Warm Skin and Broad Shoulders
For my first twenty years in general practice, I worked in partnership with a famous man who happened also to be a great man. I’d heard of him before we met. His name was Donald Cordner, famed as the sole doctor ever to win a Brownlow Medal in Australian football. I learned you win the Brownlow for being the fairest and best player. Those two adjectives epitomise the man.
Donald happened to be, in his time, the tallest player in the League. Together with that height he was broad in proportion. On my first morning with him, Donald performed a tonsillectomy on a child of eight. Disdaining a trolley, he hoisted the patient in his arms and carried her to the Operating Theatre before surgery, then carried her back to the ward afterward. Donald personified two valuable characteristics in a doctor – the personal touch and broad shoulders.
At about five feet and seven inches I could only look up to this very tall man. My initial awe gave way quickly to admiration, for I saw in Donald a quality I’d seen at close quarters through the previous twenty-six years as the son of another GP. That quality was the courage to feel the pain of another, to share it willingly, to shoulder it and to carry on with calm.
I saw Dad and Donald as they brought life into the world and as, inevitably, they walked closely with others to their final exit. They did this kindly and bravely. Every birth builds us, every death diminishes us. John Donne was right:
Therefore send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Seated in close consultation with a young mother one morning in the village of Diamond Creek, I was interrupted by the insistent ringing of the telephone: Would I come urgently to the Treatment Room?
For the next thirty minutes Donald and I worked frantically to revive a six-month old baby who hadn’t cried that morning. Her anxious mother found her child inert, unresponsive, not breathing. We tried all we knew but the baby would not breathe. All through this time the mother stood at our side, fully, dreadfully aware. Through it all, the baby felt warm to my touch. That warmth was to haunt me.
I returned to my patient and took up our earlier conversation: Jen, how did you feel when he spoke to you…
My patient cut across me: Howard, you’ve just been attending to something terrible in the other room. You can’t just walk back in here and carry on as if nothing has happened. You have to give yourself some time.
Jen (not her real name) was right. Nobody had ever suggested a doctor too might need care.
Over the following twenty years the bereaved mother brought her surviving children to Donald and me. We shared our unbearable, unspoken knowledge.
Another young mother, Julie, became my patient around that time. Over the next decade I delivered her babies and looked after her children. I tried to help her when she became depressed following her final childbirth, and again when she came to me for help through her divorce. Julie was a dynamo whose many ailments frequently led to surgery, and few of her numerous operations went smoothly.
Julie saw in me capacities that I could not recognise. When she brought a problem to me she did so with inordinate trust in my powers. Howard would know. That trust must have generated the power she imagined. She demanded I become a better doctor, and her faith or some species of love brought that doctor into being.
When I left Diamond Creek she followed me to the city, travelling an hour each way to see me for her many incurable conditions. When Julie moved to a more distant country town the trip to see her trusted doctor took two hours each way. Her ailments were many and her visits not few. She’d seek my counsel in her wilful mother’s decline. She shared the joy of new grandchildren. Her bones began to crumble and she looked to me for guidance about the medication that should strengthen bone, but weren’t there cases where the jaw would abruptly crack?
When aged about sixty, Julie developed intractable abdominal pain. Specialists failed to find the cause and I struggled to relieve her pain. Through all of this Julie looked to me with that unwavering trust.
Belatedly we found the small malignancy that was the cause of Julie’s pain. Cure by surgery was not possible. Supported by her brave husband, Julie endured the full ordeal of chemotherapy. To the end Julie chased a cure: she would not give up her precious life. To the end she trusted her old doctor. I was humbled by her faith.
Over fifty-one years I’ve seen death undo so many. Not all deaths were tragic, some were a release. Inevitably, though, some die in cruel suffering. I remember Robbie (not his name), a tender soul, a deeply spiritual man who’d survived a harsh childhood, and who emerged with a love that overflowed. Robbie and I shared a love of literature. He’d hunt out books he knew I’d enjoy and gift them to me, inscribing every volume with a message full of feeling. To this day I’ll pick up an old postcard, a cherished book suffering neglect, and instantly, Robbie’s handwriting, the curved lettering, bring him back; his love visible in ink.
One day I rode with Robbie as he drove his teenage kids to school. He kissed his daughter as she left the car, then he kissed his blushing son. As I followed, rather than allow me to feel neglected, Robbie kissed me too.
Robbie worked in Student Services at a university, later as a chaplain in ICU at a major hospital. He would see forty percent of his patients die.
Robbie knew his own heart would eventually fail. Numerous surgeons had opened his heart and repaired or replaced valves, not all successfully. Robbie’s cardiologist assured him his passing would be smoothed: he would not suffer. This GP reinforced this advice. Robbie and his devoted wife trusted our words.
When his time came, Robbie exited life in a prolonged and desperate struggle for breath. He died at home with his wife at his side. Years later Robbie’s widow – herself my beloved friend – continues to suffer grief born of betrayal.
In the end that must come, all we doctors can offer our patients is our warm skin and our broad shoulders.