A Valetudinarian’s Journey

What is a valetudinarian? you ask. Please read on. All will be revealed.

A week or so before we were due to set off on a road trip (our third in three years) to far western Queensland, Janet (my long-time partner) developed an ugly lesion on her left forearm. It was a lesion which would have had any Tom Dick or Harry thinking ‘melanoma’ in a trice. That’s M-E-L-A-N-O-M-A for Pete’s sake. Certainly I – with, admittedly, an unqualified eye – thought it was a likely melanoma. Her GP thought it was a likely melanoma. And, the very next day, her surgeon thought it was a likely melanoma.

The lesion was removed without delay, leaving an ugly scar, almost ten centimetres long, replete with stitches and staples. It looked like a gigantic red centipede crawling up her arm.

In due course, the results of a biopsy came back to us. Voila. The lesion was benign. It was just a bruise that had gone feral. Them’s the breaks.

Had we known, we could have saved ourselves time, money, and a lot of angst. But how could we have known? It might easily have been a real melanoma. In such cases as ours, so the thinking goes, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

So we set off on our road trip with Janet sporting a sore arm and a load of anxiety. Our plan was that the staples and stitches would be removed out west in the town of Charleville where, courtesy of the Queensland Government, and by all reports, there was a hospital and a clinic whose staff had the necessary skills.

From the outset, Janet was fretting. Should the wound be kept covered or exposed to the air? Would it heal over? When would it stop weeping? When would the redness subside? How often should the dressing be changed? When/if it did heal, what sort of scar would be left? Was it infected beyond hope? Her head was a nest of rats, all of them playing around with a single ball of thought: my poor arm, my poor arm, my poor arm …

The dreaded A word (A for Anxiety) haunted her to the extent that we were obliged to call in at government hospitals or health clinics at every wide place in the road we encountered to have the wound assessed. That’s just the hospitals and clinics. I wont even bother to mention the pharmacies we visited.

As we progressed further and further west, we moved into increasingly remote territory. It seemed at times that we were moving inexorably away from the possibility of help if/when we required it. Just as wi-fi and mobile phone coverage were becoming increasingly dicey, so (we imagined) was competent medical service. Should we change our plans? Should we turn back?

First up was Goondiwindi, population 11,000. Here, we visited the hospital. The nurses and doctor seemed more concerned with Janet’s pulse rate and blood pressure than they were with her arm. Her anxiety was sending her cardiac function all over the shop. On the basis of this, and not of her arm, the doctor wanted to admit her to the hospital. In the end, she released Janet with a course of antibiotics. But Janet was still anxious.

Next was Charleville, population 3,000. Here, the stitches and staples were removed without any fuss. I was somewhat surprised at the speed of response and the high degree of competence the nurses displayed. The 3,000 residents of Charleville, it seemed to me, were in excellent hands. But Janet was still anxious.

Next was Cunnamulla, population 1,200. We visited the hospital. Janet was in and out in no time at all, with a fresh scrip for a more powerful antibiotic, and a qualified assurance that the wound was progressing well. But Janet was still anxious.

Next was Thargomindah, population 270. A lovely little town. We visited the clinic. When Janet asked if it was safe to venture further west, i.e. to our ultimate and most westerly destination of Innamincka, one nurse quipped that the last people to die out there had been Burke and Wills in 1861. They (the nurses) did not seem to think her arm was a problem. But Janet was still anxious.

… for the benefit of those unfamiliar with Australian history, Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills led an expedition to cross the mostly uncharted continent from South to North and back. They were rookie explorers, and their incompetence was mind-blowing. Cooper Creek, where they drew their last breaths, was full of fish just waiting to jump onto a hook. Yet Burke and Wills are today the most celebrated of Australia’s inland explorers. Like the Gallipoli landing in WW1, Australians seem to love to glorify their abject failures …

Back to our road trip. And, while talking of roads, the photograph above gives you an idea of the terrain in and around Innamincka.

We reached Innamincka, population 16. This place is so far west, we actually crossed a border into the state of South Australia to reach it. We stayed there two nights, and got to know all sixteen of the permanent residents. We were put up by Cooper Creek Homestay, comprised of a husband, wife, and two young children. This meant that a quarter of the permanent population were right there on our metaphorical doorstep.

When Janet told the wife (Allie) about her arm, Allie told Janet that a specialist dermatologist from Sydney had flown in via the Flying Doctor that very day, and was inviting appointments. Janet jumped at the chance.

So, the dermatologist inspected Janet’s wound, declaring that it had healed up very nicely and was showing no sign of infection. From this point on, Janet’s anxiety began to wane. Her inner valetudinarian was satisfied.

So as to never let a chance go by, I had my entire skin checked by the specialist for suspicious spots. I emerged with a clean bill of health as regards skin. I happened to mention to him that I thought Janet was a bit of a valetudinarian, and followed up by asking him if he knew what that word meant.

Oh yes, he replied.

But for your benefit, who may not know, I give you a definition. A valetudinarian is a person who is inordinately anxious about their health. I believe it derives from the days of the Romans, when military field hospitals were known as valetudinaria, and people who frequented them as … valetudinarians.

We are on our way east now and getting close to home. Here at Winton, Queensland, population 850, I feel the need to reflect on Janet’s encounters, whilst on the road, with sundry latter-day valetudinaria and their staff. The quality of the medical care she received from them was exemplary across the board, despite the remoteness of the locations.

And how much did it cost us? Not a brass razoo.

Ask yourself this. In what other country of the world would top-notch medical services be provided to anyone in the wide brown land, no matter how far removed they are from the big smoke, with no questions asked, and at no cost? Provided to anyone who fronted up, even itinerant valetudinarians?

If we are the lucky country then, to an extent, we make our own luck.