I’m often asked what I consider the most respected of professions. It’s not just idealistic school children who want to know but also adults and even, occasionally, journalists. But I’ve always ducked the issue. When pressed I pass on my late wife, Nisha’s, answer. “The medical profession”, she would say. She had no doubt about it. Her own, banking, and mine, journalism, were held in low regard!
Over the last six weeks I’ve realised Nisha was right. It’s when you need one that you understand how important a doctor is. And that’s when you see how far they go to help and care. I’m not sure what the limits of a doctor’s duty would be, but in the last forty five days not once did I see one, restrained by them.
Let me explain. On the 16th of June, Mummy broke her right hip. Two and a half years earlier she had broken the left one. At 91 this double whammy was a particularly debilitating and worrying blow. My sisters and I had premonitions of the worst. But the care and affection Mummy got at the Army’s R &R Hospital eased our concerns. In your nineties life is precarious but the R and R has given her the gift of a second start. It’s also made me think how I should answer that question.
In Nisha’s eyes what made doctors special was their dedication to saving human life. No one else, she would argue, can make a similar claim. And although she used the word doctor, it was a short form. The medical profession as a whole was what she had in mind — nurses, physiotherapists, interns. She saw them as a fraternity.
But let me go two steps further. I have the advantage of witnessing Mummy’s hospital experience and, before that, Nisha’s long stint at the National Hospital in London. I would add there’s something special about the people who choose to become doctors and nurses. They tend to be gentler, more caring, more sympathetic than the rest of us. Even relations can become frustrated by the tantrums or depression of the ill. They never are.
At the R&R, Mummy’s doctors would often visit late at night to see if she had eaten or was cheerful. On Sundays the Commandant’s wife would send her idlis and sambar to induce an appetite. The nurses would take turns coaxing her to eat or simply chat to pass the long night hours. And the patience with which patients are washed, cleaned, massaged or, in Mummy’s case, taught to walk is simply remarkable.
Of course, doctors and nurses all over the world are like this. But what makes those at the R&R special is that here they do it out of love and dedication. Out in civvy street, their colleagues are likely to charge a king’s ransom and you have no alternative but to pay. At the Army Hospital remuneration is the last of their concerns. The salaries they receive do not reward their dedication. If anything, they mock it!
The paradox is that no sooner had I come to this conclusion than I found most people readily accept the broad point I’ve made about the medical profession. Whoever I shared my thoughts with seemed to immediately agree. But there is a flip side to this unanimity. It emerges from the fact that news of doctors going on strike — or mass casual leave — is always met with dismay. Such acts of protest seem to contradict the nobility of their profession. It’s seen as a self-inflicted injury. An act that places doctors and nurses on the same level as the rest of us.
Doctors, we seem to believe, are special and therefore they must not resort to behaviour unremarkable for the rest of us. Perhaps, but then isn’t it incumbent on us to ensure they don’t need to? Should they not be amongst the best paid? Should we not reward them for their devotion without their having to demand it?
I would say the answer is an unequivocal yes. This should be our way of saying thank you.