By Paula Matthews
In the 21st century, when a ‘one size fits all’ policy permeates every aspect of our daily lives from clothing through to our general practitioners, I cannot help but hark back to a gentler more caring time in Ireland when the family doctor was an integral part of our lives.
There were no computers or fancy G.P. surgeries in the 1950s; most doctors worked out of their family home, but the care they gave and the solace they brought in times of difficulty was legendary. Not only did they give medical advice and dispense remedies, they could also be called upon to write references for people who needed someone to speak up for them.
When I was seven, our elderly general practitioner, Dr O’Gorman, who had served the town’s people well for many years, died after a long battle with cancer. I remember my mother taking me with her to his funeral as thousands of people – many of whom had been delivered by him – lined the Main Street of our small town to say good-bye to a much loved professional.
He was not just our doctor but a man who had been a friend to most of the families in our town. People spoke in hushed tones of the great loss they felt at his passing and doubted if he could ever be replaced. Many cried openly as the cortege slowly passed by.
Dr O’Gorman’s replacement, Dr McEvoy, arrived shortly after and took up his post as one of only two general practitioner in our small town. A stocky, dark-haired, shy man in his late thirties with a receding hair-line and grey eyes, Dr McEvoy kept his fountain pen in the breast pocket of his well-worn navy pin-striped suit ready for use at all times. His black leather brief case was scuffed with age showing all the signs of the hardworking doctor he was.
I came to know Dr McEvoy through my grandmother who was bed-ridden for six weeks because of a clot in her leg. Well into her seventies, granny was an elegant woman who was always very well groomed even when ill.
My unmarried aunt lived with my grandmother but when she was at work, I would stay with granny to keep her company. I was given instructions to “let the doctor in” when he called and to make granny cups of tea.
It was a cold dull damp winter’s day when I first opened the door to Dr McEvoy. As a shy 9-year-old I was in awe of this shy self-effacing GP who had by now earned a very good reputation in our town. I took him upstairs to granny’s bedroom where she was propped up on snow-white pillows in her large double bed, her long grey hair swept away from her face in a chignon.
I can still remember the doctor’s kindness to granny as he examined her right lower leg. In those days children were not asked to leave the room while the patient was undergoing a basic examination.
Like most people of her generation, granny wanted to be up and about and ‘going about her business’ but Dr McEvoy gently explained to her the importance of remaining quietly in bed. The clot could move, he told her, and go straight to her heart. He assured her that he would call in regularly to monitor her progress and that he wouldn’t keep her in bed a day longer than she needed to be.
He didn’t talk down to her, or rush her, but sat on a chair beside her bed talking to her in an avuncular fashion when the examination was over.
At the age of 18, I switched over from our family doctor to Dr McEvoy where I remained until I left home a couple of years later. I can still remember his quiet gentle manner which helped to soothe patient fears. He was the type of doctor one trusted implicitly.
Dr McEvoy married late in life and had two sons. His wife, who had been a sister in a city hospital, was ideally suited to him, as she often helped him in the practice. The back window of the surgery overlooked their beautiful garden and in summer the fragrance of flowers wafted in through the open surgery windows.
Vases of cut flowers stood on the walnut table in the waiting room throughout the year.
Since those far off days of the Fifties, medicine has progressed way beyond all our expectations but sadly the doctor-patient relationship has become a casualty of that progress.
Patients no longer have a personal GP but are seen by a group of ‘practice doctors’ on a ‘who’s available’ basis. As a result, many patients today are hurried along or met with clinical indifference.