The essence remains unchanged

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: (Published 18 March 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:691
  1. Helen Ruth Offman, general practitioners
  1. Kupat Cholim Clallit, Bet Shemesh, Israel

    A recent Filler describing the author's childhood in a medical family prompted memories of my own. My parents had a joint practice in Kirkby, an industrial estate near Liverpool once famously described as “the septic tank of the North.” Until I was 11 years old we lived next door to the surgery, which was purpose built although rather unfit for its function.

    A row of heavy filing cabinets separated the receptionists' “office” from the waiting area: this tiny stolen space also doubled as the nurses' treatment room. My mother's room—shared with a desk, examination couch, and a large cupboard full of medical samples, equipment, and lollipops—was so small that she had to move the chair out every time she wanted to leave.

    Several times a week, my father would be called out of surgery to chase the boys stealing lead off the flat roof. Everything that was movable disappeared and my parents were on constant alert for the radios in their cars. The windows were broken so many times that eventually the glass had to be inset with metal bars. And the doors were etched with so much graffiti that they were no longer repainted.

    Despite all this, the surgery still holds some magical memories. I remember pondering many times over the mysterious paraldehyde that was never to be used in a hypodermic syringe. I was fascinated by the instruments, especially the one with the duckbill blades that opened and closed (“What's this for, Daddy?”) and the oversized metal syringe and bowl for washing out ears. There was tubular netting, perfect for tights for my dolls, and masses of notebooks for scribbles and pictures. On birthdays the surgery would be transformed for our parties, the walls hung with streamers and balloons instead of health warnings, trestle tables laden with food and the sticky smell of fresh icing barely concealing the pervasive surgical spirit.

    There were the nurses in their starched blue uniforms, the Easter eggs that arrived for us every year although we were Jewish, and the pride of knowing I was “the doctors' daughter.” “Panel note,” “malingering,” “antenatal clinic,” and “tetanus” were part of the vocabulary of our childhood.

    Most of all, I remember my father sitting in his black chair, eyes closed, listening with intense concentration to his patients.

    My brother and I both entered medical school, where some mysteries were solved and some merely lost their magic, and both of us are now general practitioners. And, although I am now 2000 miles away in a bright modern clinic with computers and a reception area of its own, I think of my father sitting in his black chair, listening, and I know that the essence is unchanged.

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