This is Book Two of ‘The Scrooge Chronicles’. To read Book One, ‘A Primary Care Christmas Carol’, click here.
PART ONE: A TALE OF TWO PATIENTS
In which Dr Ebenezer Scrooge finds some meaning in the seemingly meaningless and determines to keep on keeping on – at least for a little longer yet.
Almost three years have passed since Scrooge was visited by the three spirits and the world is in the grip of a global pandemic.
It was a little after eight in the morning and Dr Ebenezer Scrooge was sitting at his desk, looking at his computer screen. He watched as, with every passing minute, the list of patients he had to call lengthened. He was the only doctor in the practice that morning as his partner, Dr Robert Cratchit, had phoned in earlier to report that, since his six month old son had developed a fever overnight, he’d have to self isolate and work from home pending the result of the Covid swab that he’d organise to have taken later that day. Though frustrated, Scrooge didn’t blame Bob. He knew his colleague wasn’t one to avoid work and understood that the practice had to be seen to comply with government guidance on limiting the potential spread of the coronavirus, even if the actual risk from his partner coming in to work was small and, perhaps, less than that posed to patients as a result of their care being compromised by his not being at work.
Scrooge reflected on how he’d never been so dissatisfied with his working life as he was now, more dissatisfied even than he had been, three years previously, when the spirits of General Practice Past, Present and Yet to Come had made their life changing nocturnal visits to him. A lot had happened since then. Bob, who had been a registrar at the time, had completed his training, joined the practice as a partner and even found time to marry one of the admin staff and have a child. But then Covid-19 had arrived on the scene and, as well as all the suffering and death it had caused, it had also had a significant effect on the provision of primary care.
Scrooge was alarmed by how fast the vision brought to him by the Ghost of General Practice Yet to Come was becoming a reality. More and more consultations were being undertaken remotely, a trend that, though undoubtedly necessary for a time, had been welcomed by much of the profession and was one that now seemed destined to continue. Scrooge though, a man so old fashioned he’d yet to switch to a height adjustable desk, was less enthusiastic. Though, to some, this contactless life might be considered ‘the new normal’, in Scrooge’s eyes at least, whilst new, it was in no way normal.
Furthermore Scrooge also found himself constantly worrying about the long term harm the response to the coronavirus might have. He understood, of course, that steps had needed to be taken to control the spread of the virus and a tricky balance had to be struck.
In the early days of the pandemic he had been informed that, as a GP, he’d be responsible for providing end of life care to patients with the coronavirus. He’d been told it was likely he would have to explain to many of them that, due to a lack of ventilators, it would not be possible for them all to be admitted to hospital and that a good number would, instead, have no option but to take their chances at home.
Scrooge had found all this deeply concerning, but when he started being asked to contact all his vulnerable patients and discuss with them their end of life preferences he sensed something wasn’t quite right. This feeling grew when he did a few calculations and realised that, were there to be 50,000 deaths in the country, a figure the government had initially suggested was the worse case scenario, he himself could expect to lose just one or possibly two of the 1800 patients on his own list. Was it really appropriate then, he wondered, to have hundreds of inevitably distressing discussions with his patients on such a sensitive subject when the actual numbers of those likely to die was so small?
What Scrooge did know though was that nearly six months into the pandemic not one of his patients had actually died, and only a couple had been hospitalised. He knew that elsewhere in the country the experience of other GPs would, no doubt, have been very different but nonetheless Scrooge remained worried about the consequences of the measures that were being taken to tackle the pandemic: the tens of thousands of non-Covid related deaths due to patients not receiving sufficiently timely treatment for their conditions, the hundreds of thousands of additional deaths that were likely to occur over time as a consequence of the lockdown having so badly damaged the economy, and the millions of people who would find themselves joining the queue for NHS treatment.
Scrooge sighed. It just seemed impossible to know what was genuinely for the best. It was, he thought, the worst of times – an age of foolishness and an epoch of incredulity – with absolutely no positive side to it. Still, his was not to reason why, his was but to do and, hopefully not die. And with that Scrooge realised that he’d better stop wondering how long he could continue working as a doctor and start instead phoning the numerous patients who’d already requested urgent contact with him that morning.
He quickly dealt with the first couple of calls which involved patients seeking advice about minor upper respiratory tract infections. He hated himself both for prescribing antibiotics (‘just in case’ due to his not being able to see and assess them properly) to patients who almost certainly didn’t need them, and for then going on to advise them that the whole household would now have to self isolate pending the symptomatic family member having a Covid swab. He knew that the former went against all he had tried to teach patients regarding how antibiotics were unnecessary for self limiting viral infections and that the latter would threaten the livelihoods of families but was nonetheless deemed essential even though, ever since patients with possible Covid symptoms could have a swab taken, not one had come back showing a positive result.
The morning continued in similar fashion though soon, amongst the physical problems that were being presented, a number of cases relating to the mental health of patients required triaging. The isolation of lockdown was now getting a lot of people down and many more were experiencing high levels of anxiety. For many the concern was about catching the coronavirus, even amongst those for whom there was very little risk of their coming to any harm were they to do so – for others it was the threat to their livelihood that was causing them to lose sleep. Scrooge tried to support them as best he could but knew he’d be able to do it so much better if he could see a few of these folk face to face. Even then, however, the requisite plastic apron, latex gloves and face mask would make meaningful conversation on sensitive matters difficult.
At mid morning there was a knock on the door announcing the arrival of one of the reception staff with a cup of coffee and a selection of biscuits. Scrooge accepted them gratefully and munched on a custard cream whilst signing the prescription handed to him by the receptionist. It had been requested urgently by a patient who was currently waiting for it in reception.
Brushing the crumbs from his lips, Scrooge looked back at his computer screen and noticed another call had come in from an elderly man who’s problem had been flagged simply as ‘back pain’. Pleased to have such a straight forward call to deal with, Scrooge picked up the phone and dialled the patients number. Within a few rings the patient answered.
‘Hello, is that Mr Carton? It’s Dr Scrooge, how can I help?’
‘That was quick doctor, I hadn’t expected you to ring back so quickly, I know how busy you all are, what with this virus and all. But don’t worry about that with me, it’s just my back that’s the problem. It’s kept me awake all night it has – I’ve never before experienced anything like it.’
Scrooge asked a few more questions and didn’t sense that anything particularly concerning was going on other than the fact that Mr Carton, a man not prone to call for help unnecessarily, seemed quite agitated by the pain and that he’d not had any relief from even his wife’s reasonably strong painkillers. Scrooge decided that he had perhaps better see his elderly patient after all. He felt guilty for doing so since the guidance was so insistent that all patients should be managed remotely wherever possible.
‘I’d like to see you Mr Carton, but before I do I need to ask a few more questions. Have you developed a new persistent cough lately?’
‘No doctor, it’s just my back, it’s like …”
‘Or a fever?’
‘No doctor, as I was…’
‘And have you lost your sense of smell at all’
There was a pause on the end of the line as Mr Carton clearly struggled to understand the relevance of such a question to his clearly stated problem of back pain. Eventually he answered in the negative and Scrooge asked him to come down to the surgery but to wait in the car park until he was ready to see him. He’d ring in 15 minutes and say when it was safe for him to enter the building.
Whilst he was waiting Scrooge dealt with a few more telephone calls including one from Enid Gray. Mrs Gray was terminally ill and had been so for some while. She had survived longer than had been expected despite, on Scrooge’s advice, repeatedly ignoring the letters sent out under his name inviting her to have a repeat blood test to determine if she were still pre-diabetic. But now she was undoubtedly losing her battle with cancer and was very definitely going rapidly downhill. He picked up the phone and was soon speaking to the patient he’d become very fond of ever since he’d invited her to share Christmas Day with Cratchit and himself a few years previously.
‘Hello Mrs Gray, how are you? How can I help?’
‘Oh I am sorry to bother you Dr Scrooge. It’s just that I feel so tired at the moment. Since I came out of hospital I’ve simply no energy at all’.
Mrs Gray had been admitted the week before having taken a fall at home. She had been discharged precipitously under the guise of it being too dangerous for her to stay in hospital in the middle of a global pandemic. Little thought seemed to have been given, however, to the risk of her living alone without an adequate package of care. Mrs Gray did not have a smart phone so there was no possibility of Scrooge doing a video consultation with her. Despite this, and though he hated himself for even thinking it, were Mrs Gray to die, since she’d been seen so recently in hospital, Scrooge knew he wouldn’t have the unnecessary nuisance of having to liaise with the coroner about her death, not under the new guidance that had come out on the issuing of death certificates during the pandemic. Even so, Scrooge looked up the results of the tests taken during Mrs Gray’s hospital stay. He noticed that she’d been found to be a little anaemic and so Scrooge suggested that he write Mrs Gray a prescription for some iron tablets and arrange for the district nurses to check a further blood test later in the week. Mrs Gray seemed happy enough with this plan but Scrooge nonetheless stressed that, should she feel any worse, she could call him again at any time.
By the time he’d done this he noticed that it was time to see if Mr Carton had arrived. He called him on his mobile and learnt that he was indeed waiting in the carpark. Scrooge invited him in saying he’d meet him in the waiting room. He then donned his PPE being careful to tie the plastic apron about his waist before putting on his gloves, experience having taught him that with gloves on it was nigh on impossible to tie the apron effectively. Mask applied Scrooge then went to the empty waiting room pending Mr Carton’s arrival. As he sat there, perched on the radiator, he surveyed the carefully spaced seats that so few people these days sat on. It saddened him that this was no longer a place where people gathered waiting to be seen, somewhere one might bump into an old acquaintance that one hadn’t seen for years and with whom one might catch up on each other’s news.
A few minutes later Mr Carton arrived accompanied by an obviously very anxious Mrs Carton. It was becoming something of a trend now but once again Scrooge found himself hating what he was doing as he asked Mrs Carton if she wouldn’t mind waiting outside. ‘Because of the Coronavirus’, he added by way of explanation. Walking together toward his consulting room Scrooge paused by the waste bin in the corner of the waiting area and, by holding his apron close to the container, indicated to Mr Carton how that which was now supposedly protecting him from a deadly virus, was made of the the exact same material as that which now lined the bin. It always amused Scrooge to point this out to patients even if by doing so it served only to make him feel even more rubbish about himself.
Back in his consulting room, and having run over the symptoms again, Scrooge asked Mr Carton to pop up on the couch. Scrooge had noticed that the agitation that he had sensed in his patient on the phone was apparent speaking to him in the flesh, Mr Carton was finding it difficult to stay still. Up on the couch Scrooge noticed something else – a pulsatile mass in his abdomen which could be nothing other than an abdominal aortic aneurysm.
After explaining the seriousness of the situation and calling for an ambulance, it wasn’t long before Mr Carton was being led away by two paramedics to the emergency vehicle that was now parked outside the front doors of the medical centre. Scrooge walked out with them and caught site of his patient’s increasing worried wife. Stepping over towards her, Scrooge explained what was happening to the man she’d been married to for more than fifty years.
‘I’m afraid you won’t be allowed to go with him, Mrs Carton. The hospital aren’t allowing any visitors at the moment you see.’
‘But he will be OK?’, she asked, ‘I will see him again won’t I?
Scrooge wanted to look her the eye but found himself unable to meet her gaze. ‘I’m sure he’ll be fine’ he said, trying to sound confident before adding, more honestly, ‘At least, I hope he will’. With that Scrooge went back inside, removed his PPE and placed it in the bin. Along with all that was being used both by him and the rest of the practice staff, he pondered how long it would take for all of it to biodegrade. He thought how insignificant his previous use of the odd plastic straw now seemed in comparison to environmental impact of all this discarded PPE.
The day continued in similar vein and when he eventually finished the days work shortly after 7.30 he noted that he’d completed 86 individual patient contacts made up of telephone calls and face to face consultations. In addition there had been the day’s post to read and act on, blood results to deal with and many, many repeat prescriptions, requests for sick notes and sundry other administrative jobs. It hadn’t been the busiest of days but it was somewhere close to it. And yet he thought to himself, if the posts he had seen on social media were anything to go by, many people out there felt that GPs had reneged on their duty throughout the coronavirus crisis.
As he logged off from his computer he noticed the four cold cups of coffee sitting undrunk on his desk, together testifying to how busy his day had been. What he couldn’t understand however was why there was never an accompanying pile of uneaten biscuits! ‘Another medical mystery’ he said to himself as he stood up, ‘but one that will have to remain unsolved for the time being. I’m off home.’
Scrooge locked up the building, got into his car, and set off for home. He tried to turn his thoughts away from the day, but as he drove the radio was playing Solomon Burke’s ‘Cry to me’. Hearing of how loneliness was such a waste of time, of how it made you want to cry, Scrooge couldn’t help but think again of Mrs Gray and so, having deviated from his usual route home, he soon found himself parked up outside her home instead.
Walking to the door to the stairwell of the block of flats in which she lived, Scrooge noticed a now faded rainbow that someone had painted on the adjacent wall. Underneath were written the ubiquitous words ‘Thank you NHS’. Scrooge averted his eyes, uneasy at what seemed to him as yet another shrine erected to an organisation that, whilst wonderful, was being deified in ways that weren’t helpful, by a population that was putting all its hope in an NHS that could not possibly deliver all that was being asked of it. He didn’t consider himself a hero of the pandemic, that particular label he felt, would surely be better applied to those who would lose their jobs and livelihood over all of this.
Scrooge pulled opened the door and climbed the steps to Mrs Gray’s flat. As he donned yet more PPE he noticed the piles of bottles filling the recycling box of the flat opposite that of Mrs Gray. Somebody was clearly doing their bit to support the local off-licence in these difficult times. Scrooge wondered if the young Mum who lived there, and who had called him several times this week regarding various minor problems, might be better served by a face to face consultation. Perhaps she’d feel freer to talk when she wasn’t being overheard by her partner, given how he was known to have problems ‘managing his anger’. He made a mental note to call her in the morning before turning back to Mrs Gray’s flat and ringing her doorbell.
Nobody came to the door and so Scrooge rang it again. Again there was no response. Trying the door and finding it unlocked, he gently pushed it open and entered the flat.
‘Hello? Mrs Gray? It’s Dr Scrooge – is anybody here?’
Scrooge made his way in the direction of the feeble voice that called out from the back room and found there Mrs Gray, laid uncomfortably on her bed, desperately pale, weak and laboured in her breathing.
‘Dr Scrooge, what are you doing here?’ Mrs Gray asked, barely able to voice the words. ‘I wasn’t expecting you to call round, I know how busy you all are at the moment. And aren’t you supposed to avoid visiting people like me?’
Scrooge looked down at his feet and felt ashamed at the thoughts he’d had when he’d spoken to her earlier that day.
‘Some would say so, Mrs Gray, some would say so’, he replied and, realising that Mrs Gray’s time was near, Scrooge did something else that he wasn’t supposed to do. He pulled off his mask and apron and, after slipping off his gloves, took Mrs Gray’s hand as he sat down next to her on the chair that stood by her bed
‘Enid’, he added, thinking to himself how nobody should be allowed to die without a friend present, no matter what anyone says, ‘I suspect that what I am now doing is a far far better thing than I have ever done. Of course I should be visiting you.’
Mrs Gray smiled at Scrooge, and Scrooge smiled gently back.
Thirty five minutes later, after a call to the local funeral director, Scrooge was back in his car. Picking up his phone he dialed the number for the hospital and was informed that Mr Carton had had his aneurysm repaired and, all being well, would be allowed home the following day. The vascular team had apparently had little else to do and so had wasted no time in dealing with what was the most interesting case they had had in weeks.
Scrooge smiled again, this time to himself. Perhaps his actions today hadn’t changed the world, but they had made a world of difference to at least one or two people he’d had the privilege of helping. Perhaps he thought, he would continue in General Practice, at least for a little while longer. And that, he decided, was cause for celebration. After all, as one whose income had not been threatened by the events of the last six months, he had much to be grateful for, not to mention a civic duty to support the local economy.
And besides, he’d had nothing to drink all day.
PART TWO: IT’S A WONDERFUL GP LIFE
in which Dr Scrooge has another Christmas encounter.
It was a little after 6.30pm on Christmas Eve and Dr Ebenezer Scrooge had just finished the final telephone consultation of the day. A receptionist appeared at his open door holding a plate on which sat two sorry looking mince pies. Careful to keep her distance, she placed it carefully on the end of the examination couch that was positioned just inside Dr Scrooge’s room.
‘Is there anything else you need Dr Scrooge?’, she asked from behind her mask. ‘Only, if it’s OK with you, I’d like to get off promptly this evening. Will you be all right to lock up?’
‘Yes of course Alice, you head off’, Scrooge replied, ‘Thanks for all your help today. And have a very Merry Christmas.’
But Scrooge himself was in no mood for merriment. It had been a long hard year which had seen the job he loved change beyond all recognition. So great had those changes been that at times he felt as if he was working in a glorified call centre. And he wasn’t enjoying it. The work had remained just as difficult with on call days being busier than ever but, disappointingly, there had been little recognition of this from some quarters, with many seeming to think that GPs had shirked their responsibility during the pandemic, imagining perhaps that they’d spent the whole of the summer on the golf course.
This was certainly not the case for Dr Scrooge who, apart from that incident involving a lemon, a stained glass window and the irate members of the parochial church council, hadn’t picked up a golf club for many years. But still the profession had been on the wrong end of much criticism and had even, on at least one occasion, been branded a national disgrace in the papers. Though he knew it wasn’t true, such allegations hurt.
‘Sometimes’, Scrooge muttered to himself, ‘I don’t know why I bother.’
At least now he had a few days off work but, with no family of his own, spending that time alone wasn’t something he was particularly looking forward to. Furthermore a letter of complaint had arrived that morning that had only served to dampen his spirits still further. He’d been expecting it for a while and, as one who in recent years had found it easy to be overly self critical, he couldn’t help feeling the claims made against him were wholly justified.
‘I could have managed things better’ he thought to himself. ‘If only I was a better doctor. It just wouldn’t have happened if I’d done my job properly.’
Slowly he stood up from his desk and, ignoring the mince pies, made his way out of his consulting room. He stopped as he passed the waiting area, empty now as it had been most of the year. He missed interacting with a full waiting room. He liked to greet those he knew and, on occasions, in the hope of lightening the mood a little, sharing a joke with those anxiously waiting their turn to be seen. It must have been at least nine months now since he’d bent down low to look under the chairs when the person he was calling hadn’t been present, as if somehow they might be hiding from him there. He must have done this hundreds of times over the years but it always seemed to make someone smile, even if that someone was only Scrooge himself.
There were now only two chairs left in the waiting room. Scrooge walked over to one of them and sat down. He starred at the screen mounted on the wall. Used to convey information to those gathered, he mused to himself that, like the current TV schedules, it only ever showed repeats. Still in a melancholy mood, Scrooge sat down and considered the past year.
It had been one in which he had been urged, not without good reason, to distance himself from those who had sought to come to him for help. But, he feared, this had, as a consequence, resulted in his seeing the needs of his patients in isolation and that the care he offered them had inevitably become less personal as a result. This he felt had been as detrimental for him as it undoubtedly had been for his patients. Understandably focused on the coronavirus the world had sometimes failed to see the bigger picture. Lost in the woods that could could no longer be seen, and confused by the trees that had crowded its view, the world had, he sensed, in its desperation to keep on living, forgotten the meaning of what it was to be alive.
And it wasn’t only at work that things had changed.
Last week he’d been shopping. First he’d parked in a multi-storey car park where, ‘due to Covid restrictions’, the top three storeys had been closed off. But to his mind at least, such action had only succeeded in forcing people to crowd into the two remaining lower levels. Then, outside a department store, he’d heard a father reassuring his little boy that his mother wasn’t dead but had simply popped into a shop. It’d have been funny if it hadn’t been so sad, evidence of the crippling and excessive anxiety some, including children, were experiencing. And then, to top it all, he’d visited his local branch of Waitrose and bought fennel, dill and some apparently ‘essential’ orzo, three items that a few years previously he’d never heard of let alone considered buying. What, he wondered, was the world, and he, coming to.
‘What’s the point? I’m a failing doctor, in a failing system in a failing world. Time for me to call it a day. If I write a letter of resignation and give in my notice now, by the summer I’ll be free of all of this. And the practice and the local community will be all the better for that!’
His mind made up, Scrooge started back to his room in search of some headed paper. But as he did so the TV screen burst into life and the figure of an elderly man appeared surrounded in swirling mist. He was dressed in a old duffel coat and he was sporting a trilby hat. From within its confines, he tapped on the TV screen and called Scrooge’s name.
Scrooge turned back to address the figure, less startled perhaps than some might have expected him to be on account of his previous experiences with ghostly yuletide apparitions.
‘Oh for goodness sake. Not again!’ he started. ‘Must I be haunted every Christmas? Who are you this time? The Ghost of The Christmas We Never Expected?’
The elderly figure seemed a little taken aback but nonetheless began to make his way awkwardly out of the TV. Before long he was standing in front of Scrooge, smiling broadly.
‘Well a good evening to you too, Dr Scrooge’, he replied. ‘As it happens I’m not a ghost. Far from it. My name’s Clarence, and I’m your guardian angel – allocated to you now that George has no further need of me.’
Scrooge was, momentarily, lost for words.
‘Clarence? What kind of a name is that for an angel. And who’s George when he’s a home?’
By now Clarence was removing his coat and carefully placing it on the back of a chair in that rather irritating way that patients sometimes do at the start of consultations. He was clearly planning on staying a while.
‘I’m a little surprised you don’t recognise me’, Clarence replied, ‘but then you’ve probably only ever seen me in black and white. But surely you must remember George. His was a wonderful life.’
‘Well bully for George is all I can say. I hope he’s happy’
‘Indeed he is. Very happy. But from what I’ve been hearing, that can’t be said of you. Have you thought about chatting it over with your appraiser?’
‘Not likely! I know they’re supposed to be supportive but I prefer to pretend that everything’s fine with my appraiser. Fortunately they’re not generally hard to fool. Like long haired sheep it’s easy to pull the wool over their eyes!’
‘Then perhaps I can help a little – I do have some experience in the area’.
‘How do you mean? You’re not going to suggest CBT or mindfulness are you? Only, if you are I’m not interested’.
‘Not as such. It’s just that…well it seems to me that you are questioning just how useful your life as a GP has been. You think you haven’t made a difference. But that’s not true. You’ve made a huge difference, in innumerable ways, often without you ever having realised it’.
Scrooge remained silent, though on this occasion it was not by way of employing a therapeutic tool. The truth was that he was eager to hear what Clarence had to say but was reluctant to appear as such. The angel, sensing Scrooge’s predicament, continued.
‘Well let’s start with the obvious shall we? Take Mr Carton. Surely you remember how, after your telephone consultation with him you agreed to review him face to face and were thus able to diagnose that his back pain was due to an abdominal aortic aneurysm. He’s alive this Christmas because of your actions. And then there was the kindness you showed to Mrs Gray as she lay dying. That mattered too you know? Enormously’.
Scrooge grudgingly indicated his agreement. ‘But it’s no more than any GP would have done’.
‘Perhaps, but that’s not the point. The fact of the matter is that what you did made a difference. If only ‘The Ghost of General Practice Present’ were here we could have taken you and shown you how happy so many people are this evening because of your actions over the years. I’d WhatsApp her but I know that right now she’s very busy haunting a Covid vaccination centre. It’s been a tough year for the members of BASIL too you know.’
‘BASIL?’, Scrooge interrupted, ‘I’ve heard of SAGE, but who the heck are BASIL?’
‘“Beings and Spirits in Limbo”’, Clarence replied. ‘We’ve all been meeting on Zoom this year. It’s been awful. The Ghost of General Practice Past still hasn’t learnt how to unmute himself and the oh so smug Ghost of General Practice Yet To Come can’t stop telling everyone how he correctly predicted the increase in remote consulting and the wearing of face masks during face to face reviews.’
‘Enough of that though, back to what I was saying. In addition to those positive outcomes that you know about, there are so many small actions that you have taken that, unbeknown to you have had similar wonderful consequences. Take that occasion when you reassured a couple who were worried that their child’s rash was meningitis. Because of you they didn’t call the ambulance that they had been planning to and, as a result, a man who was suffering a MI at the time was attended to promptly when he called 999. Wonderfully he was stented within an hour of the onset of his chest pain. And then there’s Dr Cratchit of course.’
‘Bob? What about him?’
‘He really was desperate that Christmas a couple of years ago you know. He didn’t tell you the half of it at the time but, back then, he really was close to the edge. It was your support that pulled him through. And don’t forget that it was you who gave a job to the young lady that is now his wife, not to mention the mother of their child. You gave Emily a chance when many wouldn’t have, not with her previous poor employment record. If you hadn’t taken her on, she and Bob would never have met. Indirectly the happiness of that young family is down to you. And I could tell you a thousand other similar stories of how you’ve influenced individual lives for good.’
‘Even so, that complaint I received today. It’s completely justified you know. I made a mistake. A big one. And people are suffering because of the error I made’.
‘So you slipped up. And that is both regrettable and so very hard to live with. But did you really ever imagine that you would go through your whole career as a doctor without ever making a mistake? Surely not even you are that stupid. Working as a doctor is a bit like pushing people out of the way of speeding trains. On occasions you’ll not be able to push someone out of harms way in time. And sometimes you might just get hit yourself. Even so, you must still try to remember all those folk you have been able to help, all those who have avoided pain and distress because of what you were able to do for them.’
As Clarence had been talking, Scrooge had been gazing at the ground but now he lifted his head and, addressing his companion, looked him in the eye.
‘But it’d be nice to be appreciated a little.’
‘Well of course it would and the truth is many people do appreciate your efforts. But be that as it may, the value of an action remains irrespective of whether any appreciation is shown for it. Pleasant though it undoubtedly is, is it really so important to be lauded for what you do? Surely happiness comes more from performing an act of kindness than from the appreciation that might follow it. Besides if you really want to be appreciated, post an amusing video of a cat on Facebook. Only don’t expect that to satisfy you for very long.’
‘If Covid has taught us anything Ebenezer, surely it’s this. That it is possible to be content with less and that, rather than striving constantly to gain more in life, we would do well to be content with and enjoy the gift of life we already have. Life is uncertain, it always has been. We are not the sole masters of our fate, nor that of those we love or those for whom we care. There is much that we do not know, much indeed that we cannot know. As such we need to learn some humility and acknowledge just how little we truly understand. We need to stop arrogantly pretending we invariably know best. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Even you GPs!’
Scrooge smiled and took a step towards Clarence who had got to his feet and was now putting his hat and coat back on. Scrooge hesitated as he once again became mindful of social distancing guidelines. Clarence didn’t seem too bothered though as he too was taking a step forwards. The two men exchanged a firm handshake.
‘Thank you, Clarence’ said Scrooge. ‘It was good of you to come this evening’.
‘‘Not at all, Ebenezer, not at all. It was a pleasure. And thank you for all your hard work this year. You, and all your staff, are doing a grand job in difficult circumstances. Don’t think that it’s not appreciated. And trust me, it isn’t going unnoticed, not by those who count, not by those you’ve actually cared for. Now, you’ll forgive me if I don’t stand and applaud you, and since I can’t give you a voucher entitling you to a free coffee or a discount bar of chocolate, I’m afraid this will have to do!’
And with that, and before he could undertake a detailed risk assessment regarding the merits of such behaviour, Scrooge was experiencing something he’d never experienced before. He was being hugged by an angel.
‘Don’t worry about Covid-19, Dr Scrooge,’ said Clarence, laughing as he sensed Scrooge’s unease. ‘This duffel coat and trilby hat offer complete protection. Or at least as much as those flimsy plastic aprons you’ve all been wearing these past few months. And besides, what’s the worst that could happen. Only that you die and discover what has long been joyfully known by many, that there aren’t varying degrees of danger in the place where I come from.’
As they separated, Scrooge looked somewhat bemused by the strange comment of his unexpected visitor.
‘Haven’t you heard, Ebenezer?’, said Clarence, continuing to chuckle to himself. ‘There are no tiers in heaven!’
And with that a warm glow surrounded Ebenezer. As it did so a bright light filled the waiting room. In a moment though it was gone, as indeed was Clarence. Scrooge, alone once more, stood motionless for a few seconds, trying to collect his thought. Perhaps he’d need to rethink that letter of resignation.
He walked out of the waiting room and made his way to the back entrance. He switched off all the lights and set the alarm before finally leaving the building and locking the door behind him. As he walked to his car he felt a vibration in his pocket. Pulling out his phone he noticed that he’d received a text message. It was from Bob Cratchit.
‘Where are you? We’ve been waiting for you. I trust you’ve not forgotten you’re bubbling with us over the next few days. Get over here quick or you’ll miss all the fun of putting the little one to bed. Remember we’re expecting you to do the full Father Christmas routine for us. See you soon.’
As he gazed at its screen, the phone vibrated again and another message appeared.
‘And we’re a little short of mince pies. Do you know where you could lay a hand on a couple?’
Scrooge looked back at the surgery. ‘I rather think I do!’ he said to himself smiling. Perhaps, he thought, this might be a Merry Christmas after all.
BOOK THREE: BLEAK PRACTICE
in which Scrooge considers calling it a day.
Dr Scrooge was tired. All the time tired. He was more tired than a myxoedematous narcoleptic with sleep apnoea who’d just completed a week of nights. He was tired of Covid, he was tired of work, and increasingly he was tired of life.
It was just gone eight and he was alone in the practice catching up on paperwork at the end of a long day on call. Only it wasn’t the end as he was still left with a home visit to do. And to make matters worse he was supposed to be gathering with Dr Cratchit and a few other friends that evening to celebrate a friends eightieth birthday. ‘Looks like I’m going to be late for another social event’ he sighed to himself as he picked up his bag and the printout of the patient’s details that had been bought to him, along with a consolatory custard cream by the receptionist just before she’d left an hour or so previously.
As he left the building it was beginning to rain and the last light of the day was beginning to fade. Scrooge got into his car and drove out of the car park at the back of the surgery premises and began to make his way to the nursing home where the patient he was visiting lived. The staff there had insisted the man be seen on account of him just not seeming himself and Scrooge had been too worn down by the busyness of the day to do anything but agree to the visit even though he’d felt there would be little point in visiting somebody who he couldn’t help thinking, from his cursory scanning of the notes, was just a demented old man who’s life meant nothing now that all he did all day was sit in a chair.
Scrooge’s frustration increased still further as, barely having started out on his journey he was held up by traffic lights. The red light reflecting on the wet road seemed to goad him into thinking what he’d been considering for some little while. ‘Perhaps it really is now time for me to just stop’, he muttered to himself. ‘After all I could always make ends meet by exploiting the black market in blood sample bottles’.
The year had been a hard one. Though positive swab results of Covid tests continued to appear daily in his inbox, Scrooge hadn’t seen anyone ill with the disease for several months. Even so workload was higher than he’d ever known it to be and he no longer felt he was doing a good job. There just wasn’t the necessary time to give to patients. Earlier in the year he’d worked sessions at the local vaccination centre and had derived great pleasure from doing so, but now he found no satisfaction in rushing headlong through the seemingly endless list of patients that daily presented themselves to him only to later hear in the media how GPs were hiding away from their patients, supposedly behind locked doors. And it looked like it was all about to get a lot worse now that a neighbouring practice had collapsed and he and Bob had been forced to accept several hundred additional patients onto their practice list, including the man he was now on his way to see. With no additional staff to deal with what amounted to an overnight increase of 10% to the practice list, Scrooge wondered how he and all his clinical and non clinical colleagues would cope with the inevitable additional work. No wonder that even his excellent practice manager was now beginning to feel the strain.
It was the worst of times, it really was the worst of times.
As the car idled Scrooge realised that he had long since given up any hope of his turning out to be the hero of his own life and remembered instead something he’d once read about how everybody eventually experiences the defeat of their lives. Perhaps that was what he was now recognising to be the case for himself. His appraisal was coming up soon and, rather than discussing with his appraiser how he might look to improve over the coming year, Scrooge thought that perhaps it was time to get real and instead take the opportunity to discuss how he might best manage his now inevitable decline.
As the traffic lights changed Scrooge continued on his way and within ten minutes he was pulling up outside the nursing home. The rain continued to fall as he climbed out of the car and hurried to the front door. He pressed the doorbell and, as he waited to be let in, he donned the mask, ridiculous plastic apron and blue surgical gloves that purported to be PPE but only managed to make him look like some sinister Smurf with a burgeoning interest in basic butchery.
Eventually he was let in and led to a small room on the second floor of the old building that, over the years he had visited countless times. The room was a barren affair, sparsely furnished with the only decoration being a few framed verses of scripture urging the reader to remember that there was always reasons for hope in even the darkest of days. ‘If only’ thought Scrooge as he turned his eyes towards the frail elderly man he had come to see who sat hunched in a chair with his eyes closed and his mouth wide open. He saw and said nothing. Scrooge walked over to him and, crouching by his side, attempted to make conversation though, even as he did so, he knew there was little prospect of any meaningful communication. Scrooge examined the man but found no specific cause to account for his increasingly frail condition other than the all too apparent dementia that had brought him to the home some years previously. The man was clearly coming to the end of his life.
Stepping back outside of the room, Scrooge explained his findings to the young nurse who had been accompanying him. She passed him the patients treatment escalation plan on which was stated that hospital transfer should be considered in the event of his becoming unwell.
‘Shall I get his things together whilst you call the ambulance?’ the nurse asked. ‘How long do you think it will be?’
Scrooge’s heart sank. He’d been in this situation before, where what was written on the TEP form seemed inappropriate and, rather than helping to make decisions, only succeeded in making things harder. Surely admission wasn’t in the man’s best interests and yet to go against what was clearly written down made Scrooge feel uncomfortable.
The pair walked back along the carpeted corridors to the office where he recognised the familiar face of one of the senior members of the nursing staff who had worked at the home for as long as Scrooge could remember.
‘What do you think Clare?’ he asked her, ‘It can’t be right that we admit the poor chap can it?’
Clare looked up from the desk where she was sat. ‘All I can say’, she replied, ‘is that I’ve known Harry for a very long time, ever since he arrived here I forget how many years ago. And I’d be sad if he died in hospital’.
That was enough for Scrooge. Even so he thought he would try to speak to a member of the elderly man’s family, just to make sure they felt the same way that he did.
‘Do you know who his next of kin is?’ Scrooge asked Clare. ‘Is there anybody at all I can talk to’.
‘There aren’t any children, Harry never married. But there is a younger brother who visits him regularly’. Clare flipped her way through Harry’s file and found the number and, passing it to Scrooge. added ‘Just press ‘9’ for an outside line’.
Scrooge picked up the phone and made the call. After a few rings it was answered and Scrooge introduced himself to somebody whose gentle elderly voice confirmed he was indeed Harry’s brother.
‘I’m sorry to bother you at this time in the evening’, Scrooge began, ‘but it’s about your brother. I’ve been called to see him and I’m afraid he’s not at all well.’
‘He’s not been well for a long time Doctor. It’s his age you see. That and the dementia. It’s been years since he was the man I once knew.’
Scrooge smiled to himself realising already that this conversation was not going to be as difficult as he had feared.
‘I understand’, Scrooge continued, ‘but Harry’s deteriorated rather a lot of late and if I’m honest I think he’s only likely to get worse over the next day or two. I thought you ought to know, just in case you wanted to pop over and see him. Unless of course you thought he ought to be admitted to hospital. The thing is I have a bit of paper here which suggests that some discussions were had previously and that it was felt then that, if he were he to become more unwell, Harry would want to be admitted. But I really don’t think the hospital would be able to do a great deal for Harry and I’m not sure that sending him in now would really be the best thing for your brother’.
‘Please don’t send him to hospital doctor – he wouldn’t want it. It’s like this you see. When you’re old, eventually it happens that the only thing you’re left with is your memories, and Harry, well he hasn’t even got those anymore. They’ll look after him well in the home. Leave him with those who know him best.’
The line went silent for a few seconds and then Harry’s brother spoke again, this time his voice wavering a little as he tried to control the tears.
‘Can I tell you something Doctor? You might look at Harry and think he’s just a demented old man, but I want you to know that that demented old man is still my hero. Always has been – always will be. When I was a boy he looked after me when there wasn’t anybody else who could. He was a good man. And he still is. Even now that his time has come’.
The two men chatted on a little longer before Scrooge eventually put down the phone. He relayed the nature of the conversation to Clare and it was agreed that Harry would stay where he was and the staff would continue to care for him just as they had for many years already. Scrooge updated the TEP form and, though he didn’t imagine they’d be necessary, wrote up some ‘just in case’ medications before saying his goodbyes.
Back in his car Scrooge thought about what had just happened. He remembered those words on the wall of Harry’s room, words that his brother had said both he and Harry still believed. Maybe there was cause for hope in dark days after all, even at that moment of apparent defeat. And perhaps, as was the case with Harry, even in the years of one’s inevitable decline, you could remain someone of worth, someone who was still both loved and valued. Scrooge’s mind went back to those sessions he’d worked in the vaccination clinic when the frail and elderly had been wheeled in by those who still loved them irrespective of how dependent they had become on others. It had been a joy to give them their vaccinations, vaccinations that had seemed at the time to be nothing less than a shot of love.
And he thought too of something else he’d recently heard, something about how ‘shiny and new’ was all very well but that things with no past somehow lacked any soul. Perhaps that was true of people too. Although in physical terms Harry and his brother were both past their best, they undoubtedly had soul, their experiences of brokenness producing in them a depth that only age can bring, the wisdom of experience allowing them to accept others despite their imperfections.
It was gone 10 by the time Scrooge arrived at the party and people were already beginning to make their way home. Dr Bob Cratchit was still there though. He was on a weeks leave and had clearly been taking full advantage of the fact by enjoying the liquid refreshment that had been freely on offer. He was a little worse for wear as he handed Scrooge a glass containing what little remained of the celebratory bottles of champagne that had been opened over the course of the evening.
‘What the dickens are you doing turning up so late?’ Cratchit asked Scrooge before adding in a more concerned tone of voice, ‘Are you alright. Looks like it must have been a bad day for you today Ebenezer’. Cratchit felt the need to look out for the man who had once been his trainer but was now his senior partner at work.
‘Yes and no, Bob. Yes and no. The day was certainly busy, made busier still by a late visit request. But you know what? I wouldn’t have missed that visit for the world. And I’ll tell you something else. What with the influx of new patients, we’re going to need to try and recruit a new partner. But don’t get any ideas of you lording it over them as senior partner. I’m afraid you’re stuck with me for a little while longer yet.’
And with that Scrooge raised a half full, rather than half empty, glass of warm, flat champagne and drank to all that was good about General Practice.
PART FOUR: GRAVE EXPECTATIONS.
in which Scrooge meets a red faced portly gentleman and finally calls for help.
It was Christmas Eve and Dr Scrooge was writing up the notes of the final consultation of his afternoon surgery. He looked up at the clock on the wall and noted that it was just before 7pm. It had been a long day. Through his open door he could hear Dr Cratchit singing a medley of Christmas songs. Clearly his colleague was looking forward to Christmas with his young family and his excitement had undoubtedly been heightened by the fact that during the afternoon it had begun to snow.
‘So here it is merry Christmas everybody’s having fun’, sang Dr Cratchit poking his head around the corner of Scrooge’s door. ‘Look to the future now it’s only just begun!’
‘Christmas it may be Bob, but I’m not sure that everyone is having fun,’ countered Scrooge suppressing a cough. ‘And I’m not so sure the future has just begun either. It rather seems to me that the future is on hold.’
Dr Cratchit however was not going to allow his spirits to be dampened. ‘I hope you’re not reverting to being a Christmas grump, Ebenezer. Why don’t you come round to our place for Christmas? You really would be most welcome’.
‘Thanks Bob, but I’d rather not. Maybe next year. You head off home. And do tell the receptionists that they can go home too. I’m nearly done – I won’t be here much longer.’
‘Well OK. As long as you’re sure. Have a good few days Ebenezer and I’ll see you on the other side!’. And with that Dr Cratchit left and a minute or two later Scrooge could hear him laughing with the receptionists as they braved the icy car park just outside his window. Soon all was quiet and Scrooge knew he was all alone in the building.
Scrooge had enjoyed spending last Christmas with Bob but this year his heart simply wasn’t it. It had been a hard year with his workload spiralling out of control. The weight of expectation on GPs had taken its toll with everybody seemingly wanting more and more from a profession that was already on its knees. Furthermore the constant criticism that had come from both the media and government had only made matters worse and the end result was that his mood had sunk ever lower.
‘Right now,’ thought Scrooge to himself, ‘Christmas is the last thing I need. The days off, of course, are welcome, especially after the last couple of weeks but Christmas isn’t like it was when I was a child. Back then Christmas was a magical time, a time you could really enjoy. But now? Now it’s seems it’s just another opportunity to burden oneself with the thousands of things we are expected to do if we are to be deemed acceptable celebrants of what our consumerist society has now made Christmas. I’ve had enough. I just want it all to stop.’
Even Scrooge’s Facebook feed seemed now to be asking more of him. All those memes which appeared to be simply offering winsome advice were, to Scrooge’s mind at least, just more examples of others exhorting him to do more. Urging him to ‘Be kind’ was all very well, he thought, but they might as well simply have insisted he ‘Do better’. Nonetheless Scrooge had made every effort to be kind, but no matter how hard he had tried there always seemed to be someone whispering in his ear, telling him that he still wasn’t good enough. Even that frequently offered advice that he be kind to himself felt to Scrooge like one more demand that he’d not been able to fulfil.
For over and above all others, there was another reason why Scrooge had not wanted to spend Christmas with the Cratchit’s. All week he’d been feeling unwell. He’d been coughing too. A PCR test the previous weekend had come back negative so, despite not really feeling up to it, he’d continued to work, unwilling as he was to leave Cratchit to manage the escalating workload by himself. That afternoon though he’d taken a significant turn for the worse. At one point he had been rigoring with a temperature of 38.7 and only by taking a couple of paracetamols had he been able to bring his fever down such that he felt well enough to keep on seeing patients.
Feeling so unwell meant it took Scrooge rather longer than he had expected to complete his paperwork and it was nearly 8pm before he finished all that he needed to do. Sensing his temperature was once more on the climb Scrooge rummaged through his desk drawers till he found some doxycycline that a patient had handed back to him earlier in the week. Then, for reasons he wasn’t quite sure of, he stuffed his pulse oximeter into his pocket before finally leaving his room and making his way out of the building. Outside it was bitterly cold and the snow was falling more heavily such that it was now beginning to settle. Scrooge got into his car and tried to start the engine only to hear the ominous clicking sound that could mean nothing other than the battery was completely flat.
Scrooge allowed his head to slump forward and rest on the steering wheel. ‘Great’, he said to himself. ‘That’s all I need!’ With it being Christmas Eve and not wanting to risk spoiling somebody’s family celebrations, Scrooge couldn’t bring himself to call anybody out and and so he decided to walk home instead. ‘It seems that this year I won’t be driving home for Christmas’ he muttered to himself as he began to cough once more, this time rather more forcefully.
Once he’d stopped coughing Scrooge got back out of his car and started to make his way home. Initially he trudged along main roads but it wasn’t long before he came to where his route took a sharp right turn. Scrooge pushed open the iron gates of the cemetery and, passing through them, continued a few paces on before stopping to gaze upon the gravestone that was clearly illuminated by the nearby street lights. The inscription read ‘In loving memory of Enid Gray who fell asleep August 6th 2020’. Scrooge remembered the elderly lady who had once been his patient, one with whom he’d spent Christmas with only three years previously and whose hand he’d held as she had taken her final breath. The inscription on her headstone ended with the words ‘Now at rest’. Scrooge couldn’t help feeling momentarily envious of Mrs Gray. How he could do with a little rest too.
On the other side of the path was another grave. This one was freshly dug and had yet to have been dignified with a headstone. Scrooge though didn’t need informing just who it was that lay beneath the still raised turf. Mark Ashley had died just three weeks previously, having presented to Scrooge only a month earlier already in the advanced stages of a malignant disease. He’d delayed attending because of concerns about catching Covid and now left behind him a grieving wife and two teenage children. Like Mrs Gray, he had been overcome by a disease that had been far more effective than Covid 19 in removing individuals from Scrooge’s patient list.
Scrooge continued along the cobbled path that ran straight across the centre of the cemetery. The night closed in on him as he ventured ever further from the streetlights that lined the road he had now left behind. About a hundred yards ahead a solitary lamp was shining brightly, driving back the darkness that surrounded it. Beneath was a bench upon which sat a portly gentleman who appeared to be wearing a red suit and whose face, itself somewhat rosy, was endowed with a long white beard. As Scrooge approached him, the figure stood up and greeted Scrooge with a broad smile and a cheery wave.
‘Good evening Dr Scrooge.’ said the man who clearly knew who Scrooge was.
‘Good evening’, replied Scrooge. ‘But I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage. I don’t recognise you in your costume’.
‘You don’t recognise me?’ questioned the man, clearly amused by Scrooge’s failure to know who it was that had addressed him. ‘That’s most unusual. I tend to get recognised by most people. So much so that’s it difficult sometimes to have a few quiet minutes to myself!’
‘I know the feeling’, interrupted Scrooge before allowing the man to explain that he had a number of names but that he was most commonly referred to as either Father Christmas or Santa Claus.
‘Very amusing I’m sure’, said Scrooge, but who are you really. ‘Are you one of my patients perhaps?’
‘No no,’ said the man, ‘I’m not local. I’m just passing through. But I’ll be sure to register as a temporary resident at your practice should I need any medical assistance. I do sometimes suffer with a touch of gout. I suspect it’s a consequence of all the port that I’m proffered at this time of year’
‘Oh come of it’ said Scrooge. ‘Father Christmas doesn’t exist’
‘Are you sure?’ the man replied. ‘I mean – haven’t you seen “Miracle on 34th Street?”’
‘Of course I’m sure. And some sentimental Christmas film isn’t going to persuade me otherwise. I’m a bit old to believe in Father Christmas!’
‘Nobody’s too old to believe in me. Next you’ll be saying that Christmas is for the children!’
‘Well isn’t it?’
‘Well yes – but it’s for adults too. However old we are, we all still need Christmas. What would life be without something as fantastic as Christmas to look forward to, something to lift our spirits and give us hope in even the hardest of hard times?. Don’t you believe the Christmas story?’
‘Of course I don’t. The Christmas story is no more true than your beard is real!’, Scrooge snapped back.
‘Well I’d have to agree with you there’, said the man in the red suit pulling on his beard firmly and surprising Scrooge somewhat when it failed to come off in his hand. ‘What about peace and goodwill to all men? Especially in these days of pandemic, couldn’t we all do with a little more of such things?’
‘Peace and goodwill – bah humbug!’ said Scrooge who was somewhat taken aback by hearing himself using an expression he’d not used for years. ‘Say what you like! I don’t believe in you or the Christmas story. The idea of there being someone so good and kind as to dispense gifts on everyone is ridiculous. The world is a tough place.’
‘Indeed it is – but there’s always hope.’
‘Not for the dead there isn’t’ said Scrooge indicating to the stranger as he did so the graves that lay scattered around them. The man in the red suit appeared to want to challenge Scrooge’s assertion but Scrooge wasn’t about to let a man he had decided was one bauble short of a fully decorated Christmas tree interrupt him now. ‘The truth is’, Scrooge continued, ‘that in the end the world defeats us all. And just now that most certainly includes me. That said, the idea of their being someone who is as kind as the person you’re claiming to be is, undoubtedly, quite appealing. Wouldn’t it just be heaven if there really was somebody who could bring some genuine joy into this miserable world, who could give us some hope for the future, who could put an end to all this death and disease?’
‘That’s quite a Christmas list you have there Dr Scrooge and you may have to look to someone other than myself for all that it contains. Nonetheless the less, I’ll see what I can do. In the meantime how about a yo-yo, a penny whistle and this half eaten satsuma that Rudolph mistook for a carrot?’
‘That’s very kind of you Santa’, smiled Scrooge resigning himself now to playing along with the peculiar man who was clearly set on staying in role. ‘I don’t suppose you could sort out the crises in General Practice too could you?’.
‘I’m not sure that I can I’m afraid, not this Christmas at least. But I’ll say this. When you have 55,000 GPs, all of whom are doing their best in incredibly difficult circumstances and some are still saying that it still good enough, then the problem isn’t with GPs. And here’s another thing. You are aware aren’t you that I know who’s been good and who’s been bad this year? Well you GPs, and all those who work alongside you, are most certainly not on my naughty list!’
And with that the man gave a whistle and from out of nowhere a sleigh appeared. It was laden down with presents and was pulled by eight reindeer one of whom had a particularly shiny nose. The man stepped on to the sleigh and took hold of the reigns. Then, with a hearty ‘Ho, ho, ho’, he gave them a sharp tug and a second later he had disappeared from sight leaving a bewildered Scrooge alone once more.
Scrooge stood motionless for a few minutes not knowing quite what to make of what had just happened. What was it about Christmas Eve that in recent years had resulted him repeatedly having such strange encounters? Soon though his thoughts turned to more pressing concerns when he suddenly developed a sharp pain in the side of his chest. He started coughing again and brought up some mucky green sputum which this time, Scrooge noticed, was flecked with blood. Keen to get home, he tried to quicken his pace but it was another twenty five minutes before he eventually found himself outside his house. As he turned the key in the lock and pushed open the front door Scrooge was really rather breathless from his exertions.
Inside it was dark and Scrooge stumbled his way to the lounge where he collapsed into his favourite armchair. He switched on the small lamp that stood on the table next to him and noticed the advent calendar that one of his patients had given him at the beginning of December. The last door was still closed as Scrooge hadn’t had time that morning to open it. He peeled it back now revealing a picture of a new born baby lying in a manger but Scrooge paid no attention to the scripture verse that was written on the inside of the door. Instead, conscious that his breathing had deteriorated still further, Scrooge reached into his pocket and pulled out the pulse oximeter that he’d placed there earlier and applied it to the index finger of his left hand.
Seeing it record a pulse rate of 128 and an oxygen concentration of just 86%, Scrooge realised that, Christmas Eve or not, now was the time to call for help. He took hold of his phone and tapped out 999 only to hear a message explaining that due to the volume of calls that were currently being received there was nobody immediately available to take his call but that it would be answered as soon as somebody was free. Several minutes went by before somebody eventually responded. After determining what the problem was the call handler assured Scrooge that an ambulance would be dispatched as soon as possible but cautioned him that, due to the unprecedented demand that they were currently experiencing, they may be some delay.
Scrooge sat quietly in the chair feeling himself becoming more and more tired. He looked down at the advent calendar and now noticed the words that were printed on the inside of the door he’d just opened. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’. They were the last words Scrooge saw. He found them strangely comforting and, believing them to be true, he managed a smile as, letting go of his hopes and fears, his eyes grew ever more heavy until he eventually fell into a deep, and dreamless sleep.
Outside, up in the sky, the silent stars went by.
Early in the new year the local newspaper reported Scrooge’s death and described how he’d been found by the ambulance crew when they eventually arrived at his home in the early hours of Christmas Day. It had been several hours after Scrooge had made his initial call for help.
His funeral was well attended and many there spoke of how much they had appreciated all that he had done for them. Had he been there it would have cheered Scrooge’s heart. But, of course, he wasn’t. Scrooge was somewhere far better, somewhere where he enjoyed everlasting light and could spend his days resting a while with Mrs Gray or learning the art of encouragement by spiritual visitation from Clarence, the angel he’d met the Christmas before and with whom he had become firm friends.
In time Scrooge took on the role of ‘The Ghost of General Practice at it’s Best’. There was nothing he loved more than visiting GPs and reminding them that, however great their struggle, there was always hope, always something good to enjoy about their work, always some light to be found in the darkness.
So if one Christmas something unaccountable happens, if perhaps a mince pie appears on your desk whilst you’ve been called away to a colleague’s consulting room as a result of their panic button going off for seemingly no reason whatsoever, ask yourself if you too may have been visited by Dr Scrooge, someone who now really is having fun and whose future, like yours, has ‘only just begun’.
To read the whole of ‘The Scrooge Chronicles’, click here
Other medically related Christmas themed blogs:
To read ‘How the Grinch and Covid stole General Practices Christmas’, click here
To read ‘Twas the night before Christmas – 2020’, click here
To read ‘A Merry, and Resilient, Christmas’, click here
Other GP related stories:
To read ‘Mr Benn – the GP’, click here
To read ‘A Bear called Paddington’, click here
To read ‘The Three Little GPs and the Big Bad Secretary of State for Health’, click here
To read ‘Jeeves and the Hormone Deficiency’, click here
To read ‘The Happy Practice – A Cautionary Tale’, click here
To read ‘A Mission Impossible’, click here
To read ‘A Grimm Tale’, click here