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Sep 2005 Journal

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Recollections of a junior doctor's wife

'You'll need to make sure the brass plate is kept bright, the surgery cleaned and to act as your husband's receptionist when he does his morning and evening surgeries.' My duties were thus spelt out by the wife of the senior partner.

To aid me in the first of these tasks I inherited a gaunt and rather intimidating helper, Mrs Milligan, or 'Millie', as she preferred to be called. She did indeed polish the brass plate. Apart from that, she had a highly idiosyncratic approach to her job. She would start by lifting the coconut matting in the waiting room and shaking it in the garden, sending out clouds of dust. She then swept up the dust that had fallen between the holes in the coconut matting and on to the powdery composition floor before replacing the mats. Next she ewbanked the doctor's carpet and polished his desk. In the little dispensary adjoining the consulting room she would single out for attention the brass tap, the scales used for weighing medicines and a few other choice items. Other objects she considered beneath her notice.

I remember looking with puzzlement at the galley pots containing the ungs: ointments, the Winchesters containing the mists mixtures (some coloured blue, which denoted 'poisonous') and the tincts - tinctures. Later I learned about their uses: mist pot cit cum hyasci for bladder troubles, tinct rei for sluggish bowels, and a sticky pink liquid called Gastroseda for indigestion. Intriguingly, all but the most recently acquired containers had a heavy coating of dust and many a bottle was spliced to its neighbour by a cobweb. Millie's gaze obviously did not stray to these so I tackled them myself.

My duties as a receptionist weren't onerous: I had to greet the patients as they came in, ask their names and get their record cards out of the filing cabinet. I learned the meaning of many mysterious initials: NAD - nothing abnormal discovered; REP MIST - repeat the medicine; and RIF - right iliac fossa (for suspected appendicitis). There were no computers and prescriptions were couched in scholarly Latin headed RE - recipe. The patients would leave the consulting room clutching these or the 'certificates' they asked for 'for the firm'.

The patients were mostly solid working class with a sprinkling of professionals, eccentrics, landladies and, as the neighbourhood became gentrified, journalists and actors. My husband, through his home visits, knew these people in their setting but only their clothes and accents gave me a clue to their lifestyles. I found relating to such a variety of people bewildering. But the job had its funny side. I remember one lady who came in regularly for her bottle of Mist Pot Cit. She was afflicted with a speech defect and deafness. We had many a bizarre conversation.

'Nice day', she would begin.
'Yes, it is bright.'
'Rain tonight?'

Try another tack:

'Is your husband well?'
'That's right - you never can tell.'
'Goodbye now!', handing her the bottle.

Occasionally I would be asked to act as chaperone for gynaecological examinations and once I became a surgical assistant. The patient was a young girl who had injured her leg. The stitches were due to come out. When I came into the consulting room the patient was already on the couch and her mother was seated a long way off. The instruments had been sterilised and the wound cleaned. I was given the job of holding a light above the girl's leg. The operation began: snip, snip as the stitches were cut open and removed. I remember a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and my hand beginning to shake. The next thing I knew I was on the floor and the patient's mother was comforting me. I was never asked to assist in surgical procedures again.
Martha Blend

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