Unlike many colleagues, I have no tales of being inspired to study medicine by my childhood family doctor, mainly due the fact that I didn’t have one.
Logic tells me those vaccine syringes didn’t plunge themselves, but I honestly have no memory of ever visiting a doctor. My parents opted for the set-and-forget method for the health care of their many children, recklessly ignoring the danger posed to GP income streams.
I’ve met a couple of colleagues who share my doctorless upbringing, but they both had a father who was a GP. Being treated by a parent is frowned upon, but at least they own a script pad.
My mum must have cottoned on that the medical board had no jurisdiction over part-time librarians, because whatever couldn’t be put right with aspirin and poultice would be managed by me lying down in a corner and reading—quietly—until it healed.
Dad was no better. He was a barrister, back in the days when that was a more appreciated skill than being a barista.
He almost took me to a doctor in the summer of ‘78, after I was stung by a bee in our front yard. Instead, mum talked him into a trial of placebo—a trip to the Kew pool.
As I walked barefoot across the hot grass to the pool edge, a second bee flew at me (technically, made a beeline) and stung my other leg! Dad suspected I was crying wolf until I pointed out the golden assassin writhing in its death throes. No, I was merely crying.
My swelling leg finally tipped dad into definitive action—at the pool shop he bought me a Paddle Pop instead of the usual Icypole.
Nope, no doctor for grazes, gastro or gluten tests. I suspect if I’d lost a fingertip they would have sent me out looking for it. “And bring us back the superglue with your good hand.”
Skip forward four decades, and I have become the very thing I had been trying to avoid all my childhood: a GP (no, not a third bee, obviously).
In one of life’s remarkable coincidences, it seems that my children also turned out to be the type whose parents rarely sent them to doctors.
To be fair on their mother, this neglect was paternal in origin. She often raised her eyebrow at my recalcitrance and even, when occasion demanded, raised her ire—this involved two eyebrows, plus sharp movements of the tongue.
I occasionally gave in. I did take one of the kids to the doctor when he lacerated his face under my watch (“The swing was an unpredictable torsional pendulum, yer honour.”)
The only available doctor was my junior registrar, so I oversaw the suturing, but his name was most definitely on the invoice, so it still counts.
Probably the most pressure brought to bear was when our youngest son hadn’t started walking by 21 months. My hand-drawn normal distribution curve had become less reassuring over the months—though I’m still chuffed my wife never spotted my distortion of the horizontal axis.
She started collecting opinions from friends who were teachers and physios and other sensible people, dropping these into dinner table conversation. Get him to a paediatrician. It seemed the whole, slightly underqualified world was against me. If Facebook was a thing, she would have recruited the trolls.
My explanation that my lad was merely a skilled negotiator—convincing his older brothers to ‘fetch’—started to look thin as his second birthday approached.
Then one day he just upped and walked. Attaboy! A month later he ran. Maybe he just didn’t require anything out of reach before then.
I hope my kids don’t have the same neglectful attitude to their own children, not least because we GPs need all the customers we can get these days. It’s fine to avoid doctors like the plague, until there is one.
The new telehealth items are the way to go: the perfect solution for the reluctant parent. On your precious day of carer’s leave, why let the Weet Bix go soggy while seeking a medical opinion?
Pour the milk, Skype the GP and hold your baby up to the camera.
Are they pixelations or a rash? Ah whatever—she’ll be right.
This article was first published in Medical Observer, June 2020