After three months as a surgical houseman (FY1) for the ENT firm, I entered a completely novel environment, for me. My new boss was Mr Higgs, a general surgeon who also did urology. He was a superb surgeon: fast, decisive, and highly skilled.
Here is a video that portrays him somewhat: Mr Higgs was a Sir Lancelot Spratt sort of surgeon but a bit shorter and wearing tweeds and with a redder face. I am the hapless fellow who gives the wrong answer at the end (as portrayed by Dirk Bogarde).
Mr Higgs’ secretary was called Betty, and she remains the most nervous person I have ever met. Even at peace, her voice quivered, but in the presence of her master it quivered even to the max. Despite this nervous disposition, she adored Mr Higgs, whom she referred to titteringly as ‘H’. He refused to use new-fangled things like Dictaphones and so Betty had to follow him around everywhere and take down his every utterance in shorthand, to be typed up later.
In work he was a monster to be obeyed slavishly, but socially he was a genteel giant. When leisure permitted, he would take his junior staff off in his huge Jag’ to some expensive country eaterie and treat them to a slap-up feed and drinks galore. He had a generous soul.
He took a shine to me, perhaps because I was a bit of a hopeless case. My professional inadequacies were merely sighed at rather than bawled at. Sadly I caused him great distress on at least one occasion.
The patient required a LEFT orchidopexy. He had an undescended testicle that needed to be put into his scrotum before it became cancerous. Unfortunately, I consented him for a RIGHT orchidopexy because I was a completely incompetent doofus.
It was only after Mr Higgs made the opening incision in the wrong groin that I realised my awful mistake. “Mr Higgs”, I blubbered urgently, “I think you are operating on the wrong side!”
He stopped immediately and examined the patient’s scrotum. Indeed, the testicle in question was in the other groin. He then glowered at me with such ferocity that I wonder how I am still alive today.
After a few seconds consideration, Mr Higgs continued with the operation. Instead of opening the other groin, he managed to perform the correct operation successfully through the already open incision. Please don’t ask me how, I am only an anaesthetist..
As he delivered the last skin suture, he looked at me wearily and said: “I leave it to you to explain everything to the patient”.
What I had done, consenting a patient for surgery on the wrong side, would nowadays be termed a “Never Event”, the worst of medical sins. Fortunately, consent is now only taken from the patient by the surgeon who actually will perform the procedure, thus minimising the risk.
When I checked up on the patient the following day, he understandably wanted to know why his scar was on the wrong side.
With a lying wink, I told him that Mr Higgs liked to show off his surgical prowess occasionally. The patient, a young man, happily bought my explanation and went home, perhaps to dine out on the story for ages after.
In much later life, I met another surgeon who was just like Mr Higgs in temperament and outlook and surgical skills. He was known by his initials JLE