Going to the doctor

The surgery was on The Hill in Langport. Cars must have been considerably rarer, for I never once remember there being nowhere to park on the street outside, on the steep descent from All Saints’ Church to Bow Street.

There was an appointments system, but, if you really needed to see someone, you could arrive at the end of the appointments and there would always be a doctor who would see you. It was mystery as to how they found time for all their tasks. The same doctors who did morning and evening surgery also did house calls, local clinics (including one in our village pub), and, if called out on a emergency, would come to homes in the villages in the dark hours of the night; a familiar face would appear in suit and tie and carrying a Gladstone bag.

Perhaps demands upon the time of the doctors were far fewer. The National Health Service was only twenty years old and generations used to counting the pennies and the shillings before calling a doctor would have only thought of making an appointment if it were absolutely necessary.

The surgery wasn’t just a place of general practice, it was our local emergency unit. When seven years old, I fell across a bicycle, its brake lever piercing my cheek to the extent that I can still feel the scar inside my mouth. When I was twenty-seven years old, I ducked under scaffolding and stood up too quickly, gashing my head open on a protruding bolt. On both occasions, the stitching up was done at the surgery. “Is there much baldness in your family?” asked the doctor stitching my head. “No”, I said. “Good,” he said, “these stitches aren’t very neat.”

The surgery included a dispensary, a room viewed through a white-painted hatchway. There were no blister packs or sealed plastic bottles, the pharmacist put pills into round cardboard pill boxes, and made up potions that were dispensed in glass bottles. Medications were less common then, drugs now taken for granted were not available. As someone who suffered severe childhood asthma and allergies, the available prescription drugs were not plentiful. Hay fever, which caused extreme discomfort every summer, was something that just had to be endured.

Perhaps the range of treatments available was much narrower than it is now, perhaps the medications that could be prescribed were far fewer, but perhaps the paucity of options was more than compensated for by the confidence we had in the doctor. For us, there was little a country GP did not know or could not do. Perhaps our confidence in the kindly man sat at his leather-topped desk was a healing in itself.

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