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Independents' Day

Haslam's view: Arranging a working lifetime of memories

I well remember the day I first started work in my consulting room at the health centre.

I sat at the desk and thought to myself: ‘It's entirely possible that I will work at this desk longer than I have lived.'

And so it almost turned out. I started work in this practice when I was 27, and that was, well, let's just say it was considerably more than 27 years ago. The only reason that my prediction didn't come true is that I changed the desk.

I'm not sure I ever really planned it this way. If I remember rightly, my original plans were to spend a few years here and then move on, but – as John Lennon so beautifully put it – ‘Life is just what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.' I've got no complaints. It's been a fascinating career.

But recently it struck me that I really couldn't expect to stay in that room permanently. My time in the practice is now relatively limited, and it seemed right to give up my room and share with one of my colleagues. And so, a few weekends ago, I cleared everything out. It was quite a task.

Whatever my wife might say, I'm not actually a hoarder. The several decades' worth of magazines in the attic at home, the thousand or so vinyl albums, the boxes of photographs don't actually count. They are essential – part of my archives, and not junk at all. But I had liked to think that my counsulting room was different. Keeping a clear desk is an overt sign to my patients that I'm organised and have time for them.

But that is the surface of the desk. The only way to achieve this appearance of Zen-like serenity is to sweep everything into drawers, cupboards and box files, the contents of which are much closer to the true state of my life and mind: cluttered and apparently chaotic.

And clearing these out was fascinating. There's something intriguing about finding a box file labelled ‘urgent and important' that you realise you last opened over ten years ago, and something deeply satisfying about putting all the contents through the shredder.

Most heartening were the files of letters and cards from patients who had long ago passed through my life and for whom something I had done had been appreciated. The old medical law that ‘the patients who are most grateful are those for whom you did the least, and vice versa' seemed entirely borne out by the occasions that the letters brought back to mind. But they were still good to read.

And finally I had to clear my bookshelves, and while doing so I realised that I had been using my favourite dermatology textbook ever since I purchased it when I was a trainee. I had just never quite noticed how old it had become. A bit like me, I suppose. It was time to say farewell to it, and to many other old and rarely opened friends.

And now I've settled in another room. Decluttering my life, bringing with me only the things that really seemed essential, has actually been therapeutic. But my patients are still confused, turning right when they leave my room rather than taking the left hand turn they'd taken for years. Some habits can be very hard to break.


Professor David Haslam CBE
GP, Ramsey, Cambridgeshire; President, Royal College of General Practitioners; national clinical adviser to the Healthcare Commission; and Visiting Professor at de Montfort University, Leicester

The only way to achieve this appearance of serenity is to sweep everything into drawers

Haslam's view

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