When the German poet Friedrich Schiller finished his drama "Wilhelm Tell," he had no idea that it would become the Swiss national drama. Interlaken, in the heart of Switzerland, is the place where Schiller's "Tell" has been performed 20 times annually for the last 84 years, on a splendid natural stage with platform seating for about 2,000 spectators. The actors are enthusiastic amateurs, and about 20 horses and a large cast of cows and goats take part as well.
A few years ago, I suffered from stress and stage fright just before the opening scene when I was to appear as William Tell for the first time that season. As I readied for my appearance, a first aid layman ran up to me and cried, "Doctor, come immediately, a young lady spectator is dying." William Tell knew that he had to be on stage in three or four minutes and suggested calling the emergency doctor.
Despite my protestations, one minute later the head of the first aid team dragged me to the emergency room, crying that the woman would die without me. Duty called--my profession is more important than the role I was to play. A young newlywed from New Zealand was lying on the stretcher, blue from asphyxia, apneic and deeply comatose. I put down my crossbow and began cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). I heard the cattle passing with their large and loud cowbells . . . two minutes left and I was due on stage. While performing CPR, I wondered who could continue for me. I thought of another general practitioner in the cast: "Call Doctor B. immediately!"
My colleague was playing the part of a priest and was already dressed in his costume, complete with the crucifix in one hand. When he entered the emergency room the patient's husband collapsed and groaned, "No priest, no priest!" The "priest" continued with CPR and some seconds later I was on stage, not as a doctor but as William Tell with my crossbow, ready to speak my first lines.
The performance was saved and so were the patient and her husband. After spending two days in the intensive care unit, she was discharged from the hospital and was able to carry on with her honeymoon.
William Tell was not a politician, but he was always ready to help when the community needed him. Similarities between general practitioners and William Tell are purely coincidental.
Excerpt adapted from "Patients and Doctors: Life-Changing Stories from Primary Care," copyright 1999. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.