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A Dublin Student Doctor (Irish Country Books)by Patrick Taylor
Its a Long, Long Road from Which There Is No Return
Fingal Flahertie OReilly, Doctor Fingal Flahertie OReilly, edged the long-bonnetted Rover out of the car park. “Lord Jasus,” he remarked, “but this twenty-fourth day of April in the year of our Lord 1965 has been one for the book of lifetime memories.” He smiled at Kitty OHallorhan in the passengers seat. “For all kinds of reasons,” he said, “and now that the Downpatrick Races are over, its home to Ballybucklebo.” He accelerated.
Kitty yelled, “Will you slow down?” then said more gently, “Fingal, there are pedestrians and cyclists. Id rather not see any in the ditch.” The afternoon sun highlighted the amber flecks in her grey eyes. She put slim fingers on his arm.
“Just for you, Kitty.” He slowed and whistled “Slow Boat to China.” “All right in the back?”
“Fine, Fingal,” said OReillys assistant, young Doctor Barry Laverty.
“Grand, so.” Mrs. Maureen “Kinky” Kincaid was OReillys housekeeper, as she had been for Doctor Flanagan. Fingal had met Kinky when hed come as an assistant to Thómas Flanagan in 1938. Shed stayed on when a thirty-seven-year-old OReilly returned in 1946 from his service in the Second World War and bought the general practice from Doctor Flanagans estate.
Theyd been a good nineteen years, he thought as he put the car into a tight bend between two rows of ancient elms. So had his years as a medical student at Dublins Trinity College in the 30s.
“Jasus thundering Murphy.” OReilly stamped on the brake. The Rover shuddered to a halt five yards from a man standing waving his arms.
OReillys bushy eyebrows met. He could feel his temper rise and the tip of his bent nose blanch. “Everyone all right?” he roared, and was relieved to hear a chorus of reassurance. He hurled his door open and stamped up the road. “What in the blue bloody blazes are you doing standing there waving your arms like an out-of-kilter semaphore? I could have squashed you flatter than a flaming flounder-fish.”
The stranger wore Wellington boots, moleskin trousers, and a hacking jacket. He had a russet beard, a squint, and was no more than five foot two. OReilly expected him at least to take a step back, apologise, but he stood his ground.
“Theres no need for youse til be losing the bap, so theres not. Theres been an accident, and Im here to stop big buggers like youse driving into it, so I am. See for yourself.” He pointed to a knot of people and the slowly rotating rear wheel of a motorbike that lay on its side.
“Accident?” said OReilly. He spun on his heel. “Barry. Grab my bag and come here.” He turned back. “Im Doctor OReilly. Doctor Lavertys coming.”
“Doctor? Thank God for that, sir. A motorcyclist took a purler on an oil slick, you know. Somebodys gone for the ambulance and police.”
“Here you are.” Barry handed OReilly his bag. “Whats up?”
“Motorbike accident.” He spoke to the short man. “Youd be safer back down the road where drivers can see you before theyre on top of you.”
“Right enough. Ill go, sir.” He started walking.
OReilly yelled, “Kitty. Kinky. Theres been an accident. Stay with the car.” Kitty would have the wit to pull the car over to the verge. “Come on, Barry.” OReilly marched straight to the little crowd. Time to use the voice that could be heard over a gale when hed served on the battleship HMS Warspite. “Were doctors. Let us through.”
Ruddy-cheeked country faces turned. Murmuring people shuffled aside and a path opened.
A motorbike lay on the road, an exclamation mark at the end of two long black scrawls of rubber. The engine ticked and the stink of oil and burnt tyre hung over the smell of ploughed earth from a field and the almond scent of whin flowers.
A middle-aged woman knelt beside the rider. The victims head was turned away from OReilly, but there could only be one owner of that red thatch. A duncher lay a few yards away. It irritated OReilly that Ulstermen wouldnt wear crash helmets but favoured cloth caps, worn with the peak at the back.
He knelt beside the woman and set his bag on the ground. “Hes unconscious, hes breathing regular, his airways clear, his pulse is eighty and regular, and hes not bleeding. There dont seem to be any bones broken,” she said, and added, “Im a first-aider, you know.”
“Thank you, Mrs.?”
“Meehan. Rosie Meehan.”
OReilly smiled at her. “Donal? Donal?” he said gently. Fifteen minutes ago hed seen Ballybucklebos arch schemer, Donal Donnelly, riding the motorbike from the car park.
OReilly grabbed the mans wrist. Good. Mrs. Meehan was right; the pulse was strong and regular. “Donal,” he said more loudly, “Donal.”
Donals face was chalky. He wore his raincoat reversed and buttoned over his back. It was the practice of country men when riding motorbikes. It stopped the wind of passage getting through.
OReilly was hesitant to move Donal. He could have a broken neck. Better to wait for the ambulance. The first law of medicine was Primum non nocere. First do no harm. OReilly bent lower. “Donal?”
Donals eyelids fluttered. “Numuh?”
Better, OReilly thought. Donal might only be concussed. If that were the case he should start regaining consciousness. But you could never be certain about head injuries. The damage might range from a simple concussion with complete recovery through to serious brain injury leading to paralysis, permanent brain damage, and even death. OReilly gritted his teeth. Donal had a new wife and a wean on the way. OReillys heart went out to the pregnant Julie Donnelly, née MacAteer. He heard the nee-naw of an approaching siren. OReilly leant over. “Donal?”
Donals eyes flew open. “Doctor OReilly? What are youse doing here?” He struggled to rise. “I shouldnt be in my bed.”
Donal recognised OReilly. That was a good sign even if he was unclear where he was. OReilly put a restraining hand on the mans shoulder. “Lie still. You had an accident.”
Donal put his hand to his head. “I must have hit my nut a right clatter,” he said. “Its pounding to beat Bannagher, so it is.”
“Do you know what day it is?” OReilly asked.
Donal frowned. “Uh? Saturday. We made a wheen of money on the oul gee-gees at the races.” He grinned like a small boy who had answered the teachers question correctly. “And this heres the road to Ballybucklebo.” A look of concern crossed his face. “Jesus, is Paddy Regans motorbike all right? Its only on loan.” Donal tried to rise.
“Stay put,” OReilly said, and smiled. If Donal knew about events immediately preceding his accident it was probable he had suffered only a minor concussion. Even so, OReilly would never forget a footballer whod been knocked out, recovered, gone back to finish the match, and died from a brain haemorrhage two hours later.
The nee-naw, nee-naw grew louder.
“I dont need no ambulance,” Donal said. “Im for going home, so I am.”
“Sorry, Donal,” OReilly said, “but youll be spending tonight in the Royal Victoria Hospital.”
“Och, Doctor—thats daft. Ive a motorbike to get back to—”
“The Royal. For observation,” OReilly said. “No arguments. Ill take care of the bike.”
“Donal, youre going to hospital,” OReilly said as if speaking to a not overly bright child. “Thats final.” He stood and spoke to Barry. “Ill do a quick neurological exam once hes in the ambulance. Establish a baseline in case he gets worse. Ill go up to the Royal with him. Kittys the senior nursing sister on the neurosurgical ward there. Shell want to come too. She can go with Donal in the back of the ambulance. God knows shes observed a hundred times more head injuries than you and I put together. Shell keep an eye on him and warn me if his condition deteriorates. You drive Kinky and the Rover home.”
“Ill go and get Kitty.” Barry started to turn as a yellow Northern Ireland Hospitals Authority ambulance drew up and its siren was turned off.
“In a minute,” OReilly said. “Once the police have come and done whatever they have to do, measure things, take photos and statements, theyll have you fill in forms. When youre done, get them to give you a hand to load the bike into the boot of the Rover. At least Paddy Regan wont need to come all the way here to collect it.”
“Paddy? Ill let him know,” Barry said.
OReilly turned. “Do you hear that, Donal? Well get the bike home for you.”
“Thanks, Doc. But what about Julie? Shell go spare if I dont get home too.”
OReilly frowned. “Youve no phone, Donal, have you?”
“Ill nip round and see Julie,” Barry said. “Tell her whats happened. That shes not to worry.”
Barry turned to leave as two men approached wearing peaked bus drivers caps, silver-buttoned blue uniforms, and carrying a stretcher. The bigger one, a burly, open-faced man, spoke to the first-aid lady. “Whats the story, Rosie?” Of course hed know her. Theyd both be Downpatrick locals.
She nodded at OReilly. “Better ask your man there, Alfie. That theres Doctor OReilly.”
The man turned to OReilly and grinned. “From Ballybucklebo, the wee village near Holywood?”
“Thats right. How did you—?” He frowned. Alfie did look familiar.
“I met you at a rugby game, sir.” He pointed at Donal. “What do you reckon about your man?”
“He came off the bike and hit his head. He was unconscious for a while but hes awake now. Concussion at least and Id like him in the Royal for observation. You know head injuries can—”
“I do know. Too bloody well.” The ambulance man frowned. “My brother, God rest him, got a smack on the nut with a hurley ball. He bled into his skull and died.” There was a catch in Alfies voice. “He was only nineteen.”
“Im sorry,” OReilly said.
“Aye well.” Alfie tugged at his tie. “Standing here both legs the same length wont get your man there to the Royal. What do you want us to do, Doc?”
“Before you move him, Ill give his fore and hind legs a once-over. Then I want you to take him, me, and Sister OHallorhan, shell be here in a minute, up to the Royal. Well radio ahead to arrange for him to be seen in casualty, get things rolling, then have him admitted to the observation ward.”
“Right, Doc. Come on, Bert.” The ambulance men aligned their stretcher alongside Donal as OReilly examined Donals arms and legs through his clothes. “Youre right, Mrs. Meehan. There are no bones broken,” he said, and stepped back to let the attendants do their work. “Thank you, Mrs. Meehan,” OReilly said. “You did a great job. Now go on home and get your tea.”
She smiled, bobbed her head, and left.
OReilly climbed aboard the ambulance. “For crying out loud,” Donal said, and tried to sit up. “This is daft, so it is. Going to all this trouble. Sure couldnt I just get the bike—”
OReilly made a noise like an enraged gorilla, one whose last banana had been stolen. “For the last time, Donal Donnelly, youre going to the Royal. This is not a bleeding debating society—so shut up, lie down, and let me examine you.”
“I will, Doctor OReilly, sir,” a clearly chastened Donal said—and did.
Fingal satisfied himself that Donals reflexes were normal, that his pupils were equal in size and reacting to light, his pulse was strong and steady and his blood pressure was normal. The only worrying thing was a bruise over Donals right temple. The parietal bone there was thin. There was a chance the skull was fractured. OReilly didnt need to reassure himself that getting Donal to hospital was the right thing to do. The middle meningeal artery lay beneath the parietal bone. OReilly climbed out to meet Kitty.
Barry was providing information to a uniformed Royal Ulster Constabulary officer. The man had a heavy pistol in a hip holster. Good for Barry, OReilly thought, one less chore for me, and frankly, the sooner we get Donal to hospital the happier Ill be. If his condition did deteriorate, speed of intervention was critical.
The second ambulance attendant climbed into the back and offered his hand to Kitty.
“Hop in,” OReilly said. “All his baseline findings are normal, but please keep an eye on him. Ill be in the front, so if he starts to go downhill, let me know.”
“I will,” she said, taking the proffered hand.
He watched her climb in and as she did so her skirt rode up. God, but she had a well-curved calf, OReilly thought, but then, he grinned, she always had.
Barry finished with the officer. “Thanks for seeing to that, Barry,” OReilly said. “Youll have to look after the practice tomorrow too because Lord knows what time Ill get home.”
“Thats all right.”
“Off you trot.” OReilly noticed his bag where hed left it on the ground. “Take my bag to the car while youre at it. The ambulance will be fully equipped.”
Barry paused. “How will you and Kitty get home?”
“Kitty lives only a short walk from the hospital. Ill get a train. Now go on. Its time we were off.”
OReilly stuck his head into the ambulance. “Everything okay, Kitty?”
“Good.” As OReilly walked to the front of the ambulance, the last colours of the sunset flared and died. A straggling clamour of rooks flapped untidily across the dimming horizon and Venus rose, a glittering forerunner of the myriad stars that would spangle the skys dark dome.
He climbed into the passenger side and shut the cabs door. “Hows about ye, Doc?” Alfie, the driver, asked.
“Grand,” said OReilly. “The lad in the backs a patient of mine.” And, he thought, as close to being a friend as Ill let any of my patients be. “I think hell be all right.”
“Right,” said the driver, “lets get going.” He switched on his flashing lights, but not the siren, put the vehicle in gear, and started for Belfast.
“Can we radio ahead?” OReilly asked. “Let the neurosurgery people know were coming?”
“Aye, certainly, sir.” The driver lifted a microphone, depressed a button, and announced, “Ambulance despatch, ambulance despatch. This is delta alpha two sixer, over.”
In moments OReilly had relayed the details to the dispatcher, who would contact the neurosurgery registrar on call. “Who is the senior neurosurgeon on call tonight?” Just in case, and the thought niggled at him, just in case that bruise at the side of Donals head was a sign of more ominous damage.
“Mister Greer, sir.” The voice from the speaker was distorted.
“Thank you, despatch. Delta alpha two sixer. Out.” OReilly handed the mike back. “Thank you,” he said.
Charlie Greer. He and OReilly went back to 1931, and that wasnt yesterday. He hoped Donal would have no need of Charlies services, but if Donal did deteriorate he couldnt ask for a better brain surgeon.
“How long until we get to Belfast?” OReilly asked.
“About an hour and a half—and if youll excuse me, sir, Id better concentrate on driving. The roads twisty here.”
OReilly said, “Pay me no heed.” He sat staring through the window as rays from the dome flashers flickered and the headlights beams picked out fluttering moths, the verges and hedges, and dry stone walls draped with straggling brambles. He wondered about Donal. OReilly knew that no amount of worrying was going to help anything. Kitty would let him know if anything changed, and if it did, Donal was well on his way to being in the hands of a bloody good neurosurgeon. Charles Edward Greer, M.D., F.R.C.S., from Ballymoney, County Antrim. A long time ago he had been a rugby-playing medical student like OReilly at Trinity College Dublin.
OReilly had met student nurse Kitty OHallorhan while he and Charlie, along with their friends Bob Beresford and Donald Cromie, and a nasty piece of work called Ronald Hercules Fitzpatrick who now practiced in the Kinnegar, had been working in Sir Patrick Duns Hospital. Back in 1934.
Hed been twenty-five years old and had completed nearly three years of his medical studies at Trinity College Dublin.
Dublin had been richly described by the playwright Denis Johnston as, “Strumpet city in the sunset. So old, so sick with memories.” The place had memories for OReilly, all right.
Trinity College with its Librarys Long Room wherein resided the Book of Kells and the Brian Boru harp. The pubs, Davy Byrnes, the Bailey, Nearys, and the Stags Head. Great broad OConnell Street crossing Anna Livia, the Dubliners name for the River Liffey. The tenement districts like the Liberties, the Coombe, and Monto, filthy, squalid, vermin-plagued, but with indomitable inhabitants. OConnell Street and, halfway up it, Nelsons Pillar beside the General Post Office, from the steps of which Pádraig Pearse had read out the Proclamation of the Irish Republic at Eastertide 1916. Its façade and Ionic columns were still pockmarked with British bullets from the siege during the Rising.
OReilly was distracted by a sudden movement ahead and leant forward to see the bushy tail of a badger scurrying for cover and its home.
Dublin had become OReillys home in 1925 when his father, young for the job at forty-five, had been appointed professor of classics and English literature at Trinity. OReilly had been born and brought up in Holywood, County Down, Northern Ireland, still part of the United Kingdom, but for eleven years had lived in the Irish Free State. Sometimes he thought he was neither fish, fowl, nor good red meat. Hed loved Ulster all his life, particularly Strangford Lough, where he and his older brother Lars had spent their winter Saturdays wildfowling. But he loved Dublin too.
The ambulance slowed then halted to give a large lorry right of way. OReilly turned and slid back a window between the cab and the rear of the vehicle. “Everything all right, Kitty?”
The lighting was dim and he had difficulty making out her features.
Kitty said, “Everythings fine. Donals sleeping.”
If the middle meningeal artery had burst, Donal would be deeply unconscious, not asleep, but surely a nurse with Kittys experience—
“Its all right, Fingal. Ive no trouble waking him up and theres no change in any vital signs.”
OReilly exhaled. He hadnt realised hed been holding his breath, and damn it, he should have known better than to doubt. “Grand,” he said. “Well be there soon.” He closed the window as the ambulance began to move. Donal was going to be all right. Of course he was. OReilly looked out the windscreen to see the ambulance taking the left-hand fork of a Y junction.
Ireland was full of strange road confluences, the Six Road Ends in County Down, the Five Road Ends at Beal na mBláth in County Cork where Kinky had grown up on a farm, and Michael Collins, head of the armed forces of the Irish Free State, had been assassinated in August 1922.
OReilly had come to a crossroads in his own life in 27. If he hadnt made his choice about which road to follow, hed not have Charlie Greer and the others as friends, nor Kitty. Nor would he have been a rural GP, a life he loved, if hed meekly caved in when Father had decreed over breakfast in the family house on Lansdowne Road in Dublin that no son of his was going to be a physician. The ambulance lurched over a pothole and a goose walked over his grave as he shuddered and remembered that day, September 17, 1927.
Copyright © 2011 by Patrick Taylor
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