Blue lights and all: the paradox at the heart of being a doctor

This week, life as a general practitioner has been a little too exciting for my liking, and far too eventful for my patients- young and old- around whom this unnecessary and unwelcome excitement has centred. Twice in as many days I’ve had to call, in the middle of a surgery, for an ambulance, and to answer yes to the question of whether I want it to be an all dancing all singing blue lights flashing affair.

Working in an area with a large population of young children, and where the older population is, mostly, stoically resigned to the ill-health a hard life all too often entails, barely a day passes without someone apologising for being less ill than they’d thought. The implication being that they’ve somehow wasted my time by booking an appointment. In the case of older patients I’ve learnt to accept this as a charming if sometimes self-harming attitude that means they all too often ask for less than they need or deserve. In the case of babies and toddlers I remain genuinely grateful every time a child that is causing a parent great concern turns out to be far less unwell than initially feared and I  have the happy task of letting the parents know this good news.

Because, and as every doctor knows, whilst it’s our job to diagnose and treat and, occasionally, to make a dramatic and life-saving intervention, we’d all be a lot happier if serious diseases and crises were to become a thing of the past and no one was ever really ill enough to need us that much. Unfortunately, life’s not like that. As I reflect on the events of this week, unable to put aside my worries about these two patients, I am reminded, once more, of one of the great paradoxes at the heart of what it means to be a doctor, or at least of being a GP: that whilst we spend years working in secondary and tertiary centres, proudly acquiring the experience and skills  to recognise and cope with a crisis, most of us secretly pray we’ll never need to use those skills. We pray that we’ll never be faced with a grey baby lapsing in and out of consciousness, that we’ll never need to give the mother the news that, this time, we can’t reassure but instead need to draw on all the help available.  Now.  Immediately.  Blue lights and all.

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