Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day

Memorial Day, 2016 has the unusual occurrence of falling close to the 100th anniversary of one of the most terrible naval battles of all time. Therefore, to mark both, I'm going to devote this year's column to a service member from another country.

The WWI Battle of Jutland was the first, and only, large scale battle between the massive dreadnought battleships that had come to exist in 1906. There were other clashes of them, but none on this scale.

HMS Dreadnought, when built in 1906, immediately made all previous battleships obsolete. Her existence set off a massive naval arms race that involved the British Commonwealth, America, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Spain, France, Japan, the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Italy, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.

On the night of May 30th-31st, 1916, both the German and British battle fleets left harbor, each thinking they were luring the other into a trap. All together there were 250 ships, carrying 105,000 men, on a collision course. Surprisingly, both fleets almost missed each other, and the battle was started by a small Danish freighter innocently blundering between them. Both sides sent small ships to investigate her, which sighted each other.

The battle raged on & off into night and early morning. When it was over 25 ships of various types had been sunk and 8,645 men killed. Although these losses were small compared to the terrible land war being fought in France, they were shocking for naval combat. And the battle, surprisingly, changed very little. Germany won a tactical victory, but the overall strategic victory went to Britain. The course of WWI hadn't changed.

And that's my summary. For those who want to learn more, I recommend watching this. Otherwise, just skip to the next paragraph.

The flagship of the British battlecruiser fleet was HMS Lion, led by Vice Admiral David Beatty. It was his division that had the first main contact with the Germans.

On board Lion was Major Francis Harvey of the Royal Marines. Born in Kent to a family with a long military tradition, he joined the navy at age 14. There he was quickly recognized for his proficiency in languages, gunnery, and debate.

He worked his way up through a series of ships, eventually becoming a gunnery instructor and in charge of training the crews of the navy's Channel Fleet. When World War I started, he was assigned to Lion, commanding one of her main gun turrets.

At Jutland, midway through the battle, Lion was hit several times by Admiral Hipper's flagship Lutzow. One shell penetrated the armor of Harvey's turret and exploded inside. The result blew the roof & front off the turret, killed or seriously wounded every man inside, and set fire to the bags of cordite explosive that were being readied for the next round.

Harvey was still alive. He'd had both his legs blown off, and was losing blood rapidly. Death was coming quickly. But he saw that the hatch separating the turret from the ammunition magazine below was jammed open by a piece of metal. When the burning cordite exploded the fire would spread down into the magazine and destroy the entire ship.

He dragged himself to the speaking tube and ordered the magazines below him flooded with sea water. When the fire did indeed spread a moment later, the ship was saved by his action.

The order was issued with Harvey's last breath. Immediately after giving it he collapsed dead.

Winston Churchill later wrote "In the long, rough, glorious history of the Royal Marines there is no name and no deed which in its character and consequences ranks above this."

Harvey was posthumously awarded his country's highest decoration, the Victoria Cross. His wife and son received the medal from King George V at Buckingham Palace. In 1973 his son loaned it to the Royal Marines Museum, where it can be seen today.

Harvey himself was buried at sea the day after the battle. His name is inscribed at the Chatham Naval Memorial. He was 43.

Thursday, May 26, 2016



The person who ran the residencies where I trained was a neurosurgeon, who had a ginormous house. Like 15,000 square feet. 3 stories. With more rooms than anyone could possibly want.

And a really, really, really old cat.

One of the other neurology residents (Dr. Brownnose) volunteered to house-sit for him, which involved taking care of the cat. It was diabetic, and needed frequent insulin shots.

One night, she lost track of the cat. Since the doors had been closed all day, she knew it was somewhere in the house.

I was woken up at 11:45 that night as she frantically called the rest of the neurology residents to come over and help her find the missing pet (taking care of cats was beneath the dignity of the neurosurgery residents, who wanted nothing to do with it).

Because, after all, "accidentally killed neuroscience program director's beloved family pet..." just doesn't look good on a resumé.

We drove from the inner city by the hospital out to suburbia. And, in the wee hours of the morning, 5 of us were combing back & forth through this massive house with flashlights and cat treats, trying to find the feline and hoping it was still breathing.

I don't remember anymore who found it, asleep beneath an antique chair. It got carried downstairs for its insulin shot, giving us this hateful "I can't believe you monkeys woke me up" look.

We made her take us out for happy hour the next week. And boy, did we run up a tab.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

My life of crime

It's late afternoon. I'm at my desk, returning calls.

Mr. Stroke: "Hello?"

Dr. Grumpy: "Hi, Mr. Stroke, it's Dr. Grumpy. You had an appointment with me yesterday."

Mr. Stroke: "Yes. What's up?"

Dr. Grumpy: "I got your hospital records, and it doesn't look like they did an ultrasound of your heart."

Mr. Stroke: "Is that important?"

Dr. Grumpy: "Yeah, because the clot may have come from there. I'd like to have Annie set one up, so she'll call you tomorrow."

Mr. Stroke: "Okay, excuse me, what? HEY!"


Dr. Grumpy: "Hello?"


Dr. Grumpy: "This is Dr. Grumpy, I saw your dad yesterday. You were at the appointment."

Ms. Daughter: "You even sound like him, too. I'm going to let him know as soon as he opens in the morning that his charts have been hacked. My father is an elderly veteran, and here scum like you are trying to steal his identity and medical information."

Dr. Grumpy: "No, this really is Dr. Grumpy. All I'm trying to do is set your dad up for a heart study."

Ms. Daughter: "Uh-huh. I know how you people operate. I've got the number you called from on the caller ID, and I'm turning it over to the police."

Dr. Grumpy: "It's my office number."

Ms. Daughter: "Rot in hell, asshole."


Friday, May 20, 2016

MARY!!!!!!!!! HELP!!!!!!!!!!!

Dr. Grumpy: "Any changes in your health since I last saw you?"

Ms. Doda: "No, nothing ... Oh wait, I had surgery last fall."

Dr. Grumpy: "Okay, was it..."

Ms. Doda: "I got boobies! Implants! Check these girls out!"

(Whips off shirt)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Seen in a chart

This is how a note I received from a neurosurgeon ended. Thanks, guys, that really helps.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Bon appétit!

Like many offices, we have a small dish on the front counter full of generic hard candies (peppermints, butterscotches, Werther's, Jolly Ranchers, etc.).

Lady waiting for her appointment comes up to front counter.

Lady: "Can I have one of these candies?"

Mary: "Sure. Help yourself."

Lady: "Thanks. I didn't have time to get breakfast today."

She picked up THE WHOLE JAR, carried it back to her chair, and in the space of about 5 minutes unwrapped and crunched through about 20 pieces of hard candy.

Then she brought the empty jar back to Mary, full of wrappers.

Lady: "Thanks."

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Overheard at the nurse's station

"BITCH! You're the worst nurse ever! Get the fuck out of my room! But first, get me more morphine!"

Monday, May 9, 2016

May, 1927

89 years ago this week...

Charles Lindbergh is a household name. Children learn at a young age that he was first person to fly non-stop between New York and Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis.

But 2 weeks before his famous flight, a brave pair of Frenchmen took off from Paris planning to fly nonstop to New York, and have their names enter the history books instead of their American rival.

Francois Coli and Charles Nungesser

Instead, they vanished.

Francois Coli and Charles Nungesser (ages 45 and 35) were both excellent pilots. Coli was a highly decorated veteran of WWI, who'd been making record-breaking distance flights across the Mediterranean Sea for several years. Nungesser was also a talented flier, and France's 3rd most successful ace in WWI. Like their American contemporary, Charles Lindbergh, they were chasing the $25,000 (in 1924 money) Orteig Prize, which would be awarded for the first nonstop New York-Paris flight across the Atlantic.

They spent 2 years modifying a Levasseur PL.8 biplane, adding extra fuel tanks and reinforcing the structure for the long flight to come. The engine was run in the factory for over 40 consecutive hours to test its reliability. The bottom of the plane was rebuilt so it could land on water, and their plan was to arrive in front of France's gift to America, the statue of Liberty, to complete the record breaking journey. A wheeled carriage would be used for take-off from land, then dropped. The plane was painted white and named L'Oiseau Blanc - "The White Bird."

Their route was an arc over the northern Atlantic, taking them from Paris, across the English Channel, England, and Ireland. On the other side of the Atlantic they'd gradually turn south and fly over Nova Scotia, Maine, Boston, and finally come down in New York harbor. They had enough fuel for 42 hours of continuous flight, and were going at a time of year known for better weather. Coli was one of the best navigators of the era - in an age where flights over water relied entirely on celestial navigation. Like most planes, they had no radio.

The guts to do this sort of thing must have been remarkable. For the most part we take long-distance flying for granted today. But at that time they were using technology as unproven to them as the earliest space flights were to another generation. The planes were wood, metal, and cloth. Engine reliability was iffy at best. Navigation was largely educated guesswork. The White Bird's cockpit was open to the elements, and behind the wings. They had nothing over their heads, so were exposed to wind, rain, and cold.

At 5:27 a.m. an May 8, 1927, they took off from Paris's Le Bourget Field, dropping the wheeled sled that was used for the take-off. Within minutes the electric signal had been received in New York that the White Bird was on its way. Crowds in Paris watched as they disappeared into the distance. They continued over England and Ireland on their way into the history books. The last man to see them was a priest in Carrigaholt, Ireland.

On May 10, large crowds gathered in New York to watch the historic arrival. No one had ever flown from Paris non-stop, and it was a big day in the development of the amazing airplane.

But it was not to be. The White Bird never appeared. After several hours of waiting, the crowds dispersed, not knowing what had happened to the 2 brave Frenchman.

And 89 years later, we still don't know.

For 2 weeks, the armed forces of France, England, Canada, and America scoured as much of the Atlantic and northeastern North America as possible. But no trace of them was ever found. Writing of their attempt afterwards, Lindbergh noted they'd "vanished like midnight ghosts."

For several years it was assumed they were victims of a storm, or navigational error, or mechanical problem. The North Atlantic is cold, gray, foggy, and unforgiving. If they were forced to come down far from land, they'd have no real chance of survival. A navigation error could put them far off course, heading for desolate areas as their fuel ran out.

But the odds are that they didn't fail entirely.

As years went by, disparate stories drifted in. Fishermen in remote Newfoundland communities seeing a white plane pass overhead on May 9 (in that era an airplane sighting was a rarity). Reports from small towns through Nova Scotia and into Maine, where residents noted either a white plane going by, northeast to southwest, or the sound of an airplane engine above the clouds. One local newspaper even reported a "mystery plane" passed overhead on that day. These were from areas likely unaware of the White Bird's attempt.

The stories, initially disconnected, meant little. But as researchers dug there were 2 common threads: they all took place on May 9-10, 1927, and all were in a line that sequentially followed the final leg of White Bird's planned course to New York City. In that era there were no other planes that would account for them.

And the reports stopped somewhere in Maine.

Anson Berry (died 1936), a hermit outside of Machias, Maine, knew nothing of the White Bird and didn't read newspapers. But on trips to buy supplies, he told many townspeople about a day in May, 1927, when he'd heard a low-flying plane engine sputtering somewhere above the clouds... Followed by a loud crash in the distance.

Rumors have cropped up over time. A plane wreck seen in a lake. A ruined engine, possibly from a plane, found in the forest and sold for scrap. A few odd pieces of metal and wood have been collected in the area, but nothing that can clearly proven to have been from the plane.

Two weeks after the White Bird vanished, Charles Lindbergh made the first successful non-stop New York - Paris air crossing in the Spirit of St. Louis. Although evidence suggests the Frenchmen beat him by 2 weeks, their exact landing place and fate remain a mystery. Perhaps someday it will be solved.

On the cliffs of Étretat, in France, is a monument to mark the last place Nungesser and Coli flew over their homeland as they headed west.

Near their take-off spot at Le Bourget field is a monument to both they and Lindbergh, inscribed "A ceux qui tentèrent et celui qui accomplit" ("To those who tried and to the one who succeeded").

At the nearby French Air & Space Museum, is the only proven relic of their brave journey: the wheeled sled that the White Bird used for take-off, and then jettisoned.

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