Dr Pat Harrold
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Dr Pat Harrold notes down his hopes and fears for the year ahead
Dr Pat Harrold reflects on the modest and quiet pleasures of an unheralded time of the year
The new abortion service is due to be ready to go in primary care by 1 January 2019, says Minister for Health Simon Harris. At the time of writing, this is about as likely as Marty Whelan and Marty Morrissey beating the O’Donovan brothers in a double sculls race, but it begs the question: Why 1 January and why primary care?
The first of January is traditionally the worst day to start anything in the Irish medical calendar.
Lonely senior house officers, who had spent New Year’s Eve in a strange town before starting their new jobs in the morning, would face into work on a bank holiday. There would be lots to do after a long break and nobody would know what was going on. It makes you wonder if Simon Harris is on speaking terms with Leo, Michael Harty, James Reilly or indeed any doctor or healthcare professional at all.
Of course, Simon may be ready to go, but if he wants a first-world, modern service in which both woman and doctor are safe, he should perhaps take his time. I know he has a head of steam built-up from all that cheering in Dublin Castle, but as the late Paddy Hillery used to say: “You don’t rush at a free and score a point; you walk up and score a goal.”
He seems determined to put the service in primary care, presumably to do it on the cheap. I know the claim is that the service should not be based in urban centres, as it will put the rural people at a disadvantage.
To claim this, after years of systematic destruction of the rural way of life, shows breathtaking cheek.
The family planning centres seem to have been completely bypassed, maybe because the HSE supposes that the GPs will just take it on and keep going.
It is another straw on a camel’s back that is well broken, and the wonder is how the camel is still plodding along.
The proposed 24-hour helpline will probably take up most of the funding, with glossy hand-outs and posters of smiling telephone advisers in Irish and English festooned throughout the health service.
I can’t really see why it should run all night. Surely even the most desperate could look up what is available online and ring in the morning, but I suppose an around-the-clock service fits the Minster’s chutzpah.
There are three visits planned and there is a lot to do; a lot of paperwork and forms and probably an ultrasound. Now,while it is simple enough to date a foetus, the medical insurance companies are loath to insure GPs to have ultrasounds at all. An ultrasonographer could do it and send the image to a radiologist, who could report back by encrypted email. Not too many rural practitioners have ultrasonographers sitting quietly in their offices. They are lucky to have a cleaner these days.
I suppose in five years’ time it will all have settled down. Some will provide the service and some will not, like coils or joint injections.
But there is the matter of the conscientious objector. A number of doctors, of as yet unknown quantity, will not even tell the woman where she can go, presumably because if they do, they will roast in hell for all eternity. If you think that a loving God will require you to face a terrified teenager, who you’ve known since childhood, to whom you gave her vaccines and saw through childhood illnesses, who looks up to you and trusts you, and tell her to her tear-stained face that not only will you not help her, but you will not even tell her where to get help and you, because of your beliefs, have determined that she should stay pregnant, then say your prayers well, because He may be equally as hard on you some day.
Many Irish pro-lifers still support Trump, even despite his deplorable sexual, financial and moral past, because he is seen as ‘anti-abortion’. Once the child is out of the womb, she can be denied healthcare, locked in a cage, shot at in the classroom and racially attacked with the blessing of the President.
Minister Harris has a lot to do with protocols, unions, insurance companies and individual conscience, and I wish him well. But he would want to get it right. The first of January was always the worst day of the year for mistakes.
The Devil’s Bit had not changed much since I was there as a lad, but the surgeon had changed in the decades since I had last met him. I was surprised that he was still alive yet here he was, striding towards me on the stony ground, an incongruous sight against the backdrop of the gold hills and blue sky of Tipperary. He had aged, but he still had the bright eye and the energetic manner that had belonged to the hardest-working surgeon in Ireland.
“There you are. If I had been any longer, you would have been late.” I was straight away back on the hospital corridors, when whatever we did was wrong, and wondering why he had summoned me to this remote place.
“Anyhow. I have been reading your hack work in the medical papers. Simple stuff. I would write myself if I had the time, and a lot better may I add, but as you worked for me once you cannot be a complete fool, so I need you to write about this.”
I looked around the stony hollow. A chilly breeze rustled the few autumn leaves on the ground.
“Write about what, Professor?”
His walking stick struck me sharply on the knee.
“Fool! I have to explain everything. Take notes.
“Today is 21 September, which is the autumn Equinox, and for as long as anyone can remember, which in my case is long, the surgeons of Ireland have gathered here at The Devil’s Bit for Gallstone Day. Do you have to gape like a jackass? Close your mouth!”
“But Professor,why here?”
I ducked as the stick whistled over my head.
“Look around you. There are none so blind as he who will not see! What are everywhere?” He threw a handful of pebbles at me, as he had once hurled surgical implements at scrub nurses. “Stones! And not just stones. Perfect replicas of gallstones, kidney stones, biliary tract calculi, sharp ones, round ones, cholesterol-looking ones, pigmented-looking pebbles, and great big whoppers like golf balls.
“I see that I have to explain, you nincompoop. Before your time, if you operated on a patient, particularly a private one, for gallstones and nothing was found, it could be damned awkward. Nobody expects to see an appendix, but you had better have a nice gallstone for the punter to take home. And if the patient’s damned insides would not oblige, then the Devil’s Bit would. You would approach the bedside, chat for a minute and then fish from your pocket a fistful of stones, or a big one and a small one, or a few small ones. It didn’t matter, as long as it tallied with what you predicted. Many a house on Taylor’s Hill and in Killiney was paid for by those boyos.”
“As soon as you passed the Fellowship and got a permanent position, you were inducted into the Tipperary Calculus Club. We would comb the hill and fill our bags with gallstones, or the next best thing.
“Then along came the ultrasound. Took the awe out of it. Our God-like prescience was no more, when any fool could count the bastards for himself on an illuminated bread bin.”
His voice grew soft. His eyes were distant.
“We were never wrong. Never! I am the last of them. They are all gone.”
He walked away, suddenly old.
“Tipp did no good this year. But it’s a young team,” said a small voice behind me.
I whirled around. A leprechaun was sitting on a rock.
“And do you know, he never even thanked me for all the stones I picked for him down the years. Not once.”
He looked at the surgeon, now small in the distance.
“I suppose we felt sorry for them, slipping about in their shiny shoes and stripey trousers, dropping their top hats and cursing like rugby players. So we decided to help them out. ‘Get me a gross of cholesterol and two of bilirubin’ and off we would go, after yellow ones and piebald ones. Leprechauns and surgeons together, on Gallstone day. Small thanks we had for it, but I suppose many a one helped those lads out and watched them take the credit. But I would say you know that yourself.”
His eyes were as shrewd as a terrier’s. You don’t hide much from a leprechaun.
It was neither this year nor the last it happened. But I sometimes wonder, on the solstice, if there are any of them still there: Surgeons, leprechauns or gallstones.
“Who will be my role model, now that my role model is gone?” These are dark days, but a children’s author and some musicians give me hope for the future. A few days ago, I spent a magical evening in the company of three pensioners — Bonny Raitt, James Taylor and Paul Simon — who have spent a lifetime on stage and are no strangers to political instability, overseas wars and the dangers of ultra-right-wing ideology. They sang poignantly of nuclear war, personal freedom and love. It was badly needed, and as welcome as rain in a drought.
These are days of miracles and wonder. Angry voices see other countries as competitors. They reduce everything to a capitalist business model, as if countries were fast-food outlets competing for passing trade. These fundamentalists cannot see, or do not care, that we are all on this dwindling planet together. The right-wing ideologues of America, Italy, Romania and Russia have no philosophy suggesting that we share resources, help each other or show humanity. The Nazarene’s vision, that all people Samaritan, immigrant or Jew are your neighbour is shouted down, probably more viciously than when He was alive.
The new god is money and cynical pastors fly in private jets while refugees are camped starving at their gates.
And yet the Harry Potter books give me hope for the future. Can one book or writer make a difference? Well, there is the precedent of the Gutenberg Bible, of Luther, Karl Marx and Mao’s little Red Book. Theoretically, one-in-15 people on the planet own a Harry Potter book, as 500 million of them have been sold. So millions of children have attended Hogwarts, battled Death Eaters and been tested by the Sorting Hat. They know a Slytherin when they see one, with their worship of despotic leaders and racial purity. They also know how to curl up with a book. They have been freed from electronic clatter as they spend time thinking and dreaming, page by delicious page. They will know how to read to their own children, passing on countless gifts of literacy and bonding.
Trump does not read books. Pope Benedict was suspicious of Harry Potter. Christian fundamentalists condemn the books, not that they have read them. It is not hard to see why they don’t like them. In the books, Harry makes the choice to fight an evil and powerful regime, which would not go down at all well with despotic institutions. The Dark Wizards are the baddies and I wondered quietly (so as not to break the train of thought of the small person I was reading to) why anyone would ally themselves with murderous bullies. Why would anyone in their right mind join with evil Lord Voldemort, who was sure to put himself first at all times? But many a person chose to follow Hitler and Stalin, Putin and Trump even before they became powerful. I suppose it is a like an abusive relationship, where you appease the bully in the hope that they will leave you alone. James Comey observed that crowds behave more stupidly than individuals ever could, and can be swayed by one person. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was a leader who never read a book, but he was a petulant and ignorant ass who started arguments for no good reason and eventually manoeuvred Europe into a disastrous series of wars.
Mordor is everywhere, as Tolkien remarked. Mordor is a landscape, which has been polluted and befouled. You can see Mordor in the bend of a road when you come across a stinking factory, the fumes from a refinery or a dead stretch of water. It is felt that all those children who read Tolkien played a large part in the rise of the environmental movement. They knew Mordor when they saw it. Readers of Harry Potter will know the Dark Mark when they see it; the Dark Mark of those who promise power through cruelty, greed and selfishness.
I will always be grateful to JK Rowling for the hours and years of reading pleasure she gave my children. She donated money to libraries to keep them open, while George Bush pulled the funding to close them down, and has spent her fortune on good works. She has a big heart, her moral compass is as steady as the Rock of Cashel, and when our children read her books, they are in good hands. Read them yourself, if you haven’t done so already. We all need some magic living in these troubled times.
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.”Albus Dumbledore.