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Medical Minute Mysteries

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When I was in high school, there was a small paperback called Minute Mysteries that was kind of fun to read. Each page would have a mini-mystery, with characters and plot introduced and a puzzle presented. You were to solve the mystery, or try, before turning the page to learn the answer. (Or maybe you turned to the back of the book. I don’t remember.) One day in tenth grade, our English teacher, Miss Murphy, read a few of them to us. I suppose she had a point in mind about writing, but it was also an enjoyable diversion. What I’ve never forgotten is her over-reaction to my solving one of them instantaneously. Somehow, the essential point came down to a phone number that arose in the story’s dialogue. I should point out that in those days phone numbers had the form Xy 1-2345, where X and y were letters of the alphabet and 1-2345 are stand-ins for numbers. And the phone number in the minute mystery had ‘Q’ as one of its letters.

Of course, this is impossible, since phones didn’t have ‘Q’ as a letter. The numbers 0 and 1 were letterless (and still are), and each of the numbers from 2 to 9 had three letters assigned to it, allowing for 24 letters. The two letters omitted were ‘Q’ and ‘Z’. I pointed this out, and Miss Murphy couldn’t get over the idea that someone actually knew this. I admit, it probably wasn’t universally known, but it hardly struck me as obscure. Anyone could plainly see, when staring at a phone dial, that the full alphabet wasn’t there.

Anyway, the New York Times Sunday Magazine has a monthly feature that I love, a short article by Lisa Sanders, M.D., under the heading Diagnosis. Each article is two pages, with three parts: 1. Symptoms, 2. Investigation, 3. Resolution. Generally a patient sees his or her regular doctor, then specialists, gets nowhere, and finally has the good fortune to stumble on a doctor who has the key insight. They’re fabulous pieces, medical minute mysteries.

I almost missed the latest one. This afternoon, I grabbed last week’s NYT magazine to add to the pile of newspapers I was recycling, but decided first to open it, and there was the piece. I won’t ruin the mystery for you, but I will quote the opening paragraph from the Resolution section:

The patient says Helfrich was the only doctor who seemed to truly look at him. During that first encounter, Helfrich didn’t take notes, didn’t focus on his chart, didn’t click through page after page in the computer. He simply asked questions, listened to the answers and observed.

Good advice for us all.

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