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Words by Geoff Shearer

A stalwart journalist for News Ltd for 20 years and a former TV Week Features Editor, Geoff Shearer is one the country's most admired arts and entertainment writers. He's taken a step into semi-retirement to concentrate on his fiction writing, while relishing the chance to share his unique take on life with My Halcyon Days' readers.

“Who you calling an asystole?”

Look it up if you need to, but it means flatline. Which is kind of where that pun went. You know, when the machine beside the hospital bed on Grey’s Anatomy goes from “blip … blip” to “bbbrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr”.

Anyway, that was the pun running through my head as I lay on a trolley, connected up to all sorts of medical machines for a routine angiogram recently, hoping I wouldn’t make an asystole of myself.  

It also got me thinking about those machines, which we kind of take for granted nowadays, and how we were actually fearful of things like ECGs, EEGs, MRIs, when they started flooding hospitals in the 1970s-1980s.

Jefferson Airplane stalwart Grace Slick questioned them in All the Machines, a single she released in 1984. “Doctor goes into a room with a four-foot metal box; He pushes one of its buttons and listens to it talk,” she sings, “Fourteen years in medical school and the machines are doing his job. All the doctors listen to what the machines have to say. All the machines say I’m OK.”

The inference is that she’s not feeling OK but the doctors are listening to their machines rather than her. It’s a genuine fear that some people have to any advancement in technology – that it will somehow lead to the loss of all human contact. Only a year earlier in 1983, the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life, addressed it in the now famous “the machine that goes ‘ping’” skit.

Worried that the theatre room in which a woman is about to give birth is “a bit bare in here today”, the doctor orders a nurse to bring in as much expensive apparatus as possible, including the machine that goes ‘ping’.

Being a Python fan, I was tempted to flip myself over, face down, as the medics left the room and back again before they returned, once the scan had been taken and I was gliding out of the imaging tunnel.

Could you imagine them looking at the scan, going: “Gosh this guy’s heart has slipped behind his spine.” Which begs the question – who would they believe, their machine or the patient lying there in front of them? If you’re from Slick’s school of thought I’d be raced straight up to the operating theatre quicker than you could say “ping”.

And just like that Python skit, nearly four decades later, I’d be the woman in the throes of childbirth on a hospital trolley, asking: “What do I do?” And the obstetrician, dripping with that rigid arrogance that John Cleese does so well, would scowl at me and mutter: “Nothing, dear. You’re not qualified!”

Asystole.