By Dr Shaba Nabi, GP and GP trainer, Bristol
The enveloping warmth was definitely a sign that the summer of 2003 was approaching, and for the first time in a while, I felt optimistic for the future. I had finally put the heartbreak of a failed relationship behind me and I was due to be moving into my first flat that weekend. The icing on the cake was that I had a blind date lined up; my sister reassured me he was perfect for me.
It had not been easy to come back to my old haunts after travelling the world. I had been working as a cruise ship’s doctor managing cardiogenic shock and acute psychosis in far flung places such as the Panama Canal and Alaska. Returning to my GP training practice in London to be faced with coughs and colds was hardly rock and roll, but it offered me a security blanket to build a new life for myself.
I drank in the familiar faces and also acquired a few new ones as the practice had taken over another list. Many of these patients were challenging because the list had been run by locums for some time; the patients seemed bereft as they were used to being treated by a single-handed GP. One such patient was a 77-year-old man called Tom who was seeing me weekly for his untreated heart failure. In spite of his deteriorating mobility, he would always greet me with: ‘Nice to see you, to see you nice.’
I warmed to Tom immediately, not least because he was an ex-sailor and we used to share stories of the sea. He complained bitterly about his worsening health but would always have a laugh and a joke with me before leaving. Fiercely independent, he still managed to make his own way to the surgery every week with the help of his walking stick. One rainy day I drove past him walking home, having travelled only a couple of hundred yards in over half an hour. I stopped the car and gave him a lift home and I could tell he was relieved and embarrassed in equal measure.
So when I was interrupted half way through my morning surgery one Friday, to be told I needed to go and certify Tom’s death, I was shocked and sad as I had only seen his smiling face a few days earlier. Although not on call, I felt it important for me go but no one had prepared me for the sight I was about to witness.
Tom was surrounded by a pool of blood and a 12-inch blade lay next to him, with which he had pierced his heart. My thoughts immediately leapt to some of the conversations we’d had about ‘seppuku’ practised by the Japanese samurai during the Second World War. These memories, combined with the vision in front of me, were making me feel dizzy and nauseous. This must have been apparent to the paramedic standing near me because as he reached towards me, I crumpled in his arms, sobbing inconsolably.
It’s amazing the detail you can remember at times like this but two thoughts were playing on my mind. The first was the shame of being unable to comfort Tom’s wife. The second was cursing myself for wearing a strappy summer dress, which seemed wholly inappropriate for the occasion.
Needless to say, I left work early that day and was in no mood for a blind date that evening. The thrill of moving into my first home suddenly became a mountain I had to climb when I just needed some time to heal. I texted my blind date to tell him I couldn’t make that evening and briefly explained why. When he replied telling me I shouldn’t get so involved with my patients, I told him never to contact me again.
He had obviously failed the blind date test.