Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 24, 2017
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Tied up in knots

When I was a medical student, I used to love suturing. I suspect I was not alone. One of the occupational hazards of being a clinical clerk is feeling incompetent most of the time. Suturing, once you get the hang of it, provides rare, tangible evidence that you have done a person good. There was nothing I enjoyed more than seeing a gaping wound reduced to a neat little line, with orderly knots interspersed at regular intervals.

Unfortunately, there is more to being an emergency room physician or surgeon than suturing. I wasn't particularly drawn to dealing with chest pain or removing sections of bowel, so I ended up going into psychiatry. That was it for suturing.

I never regretted choosing my specialty, but I did miss working with my hands. In psychiatry, there are few occasions where I can point to my work and say, "Look at what I have accomplished." The finished product, when there is one, is never as concrete as a closed wound, laced up tightly like a hockey skate.

By the end of my internship year, I was mourning the loss of my procedural skills. With the little bit of extra time I had, I wanted to take up a hobby where I could produce something that was attractive and useful. I started knitting.

I hadn't knit for close to 10 years. I had learned the skill as a teenager working at the Quaker House Museum in downtown Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where I had my first real job. Four of us were hired to greet visitors, take them around the house, and sell items from the cabinet which served as our Gift Shop.

We wore costumes of long grey skirts, blouses, white caps and aprons. We didn't get a lot of visitors. One rainy day, three of us sat there for eight hours and not one visitor came in. Because the historical society didn't like the thought of us sitting idle at $4 per hour, they insisted that any time we weren't taking visitors around, we should be working on handicrafts to sell.

With a lack of concern for historical accuracy, which was typical of the museum's administration at the time, we were allowed to work on any craft we wanted so long as it resulted in the production of a saleable item to go on the shelf next to the Nova Scotia collector spoons and mugs emblazoned with the museum's image.

Considering that souvenir production was a requirement of the job, it strikes me as odd now that I was not asked during my job interview if I actually knew how to do any crafts, which I didn't. Fortunately, my fellow guides were more qualified in this area.

To this day, I feel a sense of gratitude when I think of the efforts made by Jennifer, a fellow guide, to teach me the proper way to knit. Like those surgeons who rap the knuckles of their residents when they hold the scissors incorrectly, Jennifer was uncompromising in her insistence that I hold the needles and the yarn in such a way that I could wrap the yarn around the needle with the fingers of my right hand without letting go of either needle.

There are in fact two types of knitters: those who hold onto both needles as they knit, and those who have to let go of a needle, usually the left one, to wrap the yarn around. While it took longer to learn it Jennifer's way, I have since come to the conclusion that she was right: holding onto both needles is the superior method, as it allows you to knit more quickly.

Jennifer was patient with me as I went through the stages experienced by all beginning knitters: the Excessively Tight Knitting Stage, the Accidentally Increasing in Every Row Stage and the Throwing Knitting on the Floor and Stomping on It Stage. My first product was a child's mitten, the thumb of which was longer than the part where the fingers went. Needless to say, that didn't end up in the Gift Shop.

With time, my knitting improved. The next pair of mittens sold for $3. The job at the Quaker House ended, and I went off to university. I did a little more knitting, including making myself an alarmingly ugly blue sweater. But then the pressures of undergrad life led me to put the needles away until I dug them out as a resident. I have continued to knit ever since.

In my opinion, knitting is a great hobby, one that I would recommend to anybody. It's not only little old ladies who knit these days. In fact, knitting has become very trendy -- Julia Roberts, Madonna, Cameron Diaz and Sarah Jessica Parker are all reported to be avid knitters. It's true that most knitters are women, but I wouldn't want to discriminate against men. After all, if they can learn to suture well enough to become surgeons, they should be able to master knitting.

Soon after I started knitting again, I became pregnant with my first child, which provided me with a reason to knit baby clothes, which are great projects. Baby clothes can be as simple or as complicated as you want, and they knit up quickly because they're so small. While it's a labour of love to knit a sweater for a 190-centimetre-tall husband, it is a delight to knit a sweater for an infant daughter.

I find knitting is very effective in helping take my mind off the stresses associated with work, and it doesn't cause liver damage like some other popular stress relievers available in liquid form. I can choose to knit a scarf, which is so mindless I can knit it while watching television, or a complicated sweater using several patterns that requires all my concentration. And while I'm knitting, I don't feel guilty that I am "wasting time," even though it is true that I could just go out and buy a sweater any time I needed one.

The other great thing about knitting is that I can continue doing it for years. Unlike skydiving or tennis, it doesn't require much stamina. I have many elderly patients who continue to knit despite increasing frailty. When I visit them at their homes, I take the time to admire their work. It's also nice to be able to add, "I'm a knitter myself."

I'm not about to quit my day job and start knitting for a living. As a psychiatrist, I study patterns of behaviour, not knitting patterns, and it's a lot more interesting. Trying to understand how a person's psyche is knit together is more rewarding than stringing yarn into interlocking loops. But I enjoy the time I spend creating something new, like a sweater to warm someone I love. I like the tangible evidence of doing a person good, even if that person is only myself.

 

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