Posted in History & Literature

Dramatic Opening

Shakespeare stated that “all is well that ends well”, but the opening of a story can be just as important. For example, “once upon a time” instantly transports a child (or adult) to a magical, faraway land full of wonders and adventure. So how would one open a story of drama, mystery or even horror?

One of the most infamous examples of such an opening is the line: “it was a dark and stormy night”. This opening sentence was first used by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. The full opening is:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

The phrase is effective in establishing a setting and painting a word picture.

However, this opening is considered overly florid and descriptive, overachieving its goal of establishing the setting. This kind of sentence is known as a purple prose and is mocked in the world of literature. This opening has become the poster child of purple prose, such as the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which celebrates the worst examples of “dark and stormy night” stories.

Probably the most popular mention of “it was a dark and stormy night” is in the comic strip, Peanuts. Snoopy, the canine protagonist, is often seen starting a novel on his typewriter with the line “it was a dark and stormy night”. Perhaps it is no surprise as to why his novels were never published.

Posted in History & Literature


In many cultures (especially in Asian countries), the public conception of doctors has changed where surgeons are considered the “real doctors”. This is particularly evident in Asian dramas where main characters tend to be surgeons, saving the patient’s life with dramatic operations and charisma. The idea that surgeons are superior to physicians may go as far as some adults advising medical students to become surgeons for a higher status (again, more evident in Asia). However, as the root of surgery is completely different from that of medicine, technically it is a misnomer to call a surgeon a “doctor”.

This is reflected in the relatively unknown fact that a fully-trained surgeon is referred to as “mister”, not “doctor”. To understand why surgeons call themselves Mr., we must look into the origin of the surgical discipline.

In ancient times, surgery was limited to treating flesh wounds and setting bones (with some exceptions such as trepanation), such as those sustained during battles. Other than the odd few cases of specialised surgeons such as Galen of ancient Greece and Hua Tuo of ancient China, it is hard to find records of doctors employing surgery as a form of treatment. This was mainly due to two reasons: that surgery was considered a “dirty, unrefined” form of treatment, and that surgery was too risky.

For a long time, especially in the Western world, surgery was considered to be of a lower status compared to medicine. It was considered more of a craft tradition – something which physicians believed was beneath them. Because of this, surgeries were mainly performed by barbers in medieval Europe. One can still find evidence of a barber’s alternative historical role on the barber’s pole, which has white, red and blue stripes. The white stripe symbolises bandages, the red symbolises arterial blood and the blue symbolises venous blood. This originates from the practice of bloodletting, where white bandages wrapped around a pole would get dyed red from the blood, giving the appearance of the barber’s pole. The profession of “surgeon” did not formally appear until around the 18th century when a Guild of Surgeons was formed in England. However, physicians refused to accept surgeons as equals for a further century. When they did come to accept that surgery was a legitimate form of medical treatment, the surgeons decided that they did not want to be assimilated as doctors, so they chose to keep their title of “mister” to distinguish themselves from physicians.

The reason why surgery was considered an unrefined art in the past mainly focuses on three issues: bleeding, pain and infections. Before modern surgical developments, uncontrolled bleeding was a real issue in surgery. This not only made surgeries extremely messy, but it was also dangerous for the patient as patients would often die from shock (dangerously low blood pressure). On top of this, anaesthetics was only introduced in the late 19th century, meaning before that, patients had to suffer the pain of their flesh being cut and stitched with no relief. Of course, this meant that surgeries were almost always a brutal scene, with the agonising screams of the patients filling the room, while they sprayed blood everywhere. Lastly, even if the patient somehow survived the surgery without bleeding out or dying from the stress and pain, there still remained a high risk of post-operative infection. Thus, surgeries were most often unsuccessful and were considered a barbaric form of treatment with no promise.

Thanks to medical advancements, surgery has become an important aspect of medicine, where one cannot live without the other. However, the tension still remains between physicians and surgeons, with each profession jokingly mocking the other whenever a chance arises.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


When people think of the word “flatline”, they immediately visualise a medical crisis where a patient is lying unconscious, with doctors and nurses shouting out medical terminology while administering drugs, all to the suspenseful music and apathetic monotone and single horizontal line on the ECG machine. The doctor then shouts “Clear!” and proceeds to shock the patient with two paddles. This is repeated until some structures appear on the ECG, symbolising that the crisis has been resolved.

Of course this is a scene from a typical medical drama. Television shows, especially medical ones, are notorious for sacrificing medical accuracy for the sake of drama and tension. The “flatline” is the most cliché, repeated mistake made by almost every medical television show ever made.

The proper terminology for a flatline (a colloquial term), is asystole. This means that there is no systole, or contraction of the heart. An ECG (electrocardiogram) measures electrical signals in the heart, and in asystole there is insignificant amounts of electric activity, and the classic QRS complex is not seen. In this state, the heart is not pumping any blood and is electrically silent, meaning that the patient is clinically dead.

When asked how to treat this condition, the majority of people (even medical students) will shout “Shock!” or “Defibrillate!”. Defibrillation is the administering of an electrical shock to try “reboot” the heart, and correct the fibrillation – the chaotic electrical signal interfering with the normal, rhythmic electrical activity. Unfortunately, this is completely wrong yet so often depicted on television and films.
As asystole is a state of no electrical activity, there is no fibrillation to remove, nor is there anything to reset. Defibrillation in this state may even cause harm, causing tissue damage and lowering the chance of survival.

The correct treatment is injecting adrenaline (epinephrine in the U.S.A, atropine may be administered also) and CPR. Unfortunately, asystole is a condition that cannot be reversed, unless the heart somehow restores its own electrical activity. CPR merely keeps the patient’s perfusion going to preserve the organs for a longer time. Ergo, asystole signifies certain death, especially after 5 minutes where the heart will not respond to any drugs or electric shocks. In fact, asystole is one of the conditions required for the certification of a patient’s death.

Another related example of a (potentially fatal) misrepresentation of medicine in the media is the adrenaline injection. As mentioned before, this is the treatment for asystole. However, it is administered intravenously (into a vein) and never directly into the heart as in Pulp Fiction. This is more likely to kill the patient than save them, as the heart muscles could be damaged and delicate coronary arteries may become ruptured.

So why is it that the media continues to depict such blatant errors, that set a “common sense” that affect even medical professionals? This is most likely due to the audience wanting to see a dramatic scene, in a gripping life-or-death situation with drastic, powerful action. For example, the audience would much rather see the use of paddles or a giant needle being stabbed into the patient than seeing continuous CPR with no showy movements.

The next time you watch a medical television show, count how many times the doctors try to defibrillate a flatline.