bus queue that the diagonal crease on his earlobe means he’s at increased risk of heart disease.
Other bodies disguise what’s going on. The face that puts on a good show when its owner visits the doctor, only to crumple into tears when the right question comes. The pumped up tattoo covered body of the man whose lungs are concealing a slowly growing tumour which will kill him within the year (but I don’t know that yet). The slim young woman whose outwardly enviable figure is actually the result of years of bulimia.
And of course there’s the joy of the child’s perfect body. I did a new baby check today and holding the tiny little creature who wouldn’t have existed but for the miracle of fertility treatment, I wondered (as one should always wonder I think when presented with a newborn) at how amazing our bodies are. Those tiny fingers, the wise dark eyes, the unblemished skin – who knows what sort of story that body will tell a doctor one day. I hope it’s a nice one.