O’Reilly Finds His Way
May 30, 2012
First published in In Stitches magazine February 1997
“Doctor Gangrene” is no match for the rural G.P.
‘You’d think I’d know my way about up here,” said Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, looking puzzled as he stood in the middle of the long echoing corridor of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.
I’d bumped into him on my way to the X-ray department from the ward where I was working. If you remember, I was employed as a registrar at the Royal, my day job so to speak, my other source of revenue and a smattering of post-graduate training, when I wasn’t functioning as O’Reilly’s part-time locum.
I had a moment of smugness. I did know my way about. Not surprising really, I worked in the place. But O’Reilly hadn’t specifically asked for directions. He’d simply made a slightly self-deprecatory statement, “You’d think I’d know my way about up here.”
The smug feeling passed. The burning question was, what was I going to do? Offering unsolicited advice to Doctor O could provoke a minor seismic event. Neglecting to give the necessary directions, and perhaps allowing him to make an idiot of himself, could result in a major tectonic shift with all the resultant unpleasant fallout — usually on me.
It’s a fundamental law of politics and diplomacy that when one is faced with two equally unpalatable options — prevaricate.
“How long has it been since you worked here?” I asked.
“Perhaps they’ve moved the ward you’re looking for?”
He scratched his head. “Do you think so? I just popped in to see one of my customers who was admitted here last night.”
“Rubbish. Nothing possible about it.”
“But, Fingal, the administrators do it, you know.”
“Admit my patients?”
“No. Move wards.”
I felt relieved. He and I had nearly set off on another of our tortuous verbal peregrinations and to be honest I was a bit pushed for time. I was supposed to be assisting the senior gynaecologist Sir Gervaise Grant, a man who was obsessional about time. Lord help any assistant who was late in the operating room.
Sir Gervaise was renowned for the speed with which he could perform vaginal hysterectomies. “Watch me like a hawk,” he would instruct his assistant, the knife flashing, scissors snipping, ligatures going on like trusses in a turkey-plucking factory.
O’Reilly was saying something but I’m afraid I wasn’t paying attention. Coming down the hall, white coat flying, minions scurrying in pursuit, was Sir Gervaise himself. I had to get away from O’Reilly.
“Good God,” he boomed, in a voice that echoed from the tiled walls, “there’s ‘Green Fingers’ Grant.”
The “Green Fingers” soubriquet referred to the fact that Sir Gervaise’s wound infection rate was triple that of anyone else. But while he might be called “Green Fingers” behind his back, it was a braver man than I who would call him that to his granite-jawed, bristling, silver-mustachioed face. And judging by the scowl on Sir G’s countenance — the sort that Medusa reserved for those passing Argonauts she really wanted to fix — he’d overheard O’Reilly’s remark.
I closed my eyes and adopted the hunch-shouldered crouch favoured by bomb-disposal experts when something unexpectedly goes “Tick.”
“To whom are you alluding, O’Reilly?” Sir Gervaise’s treacly voice held all the warmth of a Winnipeg winter.
I opened one eye.
O’Reilly stood his ground, legs apart, chin tucked in. I could see his meaty fists starting to clench and remembered that the man had been a Royal Navy boxing champion. If a bell rang anywhere in those hallowed halls of healing, Doctor O was going to come out swinging. One wallop would have rearranged Sir Gervaise’s immaculately coiffed hair, his nose and his teeth as far back as his molars.
The two men stood scowling at each other like a pair of Rotweilers who’ve met suddenly and unexpectedly over a raw steak.
Discretion is the better part of valour. I knew that I should have found some excuse to slink away, but some idiotic impulse led me to step between the two and say, “Excuse me, Sir Gervaise, but I think we’re going to be late.”
The great man looked at me with all the condescension of Louis XIV for a grovelling peasant. “Indeed, Taylor. I don’t believe I sought your opinion. Indeed when I do want it, I’ll tell you what it is.”
Oh, Lord. I wished I had the tortoise’s ability to tuck its head into its carapace.
“Still. We can’t be late. Can’t be late. Don’t have time to waste on underqualified country quacks.” He strode off, courtiers following in his wake with me bringing up the rear.
To my surprise, the eruption I’d been expecting from Doctor O’Reilly failed to materialize. All I heard him say to our departing backs was, “And good day to you too, Sir Gangrene.”
As we sped down the corridor it began to dawn on me why O’Reilly didn’t think highly of Sir Gervaise. I remembered the case quite vividly. The man with the Mach 1 scalpel had whipped her uterus out in something under 15 minutes. Surgical time, that was. The victim took three months to recover from her post-operative abscess. And she’d been one of O’Reilly’s patients.
Sir Gervaise seemed to have regained his icy equilibrium as we stood side by side scrubbing for the impending surgery. I wondered if he had any idea what he might have wrought. Recall how Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly lay in wait for Doctor “Thorny” Murphy. I could still hear the words, “Underqualified country quack,” and picture the malevolence under O’Reilly’s grin as he bade Sir Gervaise, “Good day.”
When I was a boy I used to delight in a firecracker called a Thunderbomb. The instructions on the side read, “Light blue touchpaper and retire immediately.” Whether he knew it or not, Sir G had lit O’Reilly’s touchpaper. There was a phone message waiting for me when I left the theatre. Would Doctor Taylor please report to the Pathology Department and see Prof. Callaghan?
I imagine an altar boy would feel much as I did had he been summoned unexpectedly by the Pope. Awe, fear and trembling. Prof. Callaghan was the dean of the faculty and, in the eyes of us junior doctors, outranked the Pope. There was even some suspicion that he outranked God.
I ran to his office and knocked on the door.
Oh, Lord. I opened the door and to my surprise saw his exalted magnificence sitting at his desk, head bowed over a piece of paper which also seemed to be fascinating none other than Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly.
“That should do it, Fingal.”
Snotty! Snotty? O’Reilly’s familiarity was on a par with that of the young American naval officer who, at some embassy function, asked Queen Elizabeth II, Fid. Def., Ind. Imp., “How’s your mum?”
“Ah, Taylor.” O’Reilly took the piece of paper from Prof. Callaghan. “You know my old classmate, Prof. Callaghan?”
I nodded. Yes, and I was on first-name terms with President Nixon and the British Prime Minister too.
“He and I played rugby together. He’s just done me a little favour.” O’Reilly rose. “We won’t detain you any longer, Snotty.”
“My pleasure, Fingal.”
I felt a bit like the Emperor’s new clothes: not there, as far as Prof. Callaghan was concerned.
“Now,” said O’Reilly, “let’s get a cup of tea.”
He headed for the cafeteria with the unerring accuracy of a Nike missile, and this was the man who’d started today by remarking, “You’d think I’d know my way about up here.”
He refused to show me the paper until we were seated, teacups on the plastic tabletop. “Here,” he said, “take a look at this.”
I could see immediately that it was a copy of a pathology report form. Three pages of detailed description of a uterus that had been removed by — I flipped back to the first page — Sir Gervaise Grant. The sting was in the tail. Just one line which read, “The specimen of ureter submitted showed no abnormalities.”
Dear God. The complication most feared by gynaecological surgeons. Damage to the tube that carried urine from the kidney to the baldder. “Is it true?” I asked in a whisper.
O’Reilly guffawed then said, “Not at all, but it should give old ‘Green Fingers’ pause for thought, possibly a cardiac arrest when he reads it, before he realises that the patient is fine and the report must be wrong,” said O’Reilly. He sipped his tea. “Decent chap, Snotty Callaghan, to fudge the report. He can’t stand Sir Gangrene either.”
He smiled beatifically. “And you thought I didn’t know my round up here.”