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Independents' Day

Why I'm lucky to be the GP in Eden

When Dr Anthony Hereward volunteered as official GP to the Eden Project he had little idea what sort of task he was taking on

A giant greenhouse in a pit sounded like the start of a joke, but it was the start of a consultation with a patient who worked at the nearby Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall. This joke would become a world-class tourist attraction ­ the Eden Project. A small team was trying to raise millions to build it. Tim Smit, the brains behind the plan, was off telling people they wanted to invest. The project aimed to employ 200 to 300 local people and have maybe 300,000 visitors a year.

I had cosy visions of a warm retreat for eating lunch in the depths of winter, so I offered my services as local GP. I also have a diploma in tropical medicine, a degree in zoology and first-hand experience of several tropical illnesses I would have preferred to avoid but hadn't.

To start with, it all seemed fairly innocuous, working out the risks of building and running the world's biggest greenhouse. Could there be malaria or some other vector lurking in the foliage? I joined think-tanks on access, site management, health and safety and all sorts of other areas in which l had barely a clue, but then we were all flying into the unknown.

Too stressed for stress management

When the place opened we were swamped. In fact we were swamped before then with an extraordinary number of people coming to see our progress. Automatic defibrillators were put in after a visitor had an infarct. More training was needed.

There were two million visitors in the first year. This was far more than anyone had expected and more than the site was designed to handle. The first sign of stress showed in the staff, particularly the management.

We conducted a stress management course but some managers were too stressed to attend. There was more reshuffling and it was time for me to get some proper training. One occupational health diploma later (real trainspotter stuff, endless boring Acts and clauses) and we were able to appoint an occupational health nurse.

Another visitor area opened up and staff were sent on expeditions to exotic and remote parts of the world to collect plants. I dispensed advice, immunisations and antimalarials.

A GP's caseload in Eden

There was a tricky moment when, during a national scare over Legionnaire's disease, someone went down with the disease after visiting Eden. Thankfully, all our records were up to date and intact. Despite the immense irrigation system, often kept at ideal temperatures for Legionella, none was ever found.

On another occasion I got a night-time call from the vet. 'Some of the lizards have salmonella and there's psitticosis in the finches. Should we be worried?'

I suggested we catch the birds and feed them tetracyclines. There was a snort on the other end of the line. 'It would be like catching a sparrow in the Houses of Parliament' (which would fit snugly into the humid biome). Instead we examined the drill for cleaning drinking fountains and sterilisation procedures in the humid tropics biome to make

sure no one would inadvertently drink diluted distillate of whatever the animals had been feeding on. All was well.

Occasionally I become involved in a customer complaint. One woman wrote to tell us her husband developed a rash after he brushed past one of our plants. When I talked to the botanists about this they reacted as if I had complained their child was out of order in the playground. I got nowhere. So I was extremely grateful when the woman wrote again to explain that her GP had diagnosed shingles.

When the plans were originally drawn up the architect had assigned the medical facilities to two broom cupboards, presumably thinking that everyone would stay healthy. We now have a paramedic, who fields a wider variety of problems every day than I see in the surgery.

Who says you can take health for granted in Eden?

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