Visit from a doctor ... 1950s style

By Joseph O'Brien

I was nearly four at the time and was delighted to get the chance to go and help my Daddy give water to the cow. However, I was dressed very lightly because of the warm day and as can sometimes happen the evening got very cold with a slight Easterly breeze getting up. Of course, as a child I didn’t notice that and unfortunately neither did my father who was now engrossed in conversation with another neighbour who had come upon the event.

By the time my mother noticed that I was still out in the evening air I was quite cold and beginning to sneeze a bit. The next morning when she went to get me up to dress me for the day I had a bad dose of a cold and was coughing a lot. As the day wore on things didn’t improve for me. To make matters worse my parents had invited a cousin of my father’s, who had only recently ordained a priest, to consecrate the house that day. This was a common practice in those days. Today we would just have the party and skip the few prayers. In any event they had invited a number of neighbours and friends to what was a big event, in the locality. My mother was very busy throughout the day with making sandwiches and deserts and generally making sure that the house was presentable for the evening’s event. She probably hoped that as a young healthy child, which I was, I would just get over the cold in a few days and that there was no need to worry unduly.

I was left in my cot during the main event in the late afternoon and only when the adults had eaten did my mother come to get me. However, when she reached down to pick me up she got the fright of her life. I was in a lather of sweat and had a raging temperature. She wrapped me in a blanket and brought me up to the kitchen where all were gathered and told those who asked what the matter was that I had gotten a chill the evening before. She tried to put a brave face on it and hoped that it was not more serious than that. However, her motherly instincts told her otherwise. The crowd duly left as it was getting late and my mother was left holding a very sick child on her knee. I can still remember her asking my father to “put another sod of turf on the fire” in the old black range that we had for heating and cooking at the time. To this day I can still see the look of horror in my father’s eyes as he realised for the first time that I was extremely ill. The night wore on and the two parents discussed my condition over and over until eventually my mother asked my father to go and get the doctor. By this time it was past midnight and the rain was coming down in bucketfuls. None the less, a sick child is a sick child and there was no point in waiting until morning as my deterioration suggested that by morning things could be very bad. He got on his bicycle - there were no telephones and precious few cars in the locality then - and cycled the six miles into Kells which was our local town, where he knocked on the doctors door. It was a very angry doctor who answered the door. He had had a very bad day. For the first half of the day he had manned the local dispensary. He didn’t get any lunch, as he had to make a number of urgent sick calls. Just when he was settling down for an evening meal with his wife and children, he had to go and deliver a baby. After that he was called out to an old man who died while he was there. As the day was coming to an end he had to go and patch up a man who got badly cut in a farming accident. He really didn’t want any more trouble when he was tired and knew he would have a similar experience the following day. My father explained about me and the doctor asked him crossly why he had left it so late. Didn’t he know that doctors needed their sleep too? While my father was a fair man to fight his corner he wasn’t about to annoy the man any more in case he wouldn’t make the visit, so he apologised and said that if it wasn’t for a very sick child he wouldn’t have come to disturb the doctor at this hour. He did expect that the doctor might give him a lift back home in his car and he could pick up the bike in the morning. Not a bit of it. The good doctor told him to head off home and that he would get there shortly. The rain was at this time like a monsoon and my unfortunate father, wet and weary, started to head for home on the bicycle. When he was about half way home the doctor’s car passed him and he said a silent “prayer” for him but was glad that at least he was making the visit.

Of course the doctor arrived at the house before my father got home and proceeded to berate my unfortunate mother who was of the opinion that she had enough on her plate with a sick child on her knee. After all, she also had a very busy and eventful day and was feeling quite weary herself. I still remember the feeling on my skin of the extremely cold stethoscope (I know a woman who can never remember the name stethoscope and always refers to it as the doctor’s little cold thing). I managed to get the energy somewhere to cry at the shock of cold on my very hot skin. “Do you realise that this is a very sick child?” he asked my mother abrasively and added that I had double pneumonia. “Yes doctor I do doctor,” she replied, “haven’t I been nursing him here at this fire for the past five hours. I didn’t realise that it was pneumonia though. Surely you know that his father wouldn’t venture out to get you on a night like that if we didn’t think he was very ill”. “Did he eat his dinner today?” he barked at her. My mother hesitated not quite remembering whether I had or not as it had been a very eventful day. Thinking that he was winning this round he asked “Do you realise that it is a quarter past one Mrs”. “Well in that case doctor, I haven’t offered him his dinner for today yet” she replied. That was enough for him. He decided he had met his match for this day. He went over to the kitchen table, which still held most of the cups, plates and assorted dirty dishes that the guests had earlier dined from. No one had had a chance to clear up after everyone had gone. At this my unfortunate father came in and he was soaked to the skin. “God that’s an awful night” he said dripping all over the kitchen floor. Neither my mother nor the doctor were in a humour to answer him although the doctor grunted something indecipherable. He finished making whatever note he was writing and decided to give me an injection. Penicillin was fairly new on the market then and was at the time hailed as a wonder drug. Looking back I presume that was what he decided to use. One way or the other he approached me with a needle, which looked to my childish eyes that it was at least nine inches long. He gestured to my mother to turn me over and oh my god. Well let’s just say that in the intervening years, because of various medical complaints, I have been injected in the rear a couple of hundred times. However, although I was only four years old, I remember that needle more than any other pain in my life. Pneumonia or not, I managed a very strong roar from my tiny sick lungs then settled down to cry my eyes out.

My father thanked the doctor and he said goodnight as he made his way to his car. Afterwards, my worried father and mother sat up with me until I fell asleep and then carried me down to my cot where I don’t remember anything until the next morning. They kept a watchful eye on me throughout the night and in the morning were relieved that my temperature had at last subsided. In truth, they were relieved that I was still alive. I was left asleep until late in the morning by which time they had done most of the clean-up and had looked after my other brothers and sisters. At last I was taken up and dressed and there was a distinct improvement in my condition. In later years when one of my own children got pneumonia, I was to see a repeat of this quick recovery. A child can recover quite quickly when the correct treatment is given in good time. My mother asked me if I would like some porridge, something I wouldn’t look at now but which I couldn’t get enough of as a child. She had a nice fire on in the old black stove and a cake of brown-bread baking in the oven.

Meanwhile, the doctor had thought better of the altercation the previous night and being a conscientious man thought he had better look in on the sick child he had visited the night before. In fact, he admitted to my father that he intended to take me into Navan hospital if there wasn’t a distinct improvement. But when he arrived I was just finishing the bowl of porridge and on seeing him jumped down off the chair I was on and ran to hide behind my older brother who had no idea of the events of the early hours of the morning. However, my father reassured me that there would be no more injections, that the doctor just wanted to see if I was all right. I still cried at the touch of the stethoscope, that cold thing as some might call it, but at least I wasn’t re-assaulted by a nine-inch needle again. Seeing that the house had undergone a transformation, and with the ambient atmosphere from the warm stove and the smell of fresh baked bread, he decided that I would be better off at home where I would no doubt get better attention from my mother and father instead of the over-worked and harassed nurses in the hospital.

That’s a very long time ago now and I am eternally grateful to my mother who cared for me through a very long weary evening into the early morning, a father who got soaked to the skin going to fetch the doctor, and the doctor himself who despite his annoyance did come out and probably saved my life. He was a man whom I got to know well in later years and considered him a good friend as well as my doctor.