I’m turning into Mr Empathy

I met a retired GP last week who was quite sniffy about his younger colleagues. ‘In my day,’ he wheezed, ‘we looked after our own patients; there were no rotas or co-ops or whatever ye young softeees use to avoid getting your poor little milk-white hands dirty. Aye, we were real men.’

‘Which probably explains,’ I replied, ‘why you are a lonely, sad and, let me be frank, boring old fart, with no family or friends, and by the way, your catheter is leaking.’

As you might surmise from this exchange, I had no sympathy for him.

I worked a one-in-two-night rota for 15 years after starting general practice, after which I was thoroughly burnt-out and had so little empathy left that I could sit through Spencer Tracy’s death scene in Captains Courageous without blubbering. I hated being called out of bed and calling me was as pointless as Tantalus’ mother shouting: ‘Come on son, eat your dinner’.

My only remaining virtues were sarcasm and lust, my only emotions apathy and self-pity, and I was ready to start slaughtering my staff only I wasn’t sure how to hide their still-quivering bodies from the Pigs.

But when the opportunity of joining an out-of-hours co-operative arose, instead of jumping on it like a health insurance company on the occasional perfectly genuine claim, my feelings were curiously equivocal.

Would the patients stand for it? Would there be marching in the streets? Or would they be just quietly hurt and disappointed. He’s not the same calibre as old Doc Jackson, they’d be saying, he doesn’t really care, he’s let us down, after us thinking so much of him and nominating him for that award, The Best Doctor In The World…Ever; there is no joy in Mudville, Mighty Casey has struck out.

There remained a small stubborn part of me which yearned to suckle on the ever-hospitable teat of the 24-hour responsibility, afraid of change, afraid of not being needed, afraid of missing the intimacy, the always knowing what was going on.

In the end, despite my reservations, I joined the co-op and it proved a smart move.

It saved my sanity, allowing me to spend more time with my family, drink more heavily and join an extreme fascist organisation that considers global warming to be a good thing which might get rid of the riff-raff.

I’m also now so chock full of empathy during normal surgery hours that when I say ‘Have a nice day,’ I sometimes — actually and incredibly — mean it. 

Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh.

Email him at GPcolumnists@haymarket.com

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