First, Do not Harm

Provisional Translation of Avant tout ne pas nuire, First Chapter by Jean-Marie Jot, director of Les Allusifs Publishing House

Corps étrangers – I Avant tout ne pas nuire 

Patrick Froehlich
© Les Allusifs, 2017 

Foreign Bodies – I First, Do No Harm 

“Did you ever hurt a child? Please tell me you never did hurt a child you treated.”
I believe, I’d like to believe that I answered my daughter a clear no.
“Tell me also that you never behaved like a vet, treating a child as you would treat an animal.”

I don’t simply believe, I’m sure, positive, that I uttered an ill-articulated and barely audible no, and that I was faced with some sort of shame that such a lack of assertion undeniably conveyed.
“Is it you in that picture, the Mad Surgeon?”
Vega had opened an envelope I had received a few days earlier; inside was a clipping on which a round-eyed stuffed toy gazed at the viewer, it was a black and white photograph of a cat with a wide evil grin showing large teeth and wearing a surgical gown that had been coloured blue.
I hadn’t mentioned what was inside the envelope that was lying in plain sight upon the stack of mail, nor did I talk about the photographs or their captions that read Prison, The Mad Surgeon, that immediately had upset me. The clipping Vega was waving around, that I had read countless times, was reporting about an exhibition called Sick Blankies and the artist was a child, a former patient of mine: “The exhibition makes a deep impression. The young lady stages her blankies with talent and humour. Her father though, doesn’t quite like the photograph depicting a baby who seems to be crying holding a syringe. It’s captioned Pain for that matter. ‘It’s hard to accept when it’s your own child. We went through this with her, says her mother in the accompanying text. The fact that she captures pain in a picture brings back our emotions.’”
It also brings back mine. Her parents and I had shared five of her childhood years going through a rare and serious disease, five years of treatment and operations at the Children Foundation where eveybody fought; her, her parents, and the medical crew.

On the newspaper, Clara smiles with joy, she’s lost a few milk teeth and nobody would suspect the heavy history; she gazes at the readers holding her camera. The Mad Surgeon fluffy toy sits astride the lens unit. I recognize the look in her eyes, the same she had before entering the operating room, determined to fight the disease. She couldn’t take her confident wide eyes off mine as the anaesthesia began and she submitted herself to the constraints of surgery.
An accompanying letter told about her passion I had never been aware of, “After each operation, in the recovery room, I have a new blankie. I give it name, I operate on it, I torture it, I put bandages on it, put it on a drip… Then I take a picture of it.”
That’s how she got about a hundred photographs, the result of all the surgical operations that finally kept the disease at bay, the price of victory, my own going-away present from the Foundation, a beacon for children care in North America where I had been a guest surgeon for a year but ended up staying five years myself.
She wrote that she would have preferred to meet “her surgeon” face to face and that I continue to ensure her medical supervision, but the time had come for Vega, Silvia and I to return to Europe. I was bringing along some invisible baggage, a kind of shame I had never talked about to anyone that the letter had reactivated, a kind of shame brought on by a simple, mundane, quick finishing surgical manipulation, an extremely painful procedure that still makes me cringe today.

Vega was talking about the Mad Surgeon. I was trying to change the subject. “Granted one had to be a little mad to tackle her disease…” Carefully scrutinizing her face in the newspaper, I don’t detect any trace of it; the treatments have left no after-effects. Clara bursts with joy, a heartening overflowing of life. She runs around before shooting, and also after, just like you did yourself when we used to tell you, “Would you please keep calm for a second?” But you couldn’t possibly stay put.
“You’re afraid I pull out another photograph, the one captioned Pain.”
On the black and white picture the baby holds a syringe. The inside of his mouth has been coloured bright red, which would be considered the colour of love anywhere, but not at the Foundation.
“She stages five years of various pains she experienced through the disease and the treatments; and probably other wounds I’m not aware of.”
Yet there was a particular one I couldn’t forget. A pain I wish she would have forgotten.
I was fooling myself.
It was way too hard for me to ask her. I wasn’t her doctor anymore, and besides it was a delicate matter since one rarely looks back critically on one’s own surgical acts performed on the patients; that wasn’t part of my medical training. Time hadn’t alleviated the powerful sensation that had shot up through me when, deliberately, I had hurt Clara. I’m still burdened by that responsibility I kept silent then and that I continue to keep silent before Vega and her guilt- laden question.
“This is one of the gratifying aspects of medicine, when a former child patient actually bothers to stay in touch.”
I would never have stood my daughter to be hurt so bad. And instead of trying to explain my badly-asserted no, I asked her; “What’s the worst pain you’ve ever experienced?”
I knew the episode all too well.
“The worst time was when a doctor tried to check whether or not I had a broken elbow. He made my bones crack between his hands. It hurt me so bad, a searing

pain, ten on a scale of ten. Did you ever hurt someone that much? You, for whom the sole idea of pain is unbearable, wouldn’t have done that.”
“A ten level? No.”
I didn’t say, “No, never.”

I only answered no. A blatant lie. Later, I’ll try to explain the circumstances that prompted my actions. I’ll open an inquiry.

But it is now time for our evening walk. It’s a habit Vega and I took back since we arrived in Brussels a few months earlier, the connection between three different places: Lyons where I met Silvia and where Vega was born, the place where I became a doctor, fighting a 25-year surgical battle against diseases smothering children; Montreal, where as a guest surgeon I kept on with that work at the Children Foundation; and Brussels, the place where we set foot again in Europe and where Vega’s longing for Montreal is even more present than in Lyons. Brussels, the place where I received the photographs and from where my inquiry is about to start.


Since Vega bombarded me with questions, I’ve put the photographs away, out of my sight, inside the upper drawer of my desk. The emotional charge they convey doesn’t abate though. In my mind, words that I can’t seem to be able to put in perspective repeat over and over again; obsession, anxiety, shame. When I pronounce them, I’m plagued by exaggerated painful scenes that I went through and that lurk deep within my body. At the sheer mention of them, wrinkles appear on my forehead and I clench my teeth.