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One of the most valuable things you can do as a doctor isn’t to help the living but to help the dying

I remember everything about that week, every single detail. It was one of those weeks that sears itself onto your cortex and then burrows deep down into your nervous system.

I was a junior doctor at the time and it was my first run of nights. My life was no longer my own, it was scripted by the hospital, and my existence had been reduced to minutes on the clock. From 10pm until 7am I ran from one end of the hospital to the other, I chased down corridors, cut across the wet car park and on into the next block. I bounded up flights of stairs rather than waiting for the lift and I John-Wayned my tourniquets, clipping one on either side of my waist. I was motivated by the unrelenting fear that every single doctor in that hospital was better than me and that sooner or later I was going to accidentally kill somebody.

The whole week I was made to feel useful. I syringed blood and stabbed arteries, smoothed in venflons and lubed up catheters. I ran with sweat during CPR and clerked in hundreds of patients. I was spurred on by the wind and the bleep and as the week wore on my emotions worked themselves free, rising to the surface of the skin like a foreign body.

During that week I learnt that one of the most valuable things you can do as a doctor isn’t to help the living but to help the dying. And the most important thing for someone who is dying is to get them home.  And I think, in a small way, I may have helped to do just that.

The ward called me out just before 6am. Emily had taken a turn for the worse, she was palliative and not for recuss. They wondered if I could come and take a look at her; I think they felt sorry for her.

She was in a side room and I read the notes in the early morning hush. Seemingly nothing more could be done. We sat together and she asked me where I was from. I said Leicestershire in the midlands, she knew it well. She asked me if I knew of Trent Lock, I said I did. Apparently she’d grown up there and when she was a child it was always summer and she would always wear the same white dress. She would go on walks with her mother and hold tightly onto her hand. And then she held tightly onto mine.

We walked along the river together, remembering the buildings and the trees, she remembered things as they were when she was a child. Then she seemed to let go and walked off by herself, up the stone flight of stairs that led up the embankment and away. She died not soon after. But at least she’d made it home.

It wasn’t the venflons or the drugs or the machinery of medicine which had made the difference. It was my hand. And as the profession’s hands are bound I hope to be able to hang onto that idea, just as Emily, on that winter morning, had hung on to me.

Dr Kevin Hinkley is a GP in Aberdeen


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