Of Chillis and Medicine

It was early in my medical career when I first encountered the diabolical burn of the chilli pepper.
A Greek man ferried, carried, hurried his screaming child down the driveway of our home to the side door that admitted patients to Dad’s consulting room. The child’s round cheeks were red, his eyes streamed, his left upper and lower eyelids were scarlet. The father’s distress equalled the child’s: grief and fear contended in his broken speech: Is doctor house? Too much paining! My son, he burn… Terrified – I was fourteen, and although self-apprenticed to Dad, I knew I was out of my depth – I opened the door and stammered over my retreating shoulder, Doctor will come soon, I’ll tell Mum. The man wept, rocked his child, rocked himself, his tears fell, mixing with his son’s.

Mum hurried and said kind, calming things. She fetched damp cloths and wiped the boy’s eyelids and his lips, swollen like plums. Afterwards Doctor did come, gave an injection and peace returned.
Mum explained, The boy thought the red chilli pepper was some sort of lolly. When it burned his lips he cried. Then he wiped his left eye with his chilli hand. He must have rubbed the right eye with the other.

All that happened a long time ago. I was reminded of it today as I peeled and chopped mango for a lime and mango fruit salad. I sucked a lot of mango pips, I slurped the juicy flesh from mango peelings. And my fingers and palms began to tingle. My lips tingled too. Soon tingle turned to burn. I looked at my fingers, all red and juicy and I remembered the day I prepared mango mousse for twelve. That day a dozen mangoes bled onto my lips and hands; and today my skin remembered. I had disregarded the warning at the end of the recipe to protect my skin with rubber gloves. The recipe closed with the words, both the mango and the chilli originate in Latin America. They are botanically close.
The word recipe is one a doctor uses with every prescription: the large R stands for the instruction to the compounding pharmacist, Recipe – please make up the following recipe. I did some doctoring today as well as some cooking. I claim to be a bold cook, not a good one. My family are bold eaters and candid critics of my cooking, just as they are of my healing. They will tell me after dinner what they think of my recipe.

Should Nurses and Doctors Accept Work in Australia’s Detention Centres?

In 2010 I worked in an Australian detention centre for short time that felt like a long time. The experience was the worst in my fifty years in Medicine. I signed a confidentiality agreement, sewing my own lips in the process. I saw no atrocity, no wrongdoing, other than torture by impersonal and meandering bureaucracy. Yet the suffering was general; it saw inmates, guards, nurses and doctors all resorting to self-harmful acts. I saw honourable people treating the detained with skill and humanity. I saw them constrained by employers and distrusted and insulted by patients, who felt sure that we too were liars. Yet we did some good. People, whether sick in body or in spirit, were treated with kindness and respect.

For six months after I returned to the mainland I was visited by dreams in which I sat on Tribunals without name, determining the fate of nameless individuals doomed by history and by Australian laws. Captive in these dreams, I doled unequal laws to defeated supplicants. I’d awaken and ask myself, did I really do that? But, inescapably, I knew I was implicated.

My island was a paradise of procedural propriety compared to today’s islands of Nauru and Manus. Doctors and nurses have returned from these places with distressing reports. Some have argued that, knowing what is now known, it is in unethical to work in these places; that the system tortures inmates; that participating is to become complicit in torture. More moderately, all clinicians and observers who return seem to agree that incarceration harms the inmate. The first law of medical ethics being, first do no harm, is not an ethical practitioner obliged to refuse to share in that harmdoing?

A new element affecting the work of a detention clinician is the outlawing of reporting wrongs seen in that work. Offenders face the threat of two years gaol. Nice systematic irony: to protect the liberty of Australians we incarcerate boat people; to protect the integrity of the system we incarcerate truthtellers. Interestingly, the flood of job offers to work in Detention that recruiters used to send to remote doctors such as myself has dried up. Someone, somewhere must have decided Australian clinicians are unreliable.

What then must a nurse or a doctor or a psychologist or a psychiatric nurse do? If offered, may we accept this work? Even if we are forbidden to speak of what we see?

I compare the situation to working with patients in places of dangerous epidemic disease. The first such case I read of was the cholera that broke out in eighteenth century Naples, where a young Swedish doctor left his fashionable private practice in Paris to work with the afflicted. He found himself working alongside a young nurse who was both beautiful and a nun. At any moment the disease might take them. The two work steadily on, afflicted by the losses and by the erotic fever that seizes them both. The drama of the two who risk all for strangers has never left me. The doctor, Axel Munthe, wrote of this in his memoir, The Story of San Michele.

We saw just such heroism played out by Australian nurses and doctors who went to Africa recently to save people from Ebola. We saw it, and -as a nation, as individuals – we prayed for our heroes and we applauded them.

Nothing new here: nurses and doctors work with AIDS, with multi-drug-resistant TB, with Lassa Fever. It is natural to the species to measure the need before the personal risk.

The second precedent is an unhappy one; during the twentieth century doctors working under dictatorships accepted orders, accepted payment, enjoyed promotion and protection, and participated in abuses ranging from imprisoning sane dissenters in psychiatric institutions, to ‘eugenic’ murder, to torture. And being bought, they shut up about it. If clinical ethics learned anything from these abuses it was the imperative to speak out.

In the light of history I see the duty of free citizens, clear and uncomplicated. It is to go to the camps, to do such good work as might be done, and to speak out.

Sightings I and II

I. Banana

Rushing for a train, racing down the steps to the underground avenues beneath Flinders Street Station, commuters plunge past the blue sleeping bag with scarcely a glance. There is much to distract the train-intent from the form that fills the sleeping bag; the endless tiled passage below the busy city streets speaks of public secrets; at once a passage and a place, its architectural style archaic. When drained of all footfalls save those of a solitary traveller its hollow emptiness evokes nervous ripples, small tremors. On the walls contemporary agitprop, messages to promote rail safety, sexual safety, philanthropy. Alongside these colourful eyecatchers, ancient stencilling in grey warns the traveller: SPITTING ON WALLS AND FLOORS IS FORBIDDEN.
The traveller of yesteryear would have to lie on the tiles on his back – the spitter would certainly be male – and spit upwards to the ceiling.

Racing for my own train I found my eyes drawn sideways by the bright blue of the bag. A warm downy sort of bag, not apparently a cheap one. Nearly tumbling down the stairs I pulled up short of a placard placed in front of the recumbent form. I could not see a head or any body part that would prove a human presence. No sign of life. But on this coldest winter morning in thirty years all in the station have covered up, torso and head alike.

In my skeltering I had no chance to read the text on the placard. I guessed it announced an autobiography along the lines of:

In front of the placard a scatter of coins. And a banana.
Some benevolent passer-by, I surmised, judged food more nourishing than currency.
Two hours later, rush hour well past, I returned. No sign of sleeping bag, no sign of sleeper, placard or money. The banana alone remained.

II. Homeless on the Surface

Surfacing from the cryptic passages I hurried across Collins Street. Seated before the inviting premises of the chocolatier a man in his forties, draped with blankets, his bearded face rubicund, leaned towards the passer by who did not pass by. She, a fashionably dressed woman in her mid-thirties, warm in a long camel coat, bent over the seated man, speaking. The man’s face broke into a wide smile, the only smile I sighted on that broad and thronging street. The woman stroked the man’s face lightly. She straightened and walked off up Collins Street, half turning to wave.

Job Opportunity

A word jumped out at me from a shop window as I jogged along the Carlisle Street shopping strip this morning. The word, writ large, was


Not remarkable, given the shop was a butcher’s. Beneath the word that sprang out at me I read 



The words were laid out so they descended across the window stepwise. I slowed to take in the aesthetics of the butcher shop.
Beneath the list of viands I saw a placard which read,
HELP WANTED, (Junior).
Drop in Resume.
So I did.

“Dear Mister Meat,

I write pursuant to your request for my resume. Please consider me for the position of ‘Help (junior).’

Name: Howard Goldenberg.

Born: January 8, 1946

Qualifications: Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery;

Diploma of Obstetrics of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology; Fellow of the Royal Australian College of General Practice.

Achievements: Founder of the Stomach Club of Australasia.

Winner (over 60 years, male), Northern Territory Marathon, 2008, 2015. Editor, Mount Scopus College school magazine, 1962.

1972-2002, Mohel (ritual circumcisor) to the not quite devout Jews of Melbourne and Tasmania. 

I enjoy meat. I cook it, I serve it, I enjoy the pleasure it gives my family. When I say I enjoy meat, I mean it in the same way I like other men’s wives: I admire from afar. I eat only kosher. Although I’m a vegetarian I am not a gluten assassin or a fodmapster.

I do not work on the Jewish Sabbath or on the Festivals ordained by scripture. I’ll happily work on Christmas Day and Boxing Day and New Years Day and on Easter Day and on Anzac Day, so long as they do not fall on the Holy Days mentioned above. Also Halloween, Thanksgiving and Festivus.

Likewise I will gladly work on Melbourne Cup Day, a festival which never falls on a Saturday and which competes with no Biblical Festival. 


1. Experience – not many juniors have experience like mine.
2. I am a good speller.
3. My degree in Surgery and my experience in performing autopsies stand me in good stead with animals, dead or alive.
4. You know I won’t pinch your sausage. 
5. As a lapsed mohel I know my way around wieners, offcuts and giblets
WARNING: DON’T GET AGEIST ON ME. I am backed by family members who are feared attack dogs of the Law.
Inevitably the competition for my services is intense. I suggest you write by return post and I shall consider your application.”


The Barber and the Monkeys

The barber says he’s been listening to music by Bonobo. He adds, ‘Bonobos are my favourite animal’. The barber might be in his late thirties. Among the cluster of customers and colleagues in the small barber shop he’s a dominating presence . He wears serried earrings, his bright blue eyes gleam as he snips and trims and talks. His voice booms from the depths of the shop. All in the shop can listen in and enjoy his witty and erudite monologues. Invariably I do.

Greg – for lack of better knowledge I call him that I my mind – has a stoop, a marked forward hunching of his upper spine called kyphosis. I wonder about the voice; is Greg deaf? Beyond the earrings he wears no visible ear prosthetic. No matter the cause Greg speaks audibly and entertainingly. For the duration of my trim Greg’s subject is monkeys. The previous client (I believe that is the correct term) received a Ted talk on the football draft. My successor will hear Greg on the structural instability of the Chinese stockmarket.

‘Bonobos’, says Greg, ‘Are identical to chimpanzees but they are separated from the chimps by the Congo River. The Congo is a great river’ (who knew that?) ‘so the separation is complete. Unlike the chimps, who live in a patriarchal society, a monarchy in fact, the Bonobos are matriarchal. The chimps are fascists and the bonobos are hippies. They practise free love while the chimps – the young bucks – will kill for fun. Chimps use tools, the bonobo use sex, a sedative upon the male, whom the females fuck into a state of blissful passivity. No competition, no aggression, they live on lotus. Unlike the chimps who’ll eat meat the bonobo is a vegan. No meat, no aggression, no adaptation to the world of the tool, which is the world of weapons.’

In extreme cases of kyphosis pain is constant, breathing a struggle, circulation embarrassed and life shortened. Barber Greg is not such. A vivacious man, hunched like a gorilla, bright, full of energy, supercharged with conversation. I wonder if he lives with a deaf dog and comes to work for conversation. If so I’m glad for it.

Greg moves on to Margaret Thatcher: ‘They called her “PMT” you know.’ A twinkle, a grin, careful snipping around my ears: ‘Prime Minister Thatcher!’

Arrived at my own work I google bonobo. What follows is a series of remarkably unerotic you-tubes all showing copulating primates. Foreplay, invariably initiated by the female and always in the form of violence, is followed by energetic thrusting on the part of the male – who is smaller – accommodated by the female – who is hospitable. She accepts him from behind where the height differential doesn’t matter (useful tip for the short man?); or she invites him to enter face-to-face, hoisting his rump, providing her palms as a bum support while he ruts away. The male then slumps, tranquillised, until next commanded to perform by the pummelling of his lady friend.

There must be a lesson here. Time for me to revert for good to my (preferred) vegetarian diet? The image persists of the male bonobo, released for the nonce from service in the marital trenches, who toddles down to the river (the great Congo River?). He lies on his back, his slim white phallus perpetually semi-erect. He dangles his left foot into the stream, idly splashing water upriver. Sunlit, the grasses a brilliant green, the bonobo’s fur a rich auburn, the simian foot, large in proportion to the skinny leg, swings across his lower body, splash, swing, splash in the sunshine, Mister Bonobo awaits his mistress’ call.

The Seventh Day of Spring 

She slipped out of her mother into my palms on the seventh day of spring almost two score years ago. Small and slippery and vernix-spattered, with opalescent pink skin, she lay in my hands and opened her eyes and astonished me. Shortly afterwards her nine-month co-tenant peeked out, hesitated, retreated then plopped into a steel dish. The placenta lay in the dish, mute. The baby cried. She had fingers and toes and a belly and limbs and a face and girl bits and a mouth.

We took the baby home.
Seven is a mystical number, springtime a magical season. In a story I wrote about her I called her Pleasant Spring Goldenmountain. That name will serve for this story too.
Born of midget parents, she was tiny. The Pleasant One, being pocket sized and portable, was perfect for carrying and cuddling and tickling and flinging into the air and (generally) catching on the way down. She’d laugh and scream and I’d chuck her towards the ceiling time and again until once, gasping, she cried: ‘Stop! I’m not a toy, Dad.’ Chastened, I stopped.

The little one loved her father, attaching herself to him as if to a placenta. While she was still far too young to appreciate it the dad read ‘Great Expectations’ to little Springtime. She listened to the connection between Joe Gargery and Pip. She would say to her dad, ‘Ever the best of friends old chap. Ever the best of friends.’

Around the age of twelve her classmates shot up so much she had to crane her neck to talk with them. When her neck tired she’d address her friends’ belly buttons. A doctor friend recommended growth hormone injections. By this stage the Pleasant One knew her life’s mission: to mother early and often. She knew too that a short person’s small skeleton often had a small pelvis too narrow to allow a baby through. Some short mothers couldn’t give birth naturally. 
Every day for three years the Pleasant One injected her belly with the hormone and she grew. Her mandible grew wide enough to accommodate her teeth and her long bones flung her up to a towering five feet, two and a half inches, plenty big enough for babies. ‘I’m tall, Dad’, she said. And she stopped injecting.
Growing up in a family that lacked nothing other than fiscal discipline, Springtime would hear her parents groaning over the bills they had to pay. On weekends the child worked as a medical receptionist and saved her earnings. When she wanted new clothes she chose and paid for her own. Aged fifteen she decided she’d like a holiday in North Queensland. She worked and saved and paid for it herself. Aged sixteen she wanted to improve her French. She worked and saved and travelled to Paris where a man exposed himself to her outside the produce market. To improve her Hebrew she enrolled in a girls’ boarding school in Jerusalem for her summer holidays. Soon she could speak like the prophet Isaiah.

One day Springtime said something that made her older sister and her brother laugh. Her parents laughed too. ‘That’s funny, darling’, said her father. ‘I know Dad. I’m funny.’ ‘I’m funny too, darling’, said her dad. Springtime rolled her eyes like an epileptic. And laughed.
When she entered her early twenties Pleasant Springtime determined her father was not perfect. She told him so. From time to time, lest this slip her father’s imperfect mind, she repeated this information, adducing evidence. Her mother shared this surprising opinion and voiced it aloud. The two made a chorus and seemed to enjoy it.
Pleasant Springtime collected a couple of degrees, became a psychologist, gathering a bouquet of diplomas, coing to leadership of a large team of professional peers, some a good deal older than she. A number of fruitless connections came and passed before she met the good man I will call Running Bear. She married the bear and she bore him two infants, a Minor Prophet and a red gem.

And her Gargery father lived happily ever after.

Postscript: Twenty years after injecting herself full of Birth Canal Enlarging Hormone, Springtime elected to deliver her children by caesarean section.

I No Longer Know my Country

I Left Home a Few Days ago and When I Returned it wasn’t there

Australia is my home; it has been since adventurous forebears from England and France arrived in the 1840’s and 1850’s, and desperate forebears came in the 1890’s. Nowadays we might call these people economic migrants and queue jumpers.
I flew from my home country last Thursday and returned yesterday morning. I read the paper and I knew I was no longer at home. My home had gone. I might never get it back. What had changed?

Border Force to have up to 6000 armed officers

Border Force in Australia sbs.com.au

Border Force in Australia sbs.com.au

I read the headline. I didn’t understand it. This Border Force would be deployed not on the border but inside my home. Most of its officers would be armed, many already are ‘trained for use-of-force operations.’ I sat and I wondered: what ‘operations’ inside our borders do they contemplate? Against whom are they armed? Who is the enemy within?

In the home where I used to live people trusted each other. We were different and we were OK. Some of us were very different indeed: in the small country town of my boyhood a sole Jewish family lived, trusted and trusting. That family was my own. Trust was rewarded, we were neighbours, we became friends, we knew each other and we were citizens together.

In the home where I became a father I met a man who was extremely different. He was the son of a Muslim cleric who went on to become Mufti of Australia. The father worked for amity and respect between communities and became a Member of the Order of Australia. The son, a ratbag or scallywag or black sheep or white sheep, became my friend and danced at my daughter’s wedding with the then President of the Zionist Council of Australia.

All that took place in Australia, which used to be my home.

On September 11, 2001 the world changed. Three days later the Melbourne ‘Age’ reprinted an article by respected Israeli journalist and novelist, David Grossman. Grossman had witnessed the effects of terror within his own community. He wrote that terror’s greatest victim is trust between citizens. When you believe your neighbour might wish to hurt you, you cease to trust her; you cannot afford to trust. Grossman predicted in 2001 we would see that erosion of communal trust, that injury to community.

Grossman’s prophecy has well and truly come to pass. Ironically, in Australia’s case, the principal destroyers of trust have been politicians who promote fear recklessly. We have a government led by a man who acts like a boy who swoons at the sight of a uniform.
Little by little, day by day, our masters in government – as well as the odd mistress – attack trust. The headline in the paper on the day of my return to my homeland appears below another: Transfield to remain at Nauru;
and alongside a third headline: Yongah Hill detainee hurt after incident of self-harm

All of this is relegated to Page 8. In this country that used to so welcome the stranger it is no longer big news that a private corporation be rewarded (at a daily cost of $1500 per head) for its systematic unkindness to inmates. This is not news. This is policy. As is ‘turn back the boats’, the policy that hath made my name to stink upon the earth.
In this place that used to be a home a man who cut his throat in detention is hospitalised, then returned to that place of detention where he ‘is receiving appropriate medical and mental health support and care.’ In that place his doctors and mental health carers risk two years of gaol if they report on that ‘appropriate’ medical care. I know detention. I sewed my lips, I accepted overpayment and I worked as a doctor in detention.

But in the place that used to be a home nothing like this is news.