An acquaintance renewed

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 02 November 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:1135
  1. Peter Rubin,
  2. Geoffrey Phillips

    Our doctor was away and it was the locum who came. The first I can remember was when I got to hospital, the argument going on above my head: mum to one side, a nurse on the other, and the 4 year old that I was lying on a hospital trolley. I remember being carried back into the ambulance: the curved rear doors and the street lights of the Cornish town seen through dark windows as we drove home. But my most vivid memories are of the steam from the kettle which boiled seemingly all night in my room, my parents sitting by the bed and the doctor who through the night appeared out of the steam to see me. The argument centred on whether my mother could stay with me in the hospital where I had been taken with pneumonia. Medical and nursing practice in the early 1950s had hardly recognised what we now take for granted: there was no question of my mother staying. There was equally no chance of my mother leaving her only child in the care of hospital staff, so home we went.

    Forty years later I was back in Cornwall, a professor giving a postgraduate lecture to general practitioners. During the coffee break an older member of the audience approached me and I waited for the question about how what I had been saying related specifically to one of his patients. But not this time. “Did I hear correctly that you come from Redruth?”

    Confirmation brought the most unexpected of questions: “Were you the little boy whose mother wouldn't let him stay in the hospital?” It transpired that the newly qualified doctor had been doing a brief locum for our general practitioner. He had never discovered what happened to me, but having just looked after another young child with similar symptoms who had died he feared the worst. My astonishment at the accuracy of his memory was matched by his pleasure at seeing that the young patient over whom he had worried that night all those years before had not only survived but gone on into medicine. As he said, we had first met at the very beginning of his career and it was somehow fitting that we should renew our acquaintance towards its end.—PETER RUBIN is chairman of medicine at the University of Nottingham; GEOFFREY PHILLIPS of St Austell is the man with the memory

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