Eye wash in Sarajevo

In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, I used to visit the former Yugoslavia, where I had and still have many friends. Often, I stayed in Sarajevo (now in the Republic of Bosnia and Hercegovina), with Marija and her family. Here is something that happened on one of my visits. The account comes from my book about Yugoslavia, “SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ”.

Cross eyed_500

Marija, my host in Sarajevo, lived alone in her flat. Her husband, although an ardent communist, had fallen foul of Tito’s regime. Since the late 1940s, he had spent most of his life in prison. Many years after my last visit to Sarajevo, Liljana told me that her father used to be released from jail occasionally for short periods only to be re-arrested and re-incarcerated soon after. I was not clear about what he had done to deserve this. He must have been the ‘wrong kind’ of communist. Maybe, he had been a Stalinist and/or a supporter of Cominform. This organisation’s headquarters were in Belgrade from 1947 until 1948, the year when Yugoslavia’s relationship with Stalin’s Soviet Union began to go sour and the country was expelled from Cominform. It is possible that it was Stalin’s militant antagonism to Yugoslavia in the late 1940s that helped Tito to unify his ethnically diverse population.

During one of my visits Sarajevo, I noticed that the white part of one of my eyes had become completely red. It was a little uncomfortable as well. I hoped that no one would notice it; I wanted to avoid any fuss. So, I set off one morning to find a pharmacy, hoping to buy an eyewash, something like the British product ‘Optrex’.

As there was no way that I could possibly have explained what I wanted using my rudimentary knowledge of Serbo-Croatian, I decided that I would have to try to act out what I wanted. I wandered along the chilly snow covered streets, puzzling over how to do this. In the end, I felt too shy to try to attempt the necessary charade. I hoped that with the passage of time my eye would heal.

When I returned to Marija’s flat that evening, she immediately noticed my eye. In French, and sounding worried, she said that I might have caught something that sounded to me like ‘retinit’, a disorder about which I knew nothing. She succeeded in alarming me greatly by saying that there was an epidemic of whatever this was in Sarajevo, and that many people were being blinded by it. Next morning, she told me, she would take me to see a friend of hers, an ophthalmic specialist, at the university hospital. This also worried me. I remembered the depressing looking hospital that I had seen many years earlier when I was visiting Peć in Kosovo. My enduring image of that place was of its pyjama-clad inmates leaning out of upper-floor windows and hauling baskets of food up on ropes from their relatives, who were waiting outside the building on the ground below. The hospital in Sarajevo was nothinglike that.

I was introduced to the lady ophthalmologist, who then seated me in a special high-backed chair. A white-coated nurse approached me, carrying a syringe fitted with a long, broad-gauge needle. I must have winced in anticipation because Marija said,
Ne t’inquiétes pas. C’est seulement une piqûre.” (Don’t worry. It’s only an injection)
An injection … in my eye: I did not like the thought of that. She
laughed again, and said,
Regardez, le dentiste a peur d’avoir une piqûre!” (See, the dentist is afraid of having an injection)

Eventually, the nurse managed to squirt some liquid onto the surface of my eye, rather than into its interior, as I had feared was going to happen. The ophthalmologist examined it with her special equipment. It turned out, to my great relief, that I had an attack of conjunctivitis, which could be easily cured with the eye-drops that she gave me. After the clinical examination, we retired into her office. She rang for an assistant, who returned with cups of Turkish coffee and a dish filled with little cubes of lokum (Turkish delight).


I have lost touch with Marija and her family. All I know is that her daughter and son-in-law along with their child emigrated to the Seychelles shortly before Yugoslavia erupted into a self-destructing civil war.

No need to worry



adult ambulance care clinic


While I was studying to become a dentist, I took advantage of an optional fortnight shadowing anaesthetists. It was not a hands-on experience, but it was totally fascinating watching anaesthetists keeping patients healthy whilst they were deeply anaesthetised.

One day during a morning coffee break, I was sitting having refreshments with a senior anaesthetist and his team. Suddenly, I heard a shrill prolonged sound coming from a nearby room. I asked a technician what it was. He told me not to worry about it.

A few moments later, the senior anaesthetist asked me:

“What is that high pitched noise?”

“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about, ” I answered confidently.

“Really?” I was asked.

“Oh, yes. there’s absolutely no need to be concerned,” I advised the senior anaesthetist.

If it had been fashionable at that time, I might have told him to ‘chill’, but in those days chilling was reserved for cold weather and refrigeration.

“Hmmmm,” he replied.

After a few moments, he said to me:

“Well, actually that signal is the warning sound made by an oxygen cyinder that is about to become empty. I would really worry about it, young man.”

At that moment, I felt like a complete idiot and hoped that the ground would open up and swallow me.


Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com




Magnetic moments


By nature, I am most apprehensive about having to undergo any medical intervention. Even having my hair cut at the barber gets me worried, not because I am concerned about the final hairstyle but because I fret about what might go wrong. Recently, I had to undergo an MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging) scan for reasons that need not concern you, dear reader.

I first heard of magnetic resonance whilst studying biological chemistry as part of my physiology degree course at University College London. Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy is used to investigate the physical and chemical properties of molecules and is of particular usefulness to organic chemists. On the other hand, medical MRI scanning allows a non-invasive investigation of body parts (including soft tissues) without any dangers such as harmful radiation.

Many people who have experienced MRI scanning have told me how fearful an ordeal it is. Their main concern is having to lie still for a long period of time in a noisy, featureless, confined space in a narrow tube barely large enough to hold a body. When I learnt that I was going to have undergo an MRI scan, I was filled with anxiety. For someone like me, who dreads even haircuts and eye-tests, you can imagine that I was not looking forward to having my scan.

I arrived at the scan and felt like the peanut which stood on the railway track, whose heart was all a flutter (when ‘around the track the engine came… toot toot peanut butter’). 

Putting a brave face on it, I entered the scanning room through a reinforced metal door that looked like the entrance to an atomic bunker. I lay on a narrow bed, which turned out to be extremely comfortable. Before being given a set of headphones to protect my ears from the noise that would be produced during the scan, I was asked what music I would like to hear. I asked what was on offer. The choice was between Motown and classical. I opted for the latter.

The bed with me on it slid slowly into the circular tunnel in the centre of the Siemens ‘Magneton’. I continued entering it until only the crown of my head was outside it. When I looked up, all I could see was the grey funnel like rim of the entrance to the machine.

There was a sound like a fog horn, and then the sound of monotonous soporific classical piano music, rather tinny in tone. No decent composer would have had the gall to own up composing this pathetic attempt at ‘classical music’. Nevertheless, it was mildly distracting, and its lack of variety helped me to relax.

Then, the fun began. For reasons that the nurse could not explain the MRI machine produces a series of extraordinary noises, which must have been very loud because I could hear them quite clearly despite wearing the ear-protecting headphones. The first of these noises resembled someone hammering loudly at a building site. This was followed by bursts of sound (each lasting several minutes) that included ‘kerchunk, kerchunk, kerchunk,…’; ‘boop, boop, boop…’; ‘whooo, whooo, whooo,…’, ‘tak,tak, tak…’; and so on. All the time, the monotonous piano music droned on, barely competing with the miscellany of bursts of weird mechanical sounds coming from the magnets in whose womb I was confined. At several stages, the machine seemed to become over excited, not only emitting noises but also causing the bed on which I was lying to vibrate.

Far from hating the whole experience as I was sure that I would, I found it mildly entertaining. The 40 odd minutes of my scan shot by. Let me explain. First, I was extremely comfortable. Having to lie still on a comfortable bed was very restful and relaxing. It was far more comfortable than sitting for 40 minutes in an aeroplane or in some theatres. Secondly, the noises conjured up various images in my mind. During the vibrations described above, I felt as if I was on a reclining chair in Business Class on a long-distance flight. The odd combination of the repetitive classical music accompanied by the series of ever-changing mechanical noises being emitted by the scanner resembled the music of minimalist composers, notably the compositions Steve Reich. At times, I felt as if I was listening to a bad pianist giving a concert in a busy construction site. Many years ago, I attended a concert of Spanish Flamenco dancing. The endless racket produced by the dancers stamping their shoes on a hard floor was far less bearable than what I heard during my MRI.

At the end of the day, I realised that the horror stories that I had heard about MRI scans should possibly be discounted. I have written this to allay the fears of those who might one day need to undergo one of these investigations.