Good riddance to the old days

I have been summarising charts for the past few weeks. Boy, the old docs really loved their tonsillectomies, didn't they, usually with an adenoidectomy as an encore. And then a few years later, came the mandatory appendicectomy. Those were the days when being a general surgeon really meant something; you were the main man, you could have a crack at anything.

There is a certain nostalgic feeling, a certain sense of loss, when reading those dog-eared, faded, old letters from the 1950s, like watching a black-and-white movie on a rainy Sunday afternoon; it seems a kinder, gentler, less complicated time.

We had more certainty then. The kid had abdominal pain and vomiting — there's no need to bother about things like histology because the doctor says it's appendicitis, so let's whip out his appendix and everybody's happy. It's interesting that social disintegration, family break-ups, kids doing drugs and the emergence of health visitors have only become epidemic since we stopped doing these apparently unnecessary procedures.

A coincidence or what?
The charts have a consistent pattern; a flurry of minor childhood infections, the number varying according to the parenting skills, followed by a big gap for the long lustrous spring of adolescence (in those days acne wasn't considered an illness).

The gap is interrupted for women by the pleasant meadows of fertility and child bearing, and while some people are unlucky enough to be struck by early misfortune — asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, rampant hypochondria and attention-seeking — for most of us the chart remains sketchy until we reach our forties.

Then the first pale intimations of mortality start, the first signs that mother nature reckons that we have lived just as long as we were basically designed for and should be giving up our living space to our descendants. 'Old men must die,' said Tennyson, 'else the earth grow mouldy'.

Like dim drums throbbing in the hills half-heard, like a rumble of distant thunder at a summer picnic, minor harbingers of doom begin to appear — hypertension, osteoarthritis — and from then on the entries multiply. Sickness piles on sickness, cancer piles on degenerative disease, piles pile upon piles, like Pelion upon Ossa, as this is one story that will not have a happy ending.

And then you tap ‘Notes summary on computer’ and toss the musty, old file into the drawer and wonder briefly if it will ever see the light of day again. And then you see the next fat and intimidating chart and you think ‘Good riddance’.

Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh. Email him at

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