Letter from the vicarage for November


The Good Doctor


I was a general practitioner in a small town; well, it would be called a large village these days. In those times I was the doctor for a defined number of people, none of this seeing a different doctor every time you visit the surgery! I got to know the people in my care, I saw them regularly, I had treated them through a variety of ailments. I knew their partners, their children, their parents. Of course I kept medical notes, but for some I knew their history so well that I didn’t need to look things up every time they presented themselves at my surgery. I was a very popular doctor. I got to socialise with many of my patients. “I have to say doctor, every time I see you I leave the surgery with a smile on my face and a spring in my step!” Needless to say, I was very proud of this. I was a pillar of society.

In the main it was not glamorous work. The bread and butter was a string of common ailments, “Take two aspirin and bed-rest”. “Try and cut down on the falling-over water.” “Your cough is not being helped by your cigarette habit.”

As GP I was a generalist. Symptoms did not always present themselves clearly, sometimes I had to send people for tests. Personally I found this the hardest part of my role, not because I wanted to cling on to my people, but because tests implied something more serious could be afoot and this would lead to the tricky test-result consultation. If the tests were negative it was joy and relief all round, but, if they were positive…if they were positive I dreaded the encounter, I could not sleep the night before, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t bear the thought of…

I remember a young man I got on particularly well with, we played tennis occasionally. His wife was charming, and they had three small children, all boys. His symptoms were vague at first, fatigue, headaches, that sort of thing. A couple of times I sent him away with aspirin, but as I always said to my patients “Make another appointment if the symptoms persist.” Persist they did, and off he was sent to get some tests done.

And now the young man was sat opposite me in my consulting room, worried and pained, looking a decade older than he had only a year before. The books and files at the front of my desk looked like ramparts, and I drew some comfort from this. I held his results using both my hands; I angled them towards me so that he could not see. I began to shake and was worried he would notice. I slid the results under a sheet of paper in his file. He fixed me with his gaze which I found very uncomfortable. Frustrated by my silence he dragged a hand across his grey forehead and said to me “Cut to the chase, Reg.” I was flushed, my heart raced. Had I visibly gone red? I moved my mouth but no words came out. I cleared my throat and took a deep breath. I concentrated hard as I wondered what would a reassuring nod look like?

“Everything’s Hunky Dory, Alan. No need to worry.”

The fear fled from his face. He smiled as he thanked me and shook my hand. I managed a smile too; I was, after all, a good doctor.



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