NHS staff – from GPs to nurses, surgeons to pharmacists – have shown incredible resilience throughout the pandemic.
But while we have heard heartbreaking stories from Covid sufferers and their families, there can be a lighter side to working in medicine too.
Here, in an exclusive extract from his new book The Secret Doctor, GP Max Skittle recalls some of the funniest and most touching moments from his time working at an inner-city surgery.
Friday, 8th June 2018
I’ve an enormous Friday feeling. It’s 1pm and I’m on a half-day today.
One last patient to see and then I’m back home to my wife Alice and the bump. I truly am motoring. Clinical paperwork, done. Emails, read (and selectively ignored). Blood results, checked and actioned.
I look at my jobs list and even that’s clear. In this moment, I feel like a capable GP.
I close my eyes and hold on to it all for a few golden seconds, packing it away safely in my memory bank for a rainy day.
With the wind in my clinical sails, I greet Duncan, a nasally well-endowed 23-year-old.
As he places a matchbox next to my keyboard, a small alarm bell rings (a sort of evolved GP Spider-Man sense of the Peter Parker variety) that this is a bit weird.
From then on it all happens in slow motion.
I sit there, listening to Duncan, but already mentally checking out and on my way home to watch Love Island on catch-up with Alice, as he tells me he thinks he’s got bed bugs, but wasn’t sure. I nod – again in slow motion – still listening, but not quite putting together the s**t-storm coalescing in front of my eyes.
Before my brain catches up with Duncan’s explanation of how, since he wasn’t sure, he thought he’d bring one in that he caught, he slides open the matchbox.
If I inhaled any faster, the now-liberated bed bug would’ve been up my nose in a heartbeat.
Despite every fibre of my being wanting to tell Duncan he’s a f***ing idiot, I shut the box, quickly print out a patient information leaflet on bed bug eradication and delicately instruct him to burn the box and its contents and never to bring a suspected bed bug into my clinic room again.
Ever. I think I’ve hurt his feelings so I finish off by commending him for catching the little bugger.
I’m in two minds whether to tell Alice when I get home – may find myself sleeping in the spare room.
Saturday, 9th June
Woke up itching (not in the spare room). Thanks, Duncan!
Tuesday, 26th June
Mr Toska is 62 years old – and a total rock ’n’ roller. As he swaggers in, smelling of expensive aftershave, sex, and stale cigar smoke, I immediately remember why I like him – he reminds me of some guy straight off an aftershave ad campaign on television.
Here for the results of his recent NHS general health check, he wants me to tell him that he’s not likely to have a massive heart attack and drop dead. Sorry, mate, you’re in for some disappointing news.
Mr Toska smokes like a chimney, drinks like a (big) fish, has high blood pressure and thinks exercise is for the snowdrop (I think he means snowflake) generation. When you add in his high cholesterol – despite protesting he eats healthily, which is clearly an exuberant fabrication in light of his clinical obesity – his risk of cardiovascular disease (for example, a heart attack or a stroke) is positively celestial.
I explain all this and tell him he should consider changing his lifestyle and commencing a cholesterol-lowering statin (although that particular advice will all change in the next ten years, I’m sure) if he wants to live longer.
Mr Toska looks at me and tells me he doesn’t want to do any of that stuff – he has a great life. Oh, and by the way, he wants some Viagra as he’s got a new girlfriend – who’s 43 years old and I quote, “has a high sex drive”.
I daren’t probe further, despite my morbid curiosity (which you can’t help but develop with the job). Anyway, now he’s definitely going to have a heart attack.
Despite my concerns and forceful advice, he leaves no different to when he came, seemingly about to sh*g his way into an early grave.
Like I said, total rock’n’roller.
Tuesday, 9th October
No words in the English language can capture what I’m seeing. My jaw hangs slack, a little more than probably professionally acceptable, as my eyes absorb the flat of 70-year-olds Mr and Mrs Leigh. At first pass I count 16 dreamcatchers hanging from the ceiling.
I stop counting the dreamcatchers for now as my eyes consume the framed photographs on the wall: Barack and Michelle Obama (at his inauguration), seven Alsatians (all individually framed), Cilla Black, and my favourite, Will Smith as the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Mind-blown, I’m speechless, lost in the wonder of their world. I’m not even sure the fact I can’t remember why I’m here even matters now. I put my medical bag down and sit on their sofa – next to about 15 boxes of singing garden gnomes (batteries thankfully not included).
Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post)
I get out a printed summary of Mrs Leigh’s medical notes, trying to bury my excitement at this wonderland and suppress all the many, many questions I have and be more GP-like.
I’m here for her first diabetic review (most long-term health conditions have some kind of annual check-up scheduled by the GP).
She’s received this recent diagnosis of type 2 diabetes mellitus, picked up on a set of annual blood tests by the district nurses.
Mr and Mrs Leigh sit in front of me, taking in the information about what diabetes is, how it can occur, what the treatment will entail, and what an annual review – like the one today – involves.
“Do you like Home and Away, Max?”
I’m already on first-name terms.
Bloody love that. There’s something about these two that really makes me want them to like me. Slightly blindsided by the question, I explain, while trying to professionally complete her diabetes checks, that while I don’t get a lot of time to watch it (given the fact I’m no longer 15 years old, have a job, and moved out of the 1990s), I’m sure it’s still great.
Nbc/Stuffed Dog/Quincy Jones Ent/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)
Fighting the urge, I stop short of telling them I’m sure I could probably still sing its theme tune.
God, I want to impress them.
Mr Leigh reappears as I pack up my bag, the diabetes review testing now complete.
He has a photo for me of their wedding day from 50 years ago.
I’m really touched, if not slightly confused as to why he has this handy for such an occasion.
I listen with a warm sense of happiness for them as they speak about it with such reminiscent love.
A wave of pessimism sweeps over me – sh**, am I being groomed? It’ll be sweets in the bedroom next. I bat it away (putting it down to lunchtime hunger) and accept the photograph graciously, not quite sure what else to do.
I wonder what Alice will say? Maybe not one for the family photo wall. Still, a caring gesture nonetheless. And with that, I say goodbye, leaving the Leighs’ wonderland.
I really do hope to come back soon, this being one of the most fascinating home visits. EVER.
One thing’s for sure, these two need their own television show – I even know a theme tune for it . . .
Wednesday, 19th December
I couldn’t have ironed a shirt that well if I had all day. Let alone, square a tie off that neatly and pair it perfectly with a buttoned-up blazer. Also, I don’t think I can stand up that straight. As I hover in Mr Cheema’s living room, I’m acutely aware that my shirt’s creased, definitely not tucked in at the back, and my trousers (yet again) are covered in my son William’s regurgitated milk from this morning’s feeding frenzy.
I also find myself straining to stand up straighter, aware of my comparably inadequate posture. Mr Cheema’s incredible: he walks over and shakes my hand, eyes evidently still full of twinkle. He invites me to sit, and I do so in silence, a little stunned by the amount of life in this man.
At one hundred years – “and two weeks” (he adds, exuberantly) – he looks 40 years his junior.
I wasn’t expecting to find the answer to eternal youth on today’s home visit.
“What’s your secret?” I have to ask as we sit here, imagining all the changes that he’s lived through in this world.
“Being kind and happy,” he says without hesitation, not a beat missed.
A little disappointed at the intangibility of his answer, I probe for anything else more tangible – like cheese. Or holidays to Bali.
Sadly, he says that’s it. I make a mental note to remember this. Aware that this afternoon’s clinic is only half an hour away, I get down to business.
Now clinically speaking, there’s not much wrong with Mr Cheema. To be honest, at his age, I’ve also no interest in poking around to find something to sour his remaining years.
This visit is rather a general check-up as we haven’t seen him for a while.
Remarkably, he still lives alone with only one weekly carer doing some odd jobs for him.
I take in how immaculate his compact first-floor flat is, while the blood pressure machine tells me that he still has the blood pressure of a 21-year-old Olympic-level gymnast.
Yet, as with all of us, if you scratch deep enough, you’ll always find something. I can feel the quiet of his life, strange as that sounds.
The flat is a cacophony of newspapers, books, and crosswords.
“Do you see many people?”
Mr Cheema’s veneer didn’t take much scratching. It turns out he is in fact incredibly lonely, and has been for years.
He sees hardly anyone at all, with no family nearby (all largely dead, including his wife some 20 years ago), and a community that he doesn’t really recognise or understand any more.
This upsets me for two reasons: first, this man clearly has so much to give.
Second, we’ve become the kind of non-communicable society that’s perpetuated and fostered loneliness despite being on top of each other in bricks and mortar.
It’s something I’m seeing more and more in the patients I meet.
Yet Mr Cheema’s clearly still up for life – I love that about him.
We can all take a leaf out of this centenarian (and two weeks’) book.
He agrees for me to get in touch with the local Age Concern organisation and some of the other local services that plan social activities like tea and cake mornings (though I do promise him that they do other things a little more exciting too).
Before leaving, I ask him to show me the secret to ironing his shirt so well.
Thankfully, his advice here is a little more tangible than being kind and happy to your shirt.