Asking the Right Question


         Asking  the right  question  can make  a personal interaction  into a memorable event.  Three examples follow:

Loyal Communists

        The Minister of Health of Czechoslovakia was unexpectedly visiting Nangrahar University Medical School in Jalalabad, Afghanistan where we were visiting faculty.  A luncheon for the entourage was hastily arranged at the Speen Gar Hotel (Speen Gar is Pashtu for snowy mountain). My wife, Mary Frantz, MD, myself and an Afghan physician were seated with the Deputy Minister of Health of Czechoslovakia.  This was 1969 when the Communists were in charge in that country.

     The Afghan physician asked all the questions that Mary and I were too polite to ask.  After numerous replies to his questions had demonstrated that the Deputy Minister was a very reasonable and interesting person, came the home-run question, “How does someone like you get to be Deputy Minister of Health of Czechoslovakia?”  Her verbatim reply: “They just don’t have enough loyal Communists to fill all the slots.”  Needless to say it was obvious that the Speen Gar Hotel could not have been bugged on such short notice for this impromptu event.


A Run-in with the Athletic Department

       I met a former president of a state university on an Elderhostel hiking trip in Patagonia.  At one point I asked him, “Do you suppose there is any president of a public university in the United States who never had a run-in with the athletic department?”  A yes or no question, but he replied:

       “Let me tell you a story.  I found out on Thursday evening before the homecoming football game that the star fullback had not been to class all fall.  So I scheduled a meeting for Monday with all those who must have known and did not tell me. I fired the lot of them except for the coach who had tenure, but that did not mean that he had to be retained as coach.  The next day the headline came in the newspaper ‘THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSITY IS STILL IN CHARGE’.”

       From this story I learned that one should stay calm and choose one’s battles.  The key point was waiting until Monday and not unnecessarily spoiling the big alumni weekend.  Sometimes when I am having a bad day, I worry about missing an opportunity to ask an appropriately (im)pertinent question.

The Buck Stops Here

       During our two years in Afghanistan we generally stopped to meet our physician colleagues in the areas we visited.  The Afghan physician in charge at a remote province had a sign on his desk: THE BUCK STOPS HERE.  This had to be the Harry Truman quote from a placard on the Oval Office desk, but how had this physician who had never been out of the country happen to have it on his desk?  So I asked that question.

       It turned out that the physician had been very impressed with Harry Truman when he was asked for military assistance and training for Afghanistan by the Afghan Ambassador, our president had replied, “It would be better for world peace if you ask the Russians.”  This event made the news in Afghanistan but not in the United States apparently---presumably no reporters were present.  I was very glad that I had asked about the placard on the desk.

       All of this reminds me of Harry Truman’s statement, “It is remarkable what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”  


John A. Frantz, MD

June 15, 2005