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Aescupalian snake?

Year: 1980
Setting: Corporate clinic in Edea, Cameroon
Position: Resident physician

On some of my professional gear, one can find the medical symbol with the Aescupalian snake; for example, my car windscreen, my medical license, etc. I had no idea that it would be so close to my own practice.

Cameroon is building a cellulose plant in Edea, between Douala and Yaounde in the Bassa region called the Sanaga Maritime. An international workforce has been hired and the general manager needs a new physician for the clinic. The first one stayed just a few weeks. As I tour the facility, I notice a big rattan basket in the doctor’s office next to the desk. Somewhat perplexed, I ask the nurse about the purpose of this unusual piece of furniture, which I thought might be used as a linen receptacle. Her answer drives home the fact that I am living in a totally new environment, despite the familiar aspect of all the objects in the room. It is a snake container. Why in the world would a doctor need a live reptile in his consultation room?

She proceeds to explain this oddity as follows: Your predecessor liked to spend as much time as he could hunting in the jungle forest along the Sanaga River. He was a loner and a misogynist. In the clinic office, many homesick expatriate women would come to see him to shoot the breeze and share some of their life issues. He hated that. So, he would listen to them for a few minutes, then he would take the lid off the basket, open a drawer in the desk where he kept lab mice and feed the snake. This practice worked just as he expected, and the volume of drop-in consultations dwindled rapidly. I am sure it also contributed to his dismissal. It took a while to find his replacement, but welcome to Edea!

Lesson for the doctor: Watch your bedside manners.

Yann Meunier, MD, is the health promotion manager for the Stanford Prevention Research Center. He formerly practiced medicine in developed and developing countries throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Each week, he will share some of his experiences with patients in remote corners of the world.

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