This site is intended for health professionals only

What it means to be a GP? Going beyond the call of duty

Dear Prime Minister, 

mabel a 3x2

mabel a 3×2 SUO

One afternoon at the walk-in centre years ago, an immigration officer called me. He wanted to send me a patient.

The young man, whom I’ll call Ahmed, arrived an hour later with his wife. They spoke little English. They had fled their country, arrived at the airport that very day and claimed asylum.

Ahmed complained of a headache. I groaned inwardly. I had 10 minutes to filter out the life-threatening causes from the trivial. Not that anything is ever trivial, but I think you understand me. 

After 20 minutes, I was satisfied there was no physical illness. I thought the headache was because of underlying stress and anxiety.

I was livid. I couldn’t leave the couple to face the trauma of sleeping in the streets

I could see that Ahmed was like a taut guitar string, ready to snap if tuned too tightly. I tried to meet his eyes, but his wife did most of the talking. Instead, Ahmed hid from me, shrank from me, was even frightened of me. I wondered what had happened to force his flight. The immigration officer’s instructions were clear – a ‘quick check-up’, meaning no probing. That was hard because I suspected the cause of the headache lay in Ahmed’s past.

I called the officer after I finished to find out Ahmed’s destination. He matter-of-factly said the office was about to shut and the couple should return the next day. I asked him where they should sleep. He hinted that it wasn’t his problem.

I was livid. I couldn’t leave the couple to face the trauma of sleeping in the streets after the torture of who-knows-what-where. I maintained an indignant silence and then the official capitulated. They could go to a hostel for the night but they had to arrive before 7pm.

I looked at my watch. It was 5.30pm. If they left immediately, they should make it. They looked at me blankly. Could I really expect them to negotiate alien streets to reach the hostel? Did they have money? I concluded I would have to be their vehicle.

I looked at the computer screen. There were still many patients to see. The shift nominally ended at 6pm but it never did. I beat down the surge of panic. I would have to finish on time. Fortunately, the remaining patients were straightforward. I postponed non-urgent admin to the next day and finished at a record 6.40pm. I collected the couple from the waiting room and bundled them into my car. Despite my awful sense of direction, I managed to find the hostel and arrived at 6.55pm – even without satnav.

The receptionist’s eyes reassured me they were safe – at least for the night. As I was leaving, other faces emerged from the waiting room. Other stories. Instinct pulled me towards them to relieve their pain. Reason told me to go home and refresh myself for the next day.

I never saw Ahmed again. I only hope, Ms May, that he is in a better place. A place with no headaches.

Dr Mabel Aghadiuno is a locum GP in south London. Details have been changed to protect the patient.