Working As Equals
April 9, 2012
Originally published in In Stitches Magazine, September 1996
O’Reilly fails to mellow with time
From time to time after I’d emigrated to Canada, I would return to my roots in Ulster. When I did so, I’d always make a point of visiting my old friend Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly to see if he’d mellowed with time. The last time I dropped in to see him, in the early ’80s, he was still in harness.
When I called at the house. Mrs. Kincaid answered the door. She told me that for the last week Doctor O’Reilly had been dealing with a particularly rough ’flu epidemic. He’d been summoned the night before to see a little girl who was desperately ill with pneumonia. He’d simply loaded the parents and the child into his own car, driven the forty-odd miles to the Royal Victoria Hospital and then, because the parents had no phone, brought them back to his own home so they could receive regular progress reports. He was like that. He was very tired, she said, but she was sure he’d be glad to see me.
She knocked on the door. “Come in.” I’d have recognized those gravelly tones anywhere. She opened the door. O’Reilly sat at his old roll-top desk. The heavy boxer’s shoulders were more bent, his complexion more florid. He was writing a prescription for a young woman. “Just a minute.” He didn’t look up. “Remember, Annie. One at breakfast time and one in the morning.”
“Thank you, Doctor O’Reilly.” The young woman left.
“Good God.” He saw me standing there. “You still alive?”
I could tell by the grin he was pleased to see me. He didn’t get up. He arched his back. “I’m buggered. Tell you what: you have a pew” — he motioned towards the examining table — “and I’ll finish the surgery.”
“Right, Fingal.” I went to the couch, remembering vividly that this was exactly how we’d started.
“We’ll have lunch at the Black Swan when I’ve finished stamping out disease,” he said, as Mrs. Kincaid ushered in the next supplicant.
I sat there quietly as he saw patient after patient, flu case after flu case. In the middle of the chaos, a well-dressed man in his early 40s entered the room and took a seat.
“Good morning,” said O’Reilly, “What seems to be the trouble?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” said the man, looking disdainfully at the shabby furnishings. “Perfectly fit.”
O’Reilly’s bushy brows moved closer to each other, like two hairy caterpillars heading for a choice leaf. “I’m just a bit busy …”
“My business will only take a moment. I’m new in this town.”
The caterpillars reared their forequarters questioningly. O’Reilly said nothing.
“Yes.” The man crossed one immaculately creased trouser leg over the other. “I’m interviewing healthcare providers.”
O’Reilly leant forward in his own chair, head cocked to one side. “You’re looking for a what?” His question sounded so ingenuous he could have been addressing an American tourist who’d inquired where he might find a leprechaun.
The man shook his head and smiled a pitying smile, the kind he obviously kept for yokels like O’Reilly. “A healthcare provider. One who will be sensitive to my needs as a consumer.” He looked down his nose at O’Reilly’s rumpled tweed sports jacket. “One with whom I can work as an equal, defining and discussing my options, so that I can identify the optimal approach to a given problem.”
O’Reilly sat back. The black brows settled. I saw the tip of his nose begin to whiten, an ominous sign, but his rugged face wrinkled in a vast grin. “I doubt if I’m the man for the job.” He shook his head sadly.
The man sat stiffly. “And why’s that?”
O’Reilly ran his beefy hands along the lapels of his jacket, like a learned judge about to deliver his opinion, fixed the stranger with a stare that would have been the envy of any passing basilisk and said, in dulcet tones, “For one thing, I’m only a country doctor, not one of those healthcare what-do-you-ma-callums you were telling me about.” An edge had crept into his voice. Any one of O’Reilly’s regular patients would have found urgent business elsewhere. “And I don’t think we could work as equals.”
The stranger shifted in his chair. “And why not?”
“Because,” said O’Reilly, rising to his feet,” you’d be a very old man. You’d need six years of medical school, two years’ postgraduate work and 42 years in practice.”
The man rose, sniffed haughtily and said,” I don’t like your attitude.”
O’Reilly’s smile was beatific. “I was wrong. We are equals. I don’t like yours either.” He held the door open and waited for the man to leave.
Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, I’m glad to say, definitely had not mellowed with time.