For me, the last few weeks have been crazy busy and, I suspect, they will have been no less so for you. Nevertheless I have had some fun moments. A highlight for me was meeting one of the Mister Men. Patient confidentiality prevents me from mentioning his name but it will I think suffice to say that, not only was his skin not as vibrant as I’d expected, but neither were his arms as long as I’d been led to believe they would be.
And then there was the patient who, noticing that she had a lump ‘down below’, thought she might have a uterovaginal prolapse.
Being a lady of a certain age she was initially a little reticent at exposing that most intimate part of her body to me on account of my being a chap but, eventually, she rationalised her decision to allow me to have a look with her assertion that I’d no doubt seen more of the anatomical structure in question than she’d had hot dinners.
So we did a calculation.
Hazarding a guess that the days on which she had eaten nothing but cold food would be no more than 20% of the total number that had made up her life, we came up with a conservative estimate that the number of cooked meals she’d eaten during her almost 95 years was 27,695.
At which point I assured her that I’d not seen anywhere near the number she imagined I had of the aforementioned body part.
It made us both laugh – and that seemed to matter.
But even so, the last month ot so has been busy – dangerously busy. And oftentimes it has been hard. The phrase ‘unprecedented demand’ has considerable precedence when used in the context of GP workload but these last few weeks certainly have seemed to have been busier than I can remember it ever having been before. General Practice has felt like it has been under siege with every day seeing us called upon to deal with far more patients than anyone could possibly conceive that we could ever manage properly. As such the work, as well as being less enjoyable and satisfying, has, for me at least, felt less worthwhile too.
The reasons for the surge in demand are many and varied but amongst them would be that some patients are now feeling brave enough to come forward with problems that previously they had felt too anxious to bring to our attention, that long hospital waiting times have resulted in patients repeatedly having to turn to their GP for the care that they might otherwise have received from specialist teams and, of course, that the uncertainty and fear generated as a result of the pandemic has seen a huge increase in the number of mental health problems being presented to primary care.
There will be undoubtedly be many other reasons for why demand has increased but over and above these understandable and appropriate reasons for patients wanting to consult with us, I wonder if there is another, more existential, cause.
With increasing numbers of people no longer believing that there is a better world to come, be that in this life or the next, and fewer of us experiencing any hope for a brighter tomorrow, too many of us are insisting on our best life now. We are increasingly unwilling to wait for what the media tells us we should expect our lives to be characterised by, namely an absence of pain and inconvenience and an abundance of happiness and fun.
But real life is not like that. Though we may be able to airbrush our social media profiles, we cannot airbrush out those aspects of our life that are not to our liking. And, despite the best efforts of health care professionals, neither can medicine.
Even so, the expectation remains and the attempt to do so goes on. When medicine is portrayed as possessing a god like omniscience, is it any wonder that so many people bring their problems to us, promised as they have been that we can provide for them the solutions they desire.
The truth though is that medicine does not posses the resources or ability to deliver the answers it does not have.
If things are ever going to get better, we, our patients, and the policy makers who continue to demand of us what we cannot deliver, are all going to have to recognise both our limitations and the limitations of the profession that we are a part.
Because good health begins, not with good medical care, but with having something worth being healthy for. And that’s something that increasing numbers of people are finding that they do not have, some, for the first time perhaps, as a result of the wider consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
And for as long as a packet of fags, a bottle of scotch and a Happy Meal are the highlights of our lives, so we will continue to seek, and fail, to find our happiness in such things.
In his book ‘Walden’, Henry David Thoreau wrote that ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’. That may have been true once but now that same desperation is becoming ever louder such that now it is a deafening roar. Even so, still the desperation remains and many are still set to ‘go to the grave with the song still in them’
As more and more people experience what Leonard Cohen once said we sooner or later all come to know, that is the ‘defeat of our lives’, the question becomes will they continue to expect medicine to provide a way back? Or will they instead be encouraged to look elsewhere for the help that so many of them so desperately need?
And that, of course, includes us.
Many of us are increasing feeling overwhelmed and threatened by the demands put upon us. Under siege we continue to try to fend off all attacks yet succeed only in finding ourselves imprisoned behind the barricades we have erected in our forlorn attempts to stave off defeat. Perhaps it is time instead to at last appreciate that since medicine does not equip us for the battle in which we are engaged, ours is a fight that we can not ultimately hope to ever emerge as victors. Recognise this and we may find ourselves free from always having to win, free from always having to be the ‘NHS Heroes’, that, inundated as we are now, it is all to clear none of us were ever cut out to be.
And then who knows, we might just find that we are able to find some satisfaction, some enjoyment, even some fun, in our work once more.
We might even meet Mr Happy!
To read, ‘Luther and the Global Pandemic – on becoming a theologian of the cross’, click here