Liam Farrell: Looking back on the highs and lows of my time in general practice

On the day I retired from practice I remember standing at the door looking back at my surgery one last time.

The room where I had spent so many years of my life, where I had fought the long defeat, always believing that the world could be more than a jungle or a pasture of savage beasts where the strong thrived and the weak were devoured, that I could make things better for someone else, if not always for me.

And over those years I’d made some tragic mistakes, understandable in retrospect, but reason and guilt don’t speak the same language, for there is sorrow baked into the clay and stone of which the world is made.

I’d learned some painful lessons, but in life sometimes the things that are good for you in the long run hurt for a little while when you first get to them. And it had felt good to be needed, no matter how humble the service I provided.

The tatty diplomas on the walls, the chair moulded into the shape of my buttocks; so many memories, some good, some bad, some amusing, some mildly nauseating, there are a million stories in the naked surgery. It was more than just a room, it was a crucible, bearing witness to all, from the worried well to the first cold intimations of mortality.

There, tucked away in the corner, the canary-yellow sharp’s box in which little Charley somehow contrived to get his head stuck (we could tell he was stuck by his screams); how we laughed.

‘Should we get him out?’ said his mother.

‘Only if you want him to live,’ I said. ‘Otherwise it’s optional.’

And, there on the wall, just the slightest smudge on the soothing vomit-green paint, evidence of the time Joe’s sebaceous cyst exploded as he poked at it. This was not a positive development, pungent caseous material cascading all over the room. It hit the walls and ceiling, the computer, the desk, and, in accordance with the universal rules of humour, my Ralph Lauren shirt; it smelt as if a cat had died for weeks afterward, and patients would occasionally faint (so it wasn’t all in vain).

‘For feck’s sake, Joe,’ I said.

'I’m sorry,’ he said, always ready with the repartee, ‘I wasn’t aware there was a protocol.’

I was either happy to leave or sad to go, and one of these was more likely than the other. As Emily Dickinson said, parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell.

‘Let’s get out of here,’ I said to myself.

‘Agreed,’ I replied.

The rest is silence.

  • Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh. Follow him on Twitter @drlfarrell

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