Last weekend for the first time in my life, I had a blinding flash of déjà vu. Surprisingly, it did not harken back to something that I recalled from earlier in the year or even the last two years. Not at all: this one took me back to when I was 16, which was 75 years ago. And yet, I remember the circumstances as clearly as if it happened yesterday. Before I explain, I have to warn you that this has to do with a game of Rugby. For those many among you to whom any reference to sport is infra dig, I beg your forbearance. Before you give this up as something entirely unworthy of your interest, and therefore a lost cause, let me explain:
It is generally accepted within the world of international Rugby that Brodie Retallick, of the New Zealand All Blacks, is the world’s outstanding lock forward. He is a vast hulk of a man, stands 6 ft 8 ins in his stockings, weighs 267 pounds, and on a recent weekend in a test match ran in an amazing try with the ball, pursued over 50 yards by some of the world’s fastest backs, who were unable to make any ground on him. He is a great player by any known measurement.
The reason I mention him is that in a succeeding game, last weekend, he was the victim of a rather unsportsmanlike onslaught by a South African forward of similar dimensions at a moment when he was nowhere near the ball, and he took a heavy tumble and lay there, this impregnable giant of a man, his face bearing the evidence of intense pain, as he held his left arm with his right hand, in an effort to prevent any moment in the arm. It was an expression I knew only too well, as I also knew the intense agony he was experiencing, for when I was 16 I was playing a Rugby game between classes in my high school when I was downed by a thundering tackle from a somewhat older boy, who not only cast me brutally to the ground but also demolished any pretension I might have had to being a Rugby player.
Retallick, widely regarded as one of the toughest sons-of-a-bitch ever to play the game, lay there for several minutes, looking like a young school kid himself as his face was consumed in agony, and I had a flashback to that same experience suffered at the hands of a boy stronger, chunkier, more powerful than me by several aeons of measurement, who had simply ploughed right through me as I stood in his path and didn’t have the sense to make myself scarce and let him through.
In those days I tended towards the lanky, loose-limbed variety of adolescent, so well co-ordinated that I could play almost all games well. I tended to be not-so-good in the games requiring heavy physical contact, of which Rugby is a prime example. Good enough to get into the school’s First XV maybe, but not good enough to excel in any way.
At the time I was more heavily into running races, and I eventually found that even the heavy arm action needed to finish a half-mile race tended to put a strain on the weakened shoulder, a couple of times leaving me with another fairly mild and easily corrected dislocation. Since this seemed likely to seriously impact on my running I bowed to a medical opinion that the best solution would be to undergo an operation by which --- I am relying on my memory here, that could be somewhat faulty --- my muscle was in some way threaded through the bone to stabilize the joint in place.
It worked for the following two or three years before I had to give up running because I had a job in a local newspaper with, as one of my first responsibilities, the need to collect information from the weekend sports events around the town.
For many years thereafter I was able to play tennis, but always had to be careful not to lift my serving arm too high out of its normal resting place for fear of another dislocation. After my arrival in Canada in 1954 I was always amazed when I read about or observed on TV that some hockey player had suffered a dislocation that kept him out of maybe one game or two. Occasionally I even heard of players who had dislocated their shoulders, retired briefly to the dressing room, and within minutes had re-emerged to finish the game. Knowing the intense pain involved in a dislocation, this was proof to me either that the hockey authorities were brutes demanding unwise decisions from their players, or that the players were of a preternatural toughness unheard of in other sports.
Eventually, we became parents to three small boys, with whom every summer we took off from London, England, where they were all born, on camping trips in France. Anyone who has travelled with three boys between the ages of 6 and 4 will know the sort of tensions that can arise in a car at such times. The kids in the back can repeatedly erupt into furious arguments, about nothing at all. I remember on one occasion the quarrelling went on for hours in spite of my repeated assertions that if they didn’t shut up, I was going to crack one of them. Such threats, of course, had no effect, since they were seldom followed by action. On one memorable occasion, however, as I was driving through the French countryside, my patience snapped and I turned around, threw my right arm back over my seat with the intention of performing the threatened attack, and, suddenly emitted an arduous cry of pain as my goddamned shoulder slipped out of place again, for the first time in many years. I hurriedly pulled my arm back over the seat and in doing so, miraculously, it seemed, I pulled the dislocated bone back into its rightful socket. It was the first time I had had this problem since my operation 20 years before.
Fast forward to two other regrettable, but unforgettable incidents. I was recalled from London after eight years there in 1968. I had saved enough money to buy a beautiful home on Kelvin avenue, a quiet street in Outremont. Newly installed, our renovations completed, we invited our many friends for a monster house-warming party. In the afternoon, I was vacuuming the stairs when I slipped, slid down towards the bottom, clutching the vacuum-cleaner all the way, and dislocated my shoulder. I was taken to the Jewish General, where they managed to manipulate the bone back into its socket, gave me some morphine to reduce the pain, and allowed some of the friends who had arrived at the party by this time and were already refreshing themselves at the bar, to visit the patient. They came storming into the ward, holding their wine glasses high, pouring some for me, and disrupting the calm serenity of evening in the ward. Eventually, faced with this disturbance, and being apprised of the circumstances, the doctors decided they might as well discharge me since there seemed no reason I needed to stay overnight.
A second similar incident happened a few months later: again, I was cleaning the house, and this time an ambulance arrived and took me to St. Mary’s hospital. There, they tied a heavy weight on to my arm, and lay me face down on a bed, with my arm hanging towards the floor, and suffering from excruciating pain. I kept shouting for someone to come and rescue me from this hospital-imposed terror, and eventually, after some hours of this, I was released and a doctor was found willing to try to restore the joint to normality by orthodox methods.
I have never had a high opinion of St Mary’s Hospital since that agonizing experience, and today I use the Jewish General as my hospital of last resource. I was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. Working through my family clinic, I was promised a visit with a specialist at a date that would have meant four months had elapsed between diagnosis and treatment by a specialist. I decided to cut it short, turned up at the Jewish General emergency room at 7 am one Tuesday, had given blood by 7.30, had an x-ray by 9.00, a scan by midday, and was being examined by a specialist by 3 pm.
I have been a patient at that hospital ever since, and am in admiration of it, for its widely-praised employment policies, its extraordinary range of specialists available on almost every medical subject under the sun, and its regular, efficient operation.
I may be coming towards the end of my time. But I am comforted by being in the care of the Jewish General, and its United Nations staff, drawn from around the world.