This post is part of our new series, The Ethnographic Case.
One doctor, seven medical students and an anthropologist crowd into the patient’s very small hospital room. The doctor places his briefcase next to the bed, introduces himself to the patient and turns to his students. Whose turn to do a respiratory examination? Mumbling, shuffling, staring at shoes but soon a volunteer. First inspection, palpation and then the tricky techniques of percussion and auscultation; that is, tapping out body sounds one finger on another, and listening to the patient’s breathing through a stethoscope. The student isn’t sure if he is finding a dull note when he percusses one part of the patient’s back, as she hunches awkwardly forward in her cotton gown. The other students are watching and sneaking a few taps on their own chests, practicing their swing. How to tell if the note is dull? The doctor teaches the students a trick, while the patient looks on, listening in to the lesson too. The students should tap their own thighs, for that is a dull sound and a dull feel. You always have yourself as a gold standard, he tells them; use this! Excuse yourself to the toilet if you have to, tap away and remember that sensation.
I observed many instances of self-percussion during my fieldwork researching how listening to sounds is learned, taught and practiced in a Melbourne medical school and it’s connected teaching hospital. The students were sounding out their own bodies; practicing the technique while also feeling “dull” or “resonant” on their own body.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.