Liam Farrell: How quickly patients forget

The out-of-hours co-op has transformed my life, but I admit I had mixed feelings at the time (OK, not that mixed, 99.9 per cent in favour, 0.1 per cent reservations).

My patients would miss me, I thought; someone they were familiar with, who understood their foibles and idiosyncrasies, someone they had grown to trust and considered almost a part of the family, like an idiot uncle. It's nice to be needed.

Unfortunately, my patients got along well without me, thanks very much; any jobsworth with a stethoscope was good enough for them, even if the doctor didn't know their seed, breed and generation.

I should have realised how quickly we can be forgotten, as an early experience in general practice might have informed me; we are but brief players on someone else's stage, mere birds of passage who flutter around for a while before exiting, leaving only a few smears of guano to be remembered by.

Keen and green, I'd been visiting Mrs Magee regularly during the autumn as she lurched from one revolting bowel complaint to another. When her condition eventually resolved, she was sad to see me go.

'You'll come back to visit me, won't you?' she said, raising a meat cleaver in a mildly threatening manner. 'Just for a wee cup of tea and a chat.'

I was looking forward to it, I assured her, as I bolted for the car.

It did give me a warm fuzzy feeling, though, all part of being a family doctor, not just a technician but a valued friend, at the very heart of the community. But I'm a busy man, and I'd totally forgotten about it by the time of the annual Christmas party for the elderly, which usually turns into an orgy of gargantuan proportions.

The local GPs were expected to attend, for pastoral reasons, and my senior colleague advised me to check in early before the vodka really started to flow.

By this time, my faith in the heart-of-the-community shite had started to fade but when I arrived, I saw Mrs Magee sitting amid a huddle of cackling grannies and I belatedly remembered my promise.

'Merry Christmas, Mrs Magee,' I said, forcing my way through the coven. 'Don't worry, I'll be around for my cup of tea soon.'

She looked at me as if I was trying to sell her insurance. 'I've never seen you before in my life,' she said.

Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh. Email him at GPcolumnists@haymarket.com

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