6 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 28

Second opinion

I KNOW the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, of course, and have witnessed even more startling transformations, thanks to the wonders, if not necessarily the wisdom, of modern science. Men have been changed into women and vice versa — transformations that a judge recently ruled to be the inalienable birthright of every Briton to obtain on the NHS, and, therefore, to be the inescapable duty of every Briton to pay for with his taxes.

There was a strange transmutation on our ward the other day. The patient was a young woman who had taken an over- dose because she said her mother did not love her enough (both she and her moth- er were drunk at the time). The story was the usual one which it is hardly necessary to go into in any detail: just a normal everyday case of sexual abuse, stepfa- therhood, truancy from school, drug addiction, violent boyfriends, repeated burglary, witness intimidation, dropped charges, semi-literacy and ignorance, rape, 8.4 per cent-proof cider, criminal damage, pathological jealousy, incest, drug-dealing, bad company, credit-card fraud, attempted murder and the thou- sand other peccadilloes to which flesh in the underclass is heir.

Anyway, her boyfriend — a black man with blond hair and rings in his eyebrows — turned up to give her comfort in her time of need. Opposite them was a man dying of respiratory failure, a most wretched way to die and one which caus- es deep distress- to the people looking after the patient, to say nothing of the distress to the patient himself. But there are no obstacles to the expression of true love, and so the young woman and her boyfriend started uninhibitedly to fondle one another in front of him. It was quite touching — no pun intended.

I turned away (rather like the butler in The Importance of Being Earnest, I didn't think it polite to listen), but when I turned back, as professional duty eventu- ally demanded, I found a remarkable transformation. The patient was no longer in her bed being fondled by her boyfriend, but, on the contrary, her boyfriend was now in the bed being fon- dled by the patient.

This naturally caused some consterna- tion among the nursing staff, who ordered the patient back to bed. Funda- mentally a decent girl, she complied with their orders, but the boyfriend saw no reason why he should vacate the bed just because his girlfriend was returning to it. And so before long the two of them were in bed together.

Of course, they didn't look altogether comfortable, because the bed was too narrow for them. In fact, I rather feared that one of them might fall out and break a leg, an accident that would no doubt become the subject of a legal action. Why had the hospital not supplied the happy couple with a bed wide enough for them to lie on, and why was there no printed warning that the bed was not wide enough for two, and that one of them might fall out and break his or her leg?

It would have made a fine test-case: every Briton's right to a double bed on the NHS.

Theodore Dalrymple