Published in 2004 in The Irish Catholic, my only publication there – the literary editor, Peter Costello, is the father of a friend. This is a somewhat sturdy review of an entertainingly straightforward little memoir. Perhaps this piece presaged more recent writings on medical memoirs.
A Spoonful of Medicine: Tales of an Irish Doctor
(Barny Books, Hough On the Hill, Grantham, Lincolshire, £5.99)
Reviewed by Seamus Sweeney
The public have a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for medicine, as can be seen in the TV schedules and the bookshops. There are two definite strains in medical drama. One is the hard-nosed likes of ER, or Samuel Shem’s House of God. These revel in the gory, the seamy, the adrenaline-fuelled, the sleep-deprived and the dramatic. The other sorts, as exemplified by The Royal, are exercises in gentle nostalgia and anecdote. A Spoonful of Medicine, Dr Owen Gallagher’s memoir of his time as a junior doctor, tends more towards the latter school, although it avoids sentimentality and cheap nostalgia.
This book is a collection of stories from Dr Gallagher’s years as a recent medical graduate in the late 60s and early 70s, particularly in accident and emergency, in paediatrics and in psychiatry.
Some anecdotes bear the hallmarks of much polishing over the years, and certainly some of the dialogue is rather unbelievable, with the characters coming out with perfectly grammatical paragraphs and overly pat witty repartee. There are several lapses on the part of the sub-editors, which lead to distracting typos and occasional confusion as to what precisely is happening on occasion.
However, these seem rather churlish caveats about what is a warm-hearted, entertaining book. The stories, while comic and sharply observed, are never cruel and Gallagher’s compassion comes through without ever becoming sanctimonious. Particularly in the final series of stories from his time in psychiatry, we sense his admiration and respect for certain of his patients’ bravery and approach to life.
It was a far different Ireland then, and it was also a far different medical practice. Certainly its impossible to conceive a character like Dr Moore, protagonist of one of the most memorable sections, being produced by today’s medical schools. Dr Moore was a GP whose practice revolved around the schedules of the racetrack rather than any notion of patient convenience. Moore had honed his system until the least possible amount of time was spent with the patients, with anything at all worrying referred to accident and emergency post haste. Dr Gallagher, working in the nearby A&E, bore the brunt of this extra work.
One patient recalled Moore completely ignoring his complaints, preferring to listen to the radio broadcast of a horse race, and then telling him to get himself down to the pub for a couple of pints and a few cigarettes, as “your complaint is mainly in your head, anyway.” Moore never asked a patient to undress, and would listen with his stethoscope over even the heaviest clothing. It may come as no surprise that his patients were all very fond of Dr Moore, who never kept case notes as he knew all the patients from living in the same community as them. Dr. Gallagher too came to appreciate his more endearing qualities.
It certainly is a long way from that to the obsession with targets and mission statements that marks modern health services. This book is not a sociological tract and it would be unfair to expect a deep analysis of the relative pros and cons of the health system, or indeed society as a whole, then and now. There is however a sense of loss at the passing of a certain pace of life and a certain approach to social interaction. Modern practice seems much more rushed and impersonal.
The book could also have been subtitled “what they don’t teach you in medical school.” If the book has a “moral”, it is that much of the education in human nature that makes a good doctor takes place far from the lecture hall or library. It is an enjoyable account of how one doctor acquired that education.