A few weeks ago (Collective Friendship. . . . March 24), I had recalled an essay of mine published by THE HINDU in 1992, in which I had observed as follows:
The goodwill which develops between an efficient doctor and his or her satisfied clientele is another interesting example of the friendly ties which bind a group of people to an individual.
Now here's one of my earliest essays, published by THE HINDU in 1963 or '64, in which I had earnestly explored the subtle nuances of the family doctor's character and concerns:
THE HINDU Sunday Magazine
50 years ago
The Family Doctor
The family doctor is more than a mere physician; he's a family friend, almost like a distant but very special relative. He knows all about the physical troubles of the family members. He's someone to whom everybody in the household has some special tribulation to disclose. He's always a welcome guest, and his services are never thought of as just a business proposition. Nor are his bills ever settled in the same way as anyone else's; notwithstanding all the jokes we have heard about them, there's always an unwritten footnote of respect and affection in the check which the family sends him.
Being a scientific man, the family doctor is naturally a very strict person, and wouldn't lightly tolerate any deviation from or disregard of his instructions. But at the same time he's extremely good-humored, and puts up cheerfully with many a tiresome idiosyncrasy on the the part of his patients. He rarely loses his temper, no matter what the provocation; for his understanding of human nature is great. When the family shows a tendency to question the appropriateness of his prescriptions, he usually puts up with it indulgently, and tries to explain his treatment without anger and in the simplest possible language. It's true he sometimes assumes a glum and cynical air, but that's only the result of his drudgery.
Foundation of faith
Punctuality is not usually one of the family doctor's virtues, though it might be expected to be. As a rule he has far too many engagements at any given time to be able to turn up at a place exactly when he's expected. Often he's detained beyond reasonable limits by fussy relatives and argumentative patients; and with infinite tact and resourcefulness he has to extricate himself for the next visit. No wonder he finds it difficult to keep to precise timings. Nevertheless, and perhaps not surprisingly at all, the Doctor is always present whenever he's most desperately needed. He's not one to let you down when you rush to him for urgent help in a crisis. Wake him up in the middle of the night on the telephone, and he'll be at the sick man's bedside within half an hour, if the situation really calls for his presence.
The family doctor takes great pride in his work. That's of course why he's so touchy on the subject of any other general practitioner being consulted. He's far too decent to deny permission when the family wants to call in a more distinguished or successful colleague, but he can hardly be expected to relish the experience. One of the strongest forces which cements his good relations with the family is the confidence which the family members unanimously repose in him; and quite understandably, when anything happens to undermine that faith even slightly, his whole personality suffers a set-back. After all, the Doctor never does resent it when it's a question of consulting a specialist and not just another GP; for he's quite rational, and is quick to acknowledge the specialist's superior competence in the latter's own sphere of study.
True, he sometimes talks with bitterness and sarcasm about the specialist's ability; but, like the bitterness of his pills and his mixtures, it's entirely without malice. In fact, it's usually the Doctor himself who urges the family to consult a specialist, as soon as he senses that a case is beyond his capacity to remedy. He's far too genuinely interested in the welfare of his patients to allow his professional pride to stand in the way of their possible recovery.
Himself, the family doctor is no specialist, but an all-rounder. His tools are not the elaborate devices of the nuclear age, but the simple stethoscope and the odds and ends contained in his familiar leather case. In his heart of hearts, the family doctor wants to be, like his Creator, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent. But he has no illusions, and knows only too well what his limitations are. He's a constant eye-witness to the ruthless inevitability of decay; his whole life is spent in watching the steady deterioration in the health of the homes he enters, in spite of all that he's able to do. As the years roll by, the battle becomes quite hopeless, and the family doctor awakens to the frustrating truth that he can never hope to triumph over nature -- whence his usually unassuming bearing, which perhaps the dazzling specialist, with his more circumscribed field of activity and his spectacular if transient successes, lacks.
The Doctor never yields to despair, though. He might not have a panacea for all mankind's ailments, but at least he knows where he stands, and certainly his are no mean contributions to society. He fights disease and misery in his own stoic way. The family doctor, one might almost say, is more a saint than a scientist.
I was working as a railway officer in a South Indian city called Tiruchi about 50 years ago, when I wrote the above essay. One of the landmarks of the city is the St. Joseph's College founded in 1844 by the Fathers of Society of Jesus. I had picked up a fine friendship with the Reverend Fathers Bergeron and Pays who taught French in the college, and who spent a lot of time and energy cultivating my conversational skills in French. And I was greatly thrilled when Father Bergeron told me that he had read this essay in THE HINDU and it strongly reminded him of a typical family doctor in France.
I had also developed a nice friendship with Pan (Mr.) Borivoj Herzlik (pronounced Borzhivoy Herzleek), an English professor from Czechoslovakia who worked for the Czech-aided High Pressure Boiler Plant near the city, where he taught English to the Czech engineers and Czech to the Indian staff. I used to meet him almost every week-end, for some very special Czech classes. He was a regular reader of my HINDU essays, which he said he would take back home, for using as excellent texts in his English classes. And he told me this article had accurately captured the image of a typical family doctor in Czechoslavakia.
And of course, these reflections were very likely to have been valid almost anywhere in the world 5o years ago, when families everywhere were much larger than they are today, and specialists weren't as numerous as they are now. But even in today's vastly altered social and medical environment in India, the spirit of the traditional family doctor still survives to a limited extent, so far as very elderly patients are concerned. Which is perhaps likely to be true anywhere else in the world also!