The Convergence of Stories

Cameron, Ian A

       Roberson Davies’ first book in the Deptford Trilogy is called Fifth Business.  The term fifth business refers to a character in a drama that doesn’t have a major role but is essential to the telling of the story.  Sometimes doctors are fifth business.


            I had known my two lunch guests for years although they were unknown to each other. The older patient, I will call him Sam, was a jovial polymath who had had cancer, congestive heart failure, macular degeneration and most recently bullous pemiphigoid.  He regarded his medical problems as inconveniences.  He was constantly diverted and energized by what I will call his wonderment.  One day after I examined his swollen encrusted feet he started to put on his shoes and looked up and said, “I suppose I learned to tie my shoes when I was four.  My parents probably showed me.  I’m sure my wife and I passed the technique onto our children.  Shoe tying is one of those epiphany milestones in life that is vastly important but no one remembers the details.  Perhaps I should publish the instructions before Velcro takes over” and he left the office musing over the possibilities.

          The second patient whom I will call Walter also was a cancer survivor.  He was serious, reflective, a professor who has written extensively about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian who conspired against Hitler and was faced with the dilemma of how to reconcile the commandments: You shall not commit murder and You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and your neighbour as yourself.

          Both patients had recently told me a story in the office that had linked them in a time and place during appalling events.


The lunch went well and Sam and Walter quickly developed a comfortable rapport and established the thread that connected them.  During tea I asked Sam if he would tell his story.


Sam’s Story

          “I was in university during the latter part of the Second World War and the British War Department wanted to train students with a scientific bent as radar technicians.  By the time I had finished training the Normandy invasion had occurred and I was assigned to a mobile radar unit that preceded the 8th British Army as they moved across France and into Germany.  Our job was to detect enemy presence in front of the advancing army.  If we detected a problem we would send up a Typhoon from a portable runway.  The Typhoon was a light fighter aircraft that was armed with bombs and rockets.  The pilots would reconnoiter the area and disable any offensive threat.  We had reached the Lunenburg Heath, south of Hamburg, when we saw a SS staff car approaching with two white flags on the front fenders.  A German colonel got out of the car and said there was a prisoner of war camp ahead of us.  Typhus had broken out in the camp and they did not have the resources to control it.  They would turn over the camp to our army and retreat 20 kilometers to the east.  The camp was Bergen-Belsen. 

“As the Russian armies advanced the German concentration camps in the east had been evacuated and the prisoners who hadn’t been exterminated were brought to Bergen-Belsen where the crowding became unimaginable, an ideal setting for lice and the lethal disease they transmitted, Typhus.”

          “To this day I can recall the smell of the dead and dying as we entered the camp and for the entire time I was there I can’t remember eating or drinking.  We sprayed everything with the pesticide DDT and a group of Hungarian military orderlies who had been left behind by the Germans helped us separate the living from the dead.  The dead were bulldozed into a common grave and the living quarters were cleaned and disinfected.

“The survivors who were walking skeletons were cared for as best we could.  We had to be very careful that they didn’t try to over-eat because that could be fatal.

  “At the end of two weeks our job at Bergen-Belsen was done.  The war was not over and we were needed elsewhere.

          “ I was told medical students from the London teaching hospitals came after we left to helped to supervise a graduated diet that the malnourished survivors would tolerate and accept. 

“Recently there was a doctor’s obituary in the London Times who had been involved in that program.   I’m going to find out how that story ended.”

 And he did. 1 


Walter’s Story:

          “At the out break of the Second World War my father was a very successful industrial chemist.  With the occupation of Belgium, the Netherlands and most of France he was put in charge of German chemical production in the West.  Later he was in charge of chemical production for all of Germany and its conquered territory.  One evening he returned home from the East.  He was sitting in his library and I asked him if he had been in Auschwitz.  He said, ‘No’ and added that I was never to question him again about his business affairs.

          “The latter part of the war and during the occupation we all suffered emotional turmoil and food shortages.  Then my father was offered a job in a large pharmaceutical firm and later he was transferred to the U.S.  My mother would not live in a country that had conscription so we immigrated to Canada and my father commuted.

          “My father did not destroy his journals.  When he died I inherited them.  On the night I had questioned him he had been to Auschwitz and the main chemical he was responsible for producing was cyanide, the gas used to exterminate prisoners in the concentration camps.

          “It has been a long and hard but utterly unavoidable journey.”

          There was a silence.  We finished our tea, stood and shook hands.


          These two stories are part of each individual’s larger story.  The sharing of the two stories became an affirmation for the story - teller and led to an understanding and a bond with the listener. 

As Family Physicians we have the privilege of hearing our patients’ stories and in a unique and very special way we come to understand how the stories affect their lives. 

[1] Shepard, Ben, After Daybreak – The Liberation of Bergen-Belsen 1945, Pimlico, London 2006.

Theme: History | Histoire
Theme: Patients | Patients

Stories in Family Medicine | Récits en médecine familiale [Internet] Mississauga ON: College of Family Physicians of Canada. 2008 --.




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