The Hero

My father was a doctor. In his small town where we lived he was adored. As a boy I saw Dad as a hero, standing against illness, repairing broken bodies, relieving suffering. One morning a grownup came to the front door, his hand wrapped in a bloody towel. His horse had bit his hand. I looked up and I saw the blood dripping. I called Dad, who took the man into the Surgery and closed the door. After a while the man walked out, his hand in a spotless white bandage. Dad had repaired him. Dad, the hero.
Fourteen years later I entered the Oratory Competition at my city school. I spoke about doctors and I called them ‘society’s noblest sons.’ My father read my speech and said, ‘Darling, I’m afraid that’s not true. Doctors aren’t so noble.’
I had been reading ‘The Story of San Michele’, the memoir of a Swedish doctor who worked in fin de siecle France. A cholera outbreak in Naples saw the young doctor leave the safety of Paris to work among the Naples poor. In the plague hospital the doctor worked alongside a nurse. The nurse was young, beautiful, a nun. With death all about them, the two young people felt the call of their vital flesh. I read the old doctor’s account, modest, intense and arousing. I saw the two walking with eyes open, day after day, into the valley of death. How could I not see them as heroes? I did not alter those words. My speech convinced the judges and I won the contest.
Today the plague rages about us. At the outset, before contagion struck down the many, the principal of my clinic offered to release from duty any clinician who feared catching the virus. I felt shocked. We had worked through AIDS, when any pinprick might mean death. (I did in fact suffer a needlestick injury at the hands of one of my infected patients.) We had worked though the Swine Flu and through SARS. That was our job, our calling. How could I leave and sit it out at home?
Today I sit at home. I have closed the door, closed myself and my wife in, closed the world out. I feel like Noah might have, as, closed in his Ark, he saw the waters rise upon those locked out.
Meanwhile my younger colleagues work on. They all have spouses, aged parents, small children, whom they might infect. With eyes open they work on.
Friends and relatives send me emails, congratulating me, thanking me, for taking good care of myself. My children thank me. Each letter, every approbation for my prudent (read, ‘cowardly’) retreat heaps burning coals upon my head. Praise appals when you know it to be false. No hero, I know heroes when I see them. If in these days of plague, you consult a doctor, if you are treated by a nurse, you will know them too.

15 thoughts on “The Hero

  1. I understand your frustration at feeling you have (temporarily) abandoned your vocation, BUT you know (as we do, here also in isolation) that there is a high probability that you could become a burden rather than a help to your colleagues and a danger to your family and patients. I know you know this very well and it doesn’t make it easier for you to watch friends and colleagues fighting from afar but, as many have commented already, you are needed long-term and you will actually be relieving anxiety in patients and family. All the best!

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    • Yep,HG. All true and wise.

      What do you see when you look out in Britain?

      Your nation must be in shock.
      This is Battle of Britain stuff once again. And so far, no RAF.

      I hope you are safe in your shelter. I hope you are writing and cooking and creating: carrying on.

      With affection,

      Howard

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  2. You deserve to stay indoors Howard. You are of pure service which is why this must be different for you. But the world is different for us all now. Just keep writing for us, you’ve inspired me to start my blog. First upload will be tomorrow. Take care

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    • Wow, Tracy!

      You’ve
      Always been creative, original, no dull replica of anyone or anything.

      You’ve passed through pain and transmuted it to beauty.

      Your photo of a large spheroid always pregnant abdomen sits above me in my (for now, abandoned) consulting room.
      I sit below, with hope and growth and futurist above me. Your work, Tracy. It greets all who enter, reminding them of the peace of the womb.

      Let’s see in your blog, what your mind gives birth to.

      Goodest luck!

      Love

      Howard

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  3. What you are doing is prudent and responsible. You will be there to care for people after the virus has been tamed. Your practice will be grateful to call on your experience and wisdom in due course. Lend a sense of optimism and remind them all that this will pass. A voice of calm is sometimes an important source of support and consolation in times such as these.

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    • Prudent and responsible are concepts like porridge, Andrew.

      They are solid, dull, nourishing, vital actually. But where’s the romance, where’s the poetry?

      This phase is prose. The days will come when the prosaic gives way to the magic of being in the world.

      Thank you for bringing life into this virtual world, Andrew.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Howard, over these past 50 years your compassion, empathy and care for the countless number of your patients (and friends) has so enriched our/their lives. Stay safe at home so that one day soon you can return to continue your work of bringing hope, healing and humour into a world which will be so desperately in need of you.

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    • Hello Pat

      A delayed response to your quick flow of kindness.

      “Hope, healing and humour” – a good prescription for a world, for a planet troubled, for the billions of human people, every one of them a whole human, every individual a whole world.

      I see you in my mind, alone by the sea, I see you in your garden creating fresh growth and green, I see you as an island, cut off, far from us (we planned to invite you for a Passover meal),
      I see you always dignified, brave, enduring. And kind, always kind.

      When you write I feel known . The opposite of alone.

      And in truth I’m never alone: this accursed virus has flung me into honeymoon isolation with Annette, which is how I began, and which I’m better able than ever to appreciate and relish.

      We don’t last forever and daily I give thanks that my boldness is shared with bride of my newness.

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  5. Very moving Howard. You’re being hard on yourself, which I understand. However, considering this virus has a huge affect on us senior people, we have to accept the help of our younger ones. Your mind knows this, even though your heart is of two minds. You’ll always be a hero to me, as a doctor and compassionate human being, and the way you live your life. Don’t feel guilty for laying low, your family and friends want you to be safe. Love Janette

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    • Janette

      I’ve delayed my response to your words of love.

      Their warmth calls for equal warmth in reply.

      But those words are coals of fire to me as I wrestle with this change.

      I hoped a reader would walk away with the message about the doctors and nurses who, knowing better than others the daily hazards of working, keep doing it.

      As ever my post focussed on HG, whom I generally like and whom I generally find interesting, but here he was unable to dodge his own limelight.

      But your letter grounded me.

      Thank you Janette from Ulverstone.

      HgG from Leeton

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  6. Helping others must by now be as natural to you as breathing. You’ve done enough over your doctoring lifetime to hang your hat on. You’ve got thousands of grateful patients who, if not for you, may have had a very different kind of life. It’s time to take care of yourself. If you don’t you may not get back to helping others. Continue writing. Your posts bring joy, laughter, inspiration and insight. You’re still helping others. Take care of yourself.

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    • Leonie

      This is a cheering thing to read.
      The notion that these musings and little tales bring pleasure to another person, whom I cannot see; the idea that someone is cheered or encouraged, is unexpected, miraculous.

      Your little note itself brings encouragement.

      Thank you LZ

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  7. I thank you Howard. You consulted with me recently and your words of comfort have been a hero to me in difficult times. Please take care of yourself.

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    • That’s comforting to read.
      Thank you for writing this.
      The only consulting open to me in these novel times is electronic.
      Telehealth is half of a good idea: we speak and we hear each other, we see each other, but we can’t press flesh.

      It’s an important bridge of trust between two persons when we venture to touch.

      My grandson won’t run with me. He says Saba, I can’t bear it. When we run we’re always touching and holding. It hurts me to keep far when we should be close.

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