Ultimately it would be for Victoire to decide. If she felt that a chat with me about being a doctor might help, her parents and I had pencilled in a possible time and place for us to meet.
I was a few minutes late and Victoire’s father, Mathieu, greeted me saying that she was indeed interested in finding out more and had already prepared some questions.
Next, a serious-looking Victoire appeared with the poise of a student that belied her age. We then sat down at a garden table and the discussion that followed was truly inspiring. Interestingly, it arose by chance.
The houses on either side of our cottage in Brittany are used for summer lets. Originally, when our garden hedges were still patchy, hearing and seeing others as we went about our business was inevitable. Indeed, ‘Hellos’ would be exchanged and occasionally an afternoon tea arranged.
More recently, as the hedges have thickened our neighbours go almost unnoticed. Occasionally we see and hear snippets, but rarely much more. Last week something unusual happened.
After ten days of their two-week stay, I had a sketchy picture of the holiday makers on our right – a French couple with a daughter who I thought was aged ten or eleven. There was also a talkative terrier.
The drive leading from the bottom of their garden turns sharply as it enters the road. I happened to be walking past their entrance when their dog, who I now know is a West Highland White Terrier named Luciole (Firefly), ran out from the drive to investigate. She then rushed back and forth barking, apparently wanting to ‘introduce’ me to her owners. Mathieu and his wife Stéphanie soon appeared to see what the noise was about and, following close behind, was Victoire. I did not know them at all at that stage.
I explained that I was their neighbour and, after a brief chat, jokingly said to Victoire, as indeed I have to a myriad of young people before “I imagine you want to become a doctor”. To my amazement and delight she said ‘Yes’. After telling her that I was once a doctor and that she had chosen to follow a wonderful career, I said my good byes and left.
The next day I spoke through the hedge to Mathieu and Stéphanie and suggested that if Victoire really wanted to be a doctor and if she had not yet had a chance to talk to someone with a medical background, I would be happy to answer any questions she might have. They decided to put to her the idea of a question-and-answer session.
The garden rendezvous next day started with introductions. Having confirmed that she wanted to become a doctor, she told me that she was thirteen years old and at a secondary school. I repeated that I was a retired doctor, adding that once I was a medical professor.
Then, for almost an hour and with unswerving intensity she asked her questions and responded to my answers. When I was teaching there were always some students who looked at me directly and took in everything that was said – similarly with Victoire. Moreover, the capacity of her mind was matched by her questions. Of her prepared questions – there were three – the first two were important but matter-of-fact: “What is the most difficult thing about studying medicine?” and “Is there a good method of working as a student?” Her third, I have been mulling over for years: “Is it difficult to make a sound diagnosis and if so, why?”
It was already difficult to believe that I was with someone so young but with the next three questions I was staggered. Importantly, this second set had arisen as we were talking. “Can medicines, if prescribed in large amounts, damage patients and, if so, are these higher doses necessary?” Here was a question that doctors, particularly those involved in treating patients with cancer, still struggle over. Next, “How should you break the news of the death of a patient to those close?” In UK medical schools, breaking bad news takes up hours of teaching time; in France it still attracts little attention! It was as though she knew. Finally, “Can people always sense if they have a cancer?” This fascinating question still baffles patients who feel well and are told, for instance that they have cancer. How could Victoire have such insight?
Answering her questions about medicine was a challenge and a privilege. How odd it was that by chance I had met someone who, even at an early age had such understanding and clarity of mind. Seeing an advantage in sitting down to chat with someone more than six times her age is pretty remarkable too. It is interesting that our meeting only happened after we had been ‘introduced’ by Luciole, her very sociable terrier.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Victoire, Mathieu, Stéphanie, Rohan and Vivien.
The illustration is a photo of Firefly who, once she had got to know me, posed with evident pleasure!