Liam Farrell: The best lesson is not always out of a textbook

My intern post involved a rotation, the first six months in my teaching hospital, then a second six months out in the sticks.

In the teaching hospital, interns were treated like dogs and were strictly at the bottom of the pecking order, below student nurses, assistant social workers, porters, janitors, clinical photographers, men who cleaned the toilets, clinical photographers; there was nobody who couldn't kick us around and enjoy doing it.

Then suddenly I was transported to rural Ireland, where there was just me and a consultant, a nice doddery old gent strolling towards retirement. He was absent most of the time, apart from the occasional ward round, where he would stand at the end of the bed, looking faintly puzzled, before murmuring 'not much we can do here'.

When leaving for the day, usually in the late morning or early afternoon, he would pat me on the shoulder and said 'don't be afraid to call me, at any time', in a kindly, reassuring tone. But the subliminal message was quite different: 'Don't call me,' it went, 'even if the local orphanage goes up in a nuclear explosion.'

So, with one bound, suddenly I was the man, the top banana - and nurses, phlebotomists and radiographers jumped at my every call. 'How high, master?' was their only question. 'Try harder,' I would reply.

It was a heady, intoxicating experience. I remember doing procedures at night in the ICU, in front of an awestruck audience of nurse and relatives, procedures which in a normal society would have been considered GBH, aided only by The House Physician's Handbook, which was small enough to be surreptitiously consulted. Our years as junior doctors were supposed to be a learning experience, and I learned those lessons well.

House calls to Joe, though short, were never pleasant, largely due to his doubtful personal hygiene. They only took about 60 seconds, but it was a minute longer than you'd care to spend there, just long enough to hear his latest trivial complaint and check that nothing was seriously wrong, apart from unrelenting indolence and rampant hypochondria.

Not much I can do here, I thought, and then, aloud, in a kindly, reassuring tone: 'Don't be afraid to call me, at any time.'

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