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As it comes towards Christmas, I have been reflecting on the "gifts" that I have received over the years from patients whom I have cared for. These gifts are not the regulation bottle of plonk, but are those experiences that have helped forge me into the person I am now. Some of the gifts I would rather not have received, but they have been a part of the tapestry that is my life story.
There was dear old Mrs Little, a lady I had never met until I received a phone call from her. "My son Bill is wetting the bed still, any suggestion?" she asked. I asked a few pertinent questions such as how long had this been going on, and what sort of things had she tried already. Then I asked "How old is Billy", to which she replied, "65". It turned out that Bill was an alcoholic who lived in the caravan at the back of her ancient home in rural Victoria! When I visited him, it also turned out that Bill had advanced head and neck cancer that he had never bothered to get checked. Over the months of caring for Bill in his final illness, I got to spend a lot of time with Mrs Little who was full of ancient wisdom: "Catholics should be graded like eggs" was one that sticks with me, and this from a lady who attended almost daily Mass. She lived to be 105 with her faculties still intact.
Another delightful lady who always cheered me for other reasons was a lady in her 80's who was also an alcoholic. When I visited her at home, usually mid morning, she was already drunk and greeted me with the words "God, you're handsome", which always does some good to a middle aged man's ego!
Mr D'Arcy was a gentleman to his bootlaces, always gracious and always welcoming. He had the most severe airways disease and yet always walked me to my car after a visit and shook my hand in thanks for coming to his house.
Matt was a very intelligent, but troubled teenager, who made his parents life hell. But there was something about the kid that I liked. He was smart and insightful, but he was an unmitigated risk taker and "defier" of authority. We used to have long conversations on life and all the great opportunities that were opening before him and how he could do great things, if just he could accept that life does present us with boundaries which we all have to live within. Matt would smile, and I knew he was in some other place that I could never enter. He was seeing psychiatrists and taking various medications: I think he used to see me more for a chat than anything medical. He committed suicide and I was devastated not only for his family, but for a life that had so much, and yet chose oblivion over challenge. Thanks Matt for teaching me about how tough life is for some teenagers.
Bob Jefferies was a grumpy, hard individual who was rude to all and sundry, Doctors included. He was one of those "heart sink" patients whom you dreaded to see in the waiting room. For some reason he picked on me, and over the years I got to know Bob really well and also got an insight into why he was grumpy. He had been a rear gunner in the last great war and was shot down over Germany. He jumped from the burning plane at a height of 2000 feet, with his parachute on fire too! Fortunately it was winter and he fell into a snow covered pine plantation and skidded down the trees into deep snow fracturing both feet into the bargain. He tried to walk to safety, but all he got was frostbite to his burnt broken feet before he was captured and interred. After the war he married and had a son: when his son was a teenager, he was killed in an accident that left the parents devastated. Bob never talked about his son, his wife told me, but he did open up about his war years and when he left these consultations, he would shake my hand and smile and say "Thanks Doc".
To all the patients with whom I have shared such amazing moments, I would like to say "Thanks to you all", you have enriched my life.