For a doctor, everything is in a name

Dr. G. Ramanujam
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Doctors are often expected to have a good memory. They memorise umpteen Greek and Latin terms like ‘pneumohydropericardium.' A doctor has to remember the names of at least 100 scientists given to the syndromes they discovered. They may range from names as easy as Down's tongue-twisters like the Steele-Richardson-Olszewski syndrome.

Many scientists worked throughout their lifetime to describe syndromes which were named after them. With due respect to them, let us just see the lighter side of it.

Names haunt a medical student throughout. No day will dusk without a question about a named syndrome. Sometimes, your knowledge is measured in direct proportion to the number of names you know. Sometimes, the same person might have invented more than one disease. So the answer depends on whether you are appearing for the obstetrics or orthopaedics exam. It goes to the extent that a student wishes that he were born two or three centuries before so that only a few names needed to be remembered just like a history student's wish to have been born a millennium earlier!

To rub salt into the wound, almost all names are completely alien to our tongues, which are familiar to Ramaswamys and Subramaniams. There exist unique ways of pronouncing those names. (We even pronounce Shakespeare as ‘Jagapriyar' in an Indological way). I have heard 11 varieties of pronouncing the ‘Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser' syndrome. The student patriotically wishes that the Indians discover more syndromes to take revenge on foreigners.

Now coming to dysnomia, it is a difficulty in recollecting names (especially of persons and objects) or frankly forgetting names. Doctor's dysnomia does not stop with the student days.

When he starts practice, a doctor has to remember the names of his patients. You can make a grave mistake in diagnosing a patient's disease or probing his heart on the right side with a stethoscope. But if you forget the patient's name it is often taken as lack of concern for him.

During the golden period of family physicians, doctors remembered not only patients' names but also their complete psycho-social milieu. Patients felt completely reassured when they were greeted with something like, “Hello, Raju! How is your fever”?

But now not everybody expects his name to be remembered! Thanks to the era of specialists, patients are often seen as files with reports and prescriptions. There is an old aphorism: ‘Don't treat the lab report! Treat the patient!' I feel guilty whenever I am not able to remember a patient's name. But I have few tricks to cover myself up. If he has brought old prescriptions or reports, then the problem is over. But if he is unarmed, then I become clueless. I usually guess a few names which are invariably misnomers. When I stumble at Mr. or Mrs., many of them volunteer with their names, of course, some with a small tangible disappointment.

It is with tele-conversation that I stumble the most. People may just say their name and take my memory for granted. (There is a famous Tamil poem by Nakulan about a name that goes like neither I asked which Ramachandran he is nor did he say it). When the matter becomes so serious that it may jeopardise his health I usually admit that I do not recognise him.

But there are many whom I remember clearly and, invariably, they are the ones who introduce themselves every time in detail. Probably one more vignette to Murphy's laws! Sometimes they did not want me, a psychiatrist, to remember their names so as to avoid my calling them in a crowded mall. Juliet might have said “What is in a name?” But, to some at least, it matters. So I have resolved to do two things. Try still harder to remember names; and not to name any syndrome discovered by me Ramanujam's syndrome.

(The writer is a consultant psychiatrist. His email is:

If you forget the patient's name, it is often taken as lack of concern for him.




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