Baby listenerIt was about 3.5 years ago, I still had a few months before my son was born, and I wanted to listen to him, maybe catch a few heartbeats while he was moving in his mother’s womb. I had a simple plan. I visited a medical store in Antwerp’s Brederodestraat and started to look for a stethoscope. The following dialog took place between me and one of the saleswomen:

– Hello, may I help you?

– Yes, I want a stethoscope please.

– Which type?

– (Not prepared for the question and startled) Well, it doesn’t matter, you know.

– Hmm, are you a doctor?

– No.

– A medical intern?

– No.

– Then why do you want a stethoscope? What will you do with it?

– I just want to hear the sounds my child makes. He’s not born yet. Why don’t you just sell me a stethoscope?

The saleswoman started to smile at my excited enthusiasm and the dialogue continued:

– Well, then I will not give you a stethoscope. But I will give you something else, much more suited to the task you’ve just described.

– (Looking at the wooden stuff and disappointed) Hmm, are you sure? This doesn’t look… very sophisticated to say the least.

– Sir, believe me, this is used for listening to babies, just place this end on your wife’s stomach gently and put your ear on the other hand. A stethoscope will not do any better.

– OK, I trust you, I’ll buy this one (still not looking very satisfied). Anyway, how much is a stethoscope?

– Sir, our  cheapest models start around 100€ and go up.

– Oh, okay, thank you… Yeah, I’m not a doctor.

I bought the wooden thing she gave me, I don’t remember the price exactly but it was less than 10€. I came home, described the events to my wife and started to experiment with the wooden instrument whose name I didn’t know. It didn’t produce crystal clear sounds but it was better than trying to listen to my son directly. Nevertheless, I still had my doubts.

A few months passed and we were at the University Hospital of Antwerp (UZA), in the big room where my wife was preparing to give birth to our son in a few minutes. Observing the room, I’ve realized something on one of the shelves. It was a wooden tool, very similar to the one I’ve bought a few months ago! It might not be the most sophisticated instrument, but apparently it was good enough to have a place in the birth room of a university hospital. Having seen that, I really wanted to know more about this tool, especially its name, and other details about it, but when you’re standing in the birth room with your wife about to push for your first child, intellectual curiosities rush to the bottom of the list of priorities quickly.

This is the story of my first encounter with Pinard horn, a tool named after  Dr. Adolphe Pinard, who would probably smile at my initial reactions and ignorance, and he’d be right. I’m happy to have learned about Dr. Pinnard’s invention and to see that it’s still practically used after about 200 years. It also strikes me that doctors from USA has a somewhat similar reaction to mine, though they don’t share my ignorance in these matters: “Pinard horns are the most common fetal stethoscopes in much of Europe, even today, which surprises some doctors from the United States, where a Doppler ultrasound is standard. It is still considered a practical device. It provides a safe alternative to more expensive and risky technology, such as the Doppler ultrasound procedure.”

Maybe I will tell this story to my son one day. Or maybe I’ll tell him to read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance“, and think about these matters when he comes across the following part from the book:

 “You’re going to have to shim those out,” I said. “What’s shim?” “It’s a thin, flat strip of metal. You just slip it around the handlebar under the collar there and it will open up the collar to where you can tighten it again.” “Oh”, he said. He was getting interested. “Good. Where do you buy them?” “I’ve got some right here,” I said, gleefully holding up a can of beer in my hand. He didn’t understand for a moment. Then he said, “What, the can?” “Sure,” I said, “best shim stock in the world.” I thought this was pretty clever myself. Save him a trip to God knows where to get shim stock. Save him time. Save him money. But to my surprise he didn’t see the cleverness of this at all. In fact he got noticeably haughty about the whole thing. Pretty soon he was dodging and filling with all kinds of excuses and, before I realized what his real attitude was, we had decided not to fix the handlebars after all. As far as I know those handlebars are still loose. And I believe now that he was actually offended at the time. I had had the nerve to propose repair of his new eighteen-hundred dollar BMW, the pride of a half-century of German mechanical finesse, with a piece of old beer can! Ach, du lieber!

… any true German mechanic, with a half-century of mechanical finesse behind him, would have concluded that this particular solution to this particular technical problem was perfect.  For a while I thought what I should have done was sneak over to the workbench, cut a shim from the beer can, remove the printing and then come back and tell him we were in luck, it was the last one I had, specially imported from Germany. That would have done it. A special shim from the private stock of Baron Alfred Krupp, who had to sell it at a great sacrifice. Then he would have gone gaga over it.

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