Dr. William O'Flaherty writes about one of his more interesting patients
Charlie was 63 years old and had lived with his father all his life down there on the Highlands along the North Shore, just below Bowbank’s Cove.
© Photo courtesy of University of Prince Edward Island.
Dr. William O'Flaherty
His father, Jack , now 91 years of age was a fish killer all his life and was still hale and hearty, up and around every day, admired and respected amongst the fishing people in the community, God fearing and paying his church dues right on time.
The two of them were patients at the Western Bay clinic for a number of years; they both had paper records there — records, let it be known, that were vastly different in size and content. The old gentleman’s chart was quite thin, holding within its folder only several reports and clinical notes. Jack rarely visited the — indeed, he rarely visited any medical facility anywhere.
Charlie’s record, on the other hand, was voluminous; it reminded me of my days as a young intern in the clinics at the General Hospital in St.John’s, where we referred to such a paper record as a "wheelbarrow chart," in that the wheeled conveyance was needed to transport the thing down the corridors of the hospital. We exaggerated, of course, but the reader will get the gist of what I am saying.
Charlie, you see, was a hypochondriac. Indeed, let it be said, he was a hypochondriac of mammoth proportions. One of my colleagues — a specialist, no less, and well-versed in matters medical, who had been consulted regarding his medical complaints stated that if there was an Olympic contest for hypochondriacs.
Charlie would come away with gold every time. Charlie had never married, but, as stated, had lived in the family home, staying on with his father while the other family members moved on. He appeared to be of average intelligence and had gotten his high school leaving certificate, or whatever was its equivalent back then when he was a teenager. He helped out a bit in the fishing boat when his father was active in that industry, but mostly he stayed ashore and helped his mother in the garden and in the kitchen. When she died he, with considerable help from a cleaning woman, a widow — who was also a good cook of “rough grub” — looked after the household responsibilities, he contributing as much as his perceived health problems would allow.
Jack referred to his son as ‘‘the young fella”....
Hardly a week went by without at least one visit to the clinic from Charlie. His complaints were multiple, his worries numerous, his requests for investigations legion. Within the confines of his chart were reports of every investigation known to the medical community, ordered by multiple doctors, including yours truly, and by long departed physicians who had treated him before my time on the shore.
Occasionally, on his visits to the clinic he would be accompanied by his father who came along for the ride and , of course, paid the taxi fare since, as he stated more than once, “the young fella ain’t got ONE cent to his name”...
One medical encounter, which occurred in the summer of the last year I practised on the shore, merits description.
Picture, if you will, an old fashioned two storey Newfoundland house — clapboard siding, flat roof, brick chimney, a wood house close by and outhouse a little ways away.
I arrive, black bag in hand; I have been called on a house call, you see, and I am ushered into the kitchen—low ceiling, lowered beams, wood stove, sparsely furnished with a table, few chairs and a settle.
On the sette is Charlie and during the whole visit he is silent, listening, not saying a word...
Pacing back and forth is Jack. He is upset, and whenever that occurs he is in the habit of using a dish towel like one would a pacifier, wiping his mouth and face and winding it around one hand and then the other...
He glares at me...
“Doctor! I wants you to give dat young fella a good checkup!”..
“Jack, I gave Charlie a checkup a month ago, and one back in the winter as well....”
He interrupts , as I try to talk; ”X-rays. What about X-rays?”
“Blood tests? How about blood tests?”
“Jack, we’ve done all that and found nothing. Listen, we got all the reports out there in his chart , out there in the car; it’ll take a few minutes to bring it in...”
“NEVER MIND the chart! .. listen, Doctor, I’m gettin’ sick and tired o’ dat young fella complainin’. He’s got a bad head, an’ a bad back, an’ a bad stomach; my God, he complained a few days ago about a part of him gettin’sore dat I never heard of before. Doctor, he got more complaints than a harse could haul!”
He was quite agitated, pacing all over the kitchen, pointing at Charlie every now and then, and giving that dish towel a full workout...
“Doctor, I’ll tell you wot. I wants you to give dat young fella a GOOD checkup, one more time, an’ if you don’t find NOTHIN’ wrong wit him, this time, you know wot?”
I waited for what was coming next — I have a deep respect for the wisdom of the elderly...
“I’m puttin’ him in the home!”
He repeated: ”By God, I’m puttin’ him in dat place down in da Grates! in dat place run by the government!”
The new checkup revealed nothing.
Charlie never did go into a home. One month later the old man died of a stroke.
He had a grand send off, did Jack. A grand three-day Irish wake with verbal accolades, all round, and toasts galore, with a small drink to his memory and the clergyman saying that ‘tis rare to find a man of such calibre and he an honour and supporter of the church for near a full century, and counting.
A very short while later, after a decent interval, the cleaning lady, she widowed and all, in a short ceremony presided over by the Church became the bride of Charlie, “the young fella”, and moved into the old homestead...
And they both lived happily ever after; indeed, for some reason, somehow, Charlie’s complaints and his frequent clinic visits decreased in number; and all the crowd around who knew them said she was the best thing that ever happed to him.
— Dr. William O'Flaherty is author of a best-selling memoir entitled "Tomcats and House Calls: Memoir of a Country Doctor." He worked a 40-year career as a country doctor in Newfoundland and New Brunswick. He was the country doctor in Western Bay, on the north shore of Conception Bay, from 1967 to 1989, and was born in the tiny fishing village of Long Beach, at the lower end Northern Bay. He writes from Moncton, NB.