Words can kill

“No, my name isn’t Dr Mengele. Vy do you ask?”

Back in 2009, a Hungarian doctor practising in England misread a label and injected a boy with a near-lethal dose of carbolic acid, leaving him crippled for life.

Dr Rakoczy knew his medicine but he didn’t know his English, which he proved by consistently failing the language exam. Yet he was finally suspended only last year, making one wonder how on earth he was allowed to practise here in the first place.

Surely free movement of people shouldn’t be interpreted as a licence to kill? Yet this thought is clearly too simple for the EU to understand, and the same problem keeps recurring.

In fact, I first wrote about it seven years ago, and doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun. Since there’s little I can add, I’ll plagiarise myself and recycle that piece, changing only a few words:

In the judgment of his peers, my friend Boris was one of the most brilliant neurosurgeons in Houston, Texas. That was no trivial accolade, considering that at that time, some 40 years ago, Houston was to neurosurgery what Paris is to haute cuisine.

Boris’s colleague at the hospital readily admitted that my friend’s skill was much superior to his own. Dr Thomson was modest, but his income wasn’t – he made well in excess of $1,000,000 a year. Boris made $22,000.

You see, Boris was from Russia and, though a genius with a scalpel in his hand, he had no linguistic ability whatsoever. Alas, the qualification exam for foreign-trained doctors in America consisted of two equal parts: medicine and language.

Sitting the blasted thing year after year, Boris would sail through the first part and, with the certainty of night following day, fail the second. After a few years he gave up trying and accepted his humble role as surgeon’s assistant, though his million-a-year colleagues had no reservations about letting Boris operate every now and then.

One day he showed me the examination papers, with several hundred questions designed to test the prospective doctor’s English. Until then, my impression had been that the test would merely determine the doctor’s basic ability to understand and be understood.

That impression turned out to be wrong. For the test covered the kind of grammatical and stylistic subtleties that would defeat most native speakers.

I recall one example. Choose the right word: He is one of those people who [a) demand, b) demands] attention. I have no doubt whatsoever that you’ve unerringly picked the right answer, which is a). But I’ll bet my $1,000,000 against your $22,000 that you know many Englishmen who wouldn’t.

Now imagine many similar questions together, and you’ll probably agree that only a small minority of even native Anglophones would pass such an exam.

You may think this is going a bit too far, and I may agree with you. You may further think that, to keep foreigners out of a highly lucrative field, the test was designed partly as a sort of protectionist tariff – and I may agree with you again.

But there’s no doubt that, since a doctor’s ability to communicate with patients can be a matter of life or death, this ability must be an essential part of his qualifications.

That’s where the EU comes in.

Its laws mandate free movement of labour throughout the ‘zone’, a desideratum that apparently allows foreign doctors to treat the English test as merely an advisory statement of intent.

The EU gauleiters feel so strongly about this law that they’ll defend it to the death – though naturally not their own. They’ve already defended it to the death of the pensioner David Gray, who died after wrongly receiving an industrial dose of dimorphine (heroin, in common parlance) from a Germany-trained locum.

Equally deadly may be nurses who, like a foreign godfather, make you an offer you can’t understand.

If you’ll forgive another personal recollection, some years ago I was in hospital, receiving about 40 drugs at the same time. In addition to intravenous dimorphine (in the right dose), one of them was a cocaine mouthwash, brought to me by a nurse twice a day in a 50 ml tub.

One of the nurses could speak very little English and, my propensity for infantile jokes enhanced by boredom, I asked her if I should drink the mouthwash in one gulp.

“Trink?” she asked, obviously perplexed. “Trink in vun gulp? Yes, trink in vun gulp.” Had I followed that medical advice, you wouldn’t have the dubious pleasure of my company.

Perhaps, if we let our fantasies run away with us, a time will come when not just doctors, but anyone serving the public will be expected to do so in comprehensible English – in Britain, that is.

In fact, I’ve met many waiters and shop assistants in France who can’t speak English – but have yet to meet one who can’t speak French, and that includes those who manifestly aren’t French.

Would it be too much to ask for something similar in Britain? Yes, it would, if we let the EU have its way.

That’s another reason, one of many, big and small ones, to leave and bang the door on the way out. And I still have to hear of a single reason to stay.

2 thoughts on “Words can kill”

  1. “Choose the right word: He is one of those people who [a) demand, b) demands] attention. ”

    Personally I would have selected B. And even after having read that my answer would have been wrong, I still am able to convince myself I still have selected the right answer.

    I DO like to think I know it all but of course a little chastisement now doesn’t hurt. But it does make me mad when I am shown to be wrong.

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