Howard Croft column: Unexpected patient in the waiting area

Derwent Medical Practice, Malton

Derwent Medical Practice, Malton

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I was first issued with hearing aids almost ten years ago, with a few replacements supplied along the way since then. One was crunched like a raw prawn by the dog, another disappeared during a walk on a cold and windy day, both incidents requiring a bit of creative story-telling at the audiology clinic.

It was only last year that I was told by the audiologist that I should have equipment serviced every six months; this had never previously been mentioned. I suggested that I be supplied with the spare parts needed at the service – the equivalent of a spark plug and an oil filter for a basic car – so that I could do this routine maintenance myself, thus saving the cost to me of trips to Scarborough and to the NHS the cost of a pretty unnecessary clinic appointment. I was issued with enough for one service.

After a few weeks of being badgered by family members because they think my hearing has deteriorated – they probably think of it as “tough love”, I think of it as damned irritating – I booked myself in for a check-up. It is a rule, a sensible one, laid down by audiologists that you have your ears syringed (thrutched out I think is the correct medical term) a day or two before presenting yourself at their clinic. There is no point in them doing an investigation if your ears are clogged up with wax, dead skin, the corpses of earwigs and no doubt much else besides.

As ever compliant in matters concerning our clinical masters, I duly popped into the nurses’ station (note the location of the apostrophe, Practice Manager, if you are tuned in) at the Derwent Practice and fixed myself up with a slot. When I returned for the procedure (the thrutching) I smartly stepped up to the screen to check myself in, but instead of a screen message instructing me to head off to the waiting area I saw instead – “system unable to recognise you”. I instantly felt guilty, the way you do at Morrison’s self-service check out when the machine shrieks “unexpected item in the bagging area”, grocers’ code for shoplifter alert.

I shyly presented myself at the receptionists’ desk (apostrophe again) more than ready to confess my shortcomings: I had imagined that I had made the appointment, I had shown up on the wrong day, I wasn’t who I thought I was, like that. Quick as a flash, the receptionist made a few passes across her keyboard, frowned, made more passes and told me that, like the machine on the wall, she could find no trace of me either. Another receptionist came over and had a try, with the same result – I did not exist – and together they frowned at the screen. Not at me – at the screen. Not a new problem, then. They conferred in hushed tones like a couple of junior doctors squabbling about who should break the bad news. I was asked if I would mind bobbing along to the waiting room for a few minutes. Were they going to send for a Doctor, or for a policeman?

I noticed a bit of to-ing and fro-ing by one of the receptionists, briskly passing the waiting area but not catching my eye, the way waiters don’t. Eventually, she came to me, apologised for the wait and told me that the nurse was just finishing up with her last patient and would be with me shortly.

And she was, and she also apologised even though it was only five minutes past what I had thought was my appointment time. This was because I had arrived early as is my custom, especially in the winter; I turn down the central heating before I leave home, take an improving book and look forward to half an hour of free warmth.

The nurse parked me in a chair by her desk, disappeared for a few minutes and returned with the thrutching apparatus which she had not earlier set up because she was clearly not expecting me. She had already seen her final patient, or so she thought, and was no doubt looking forward to going home. However, she was unhurried in her treatment of me. In went the otoscope (known to professionals as a conical torch thingy with a lens attached), my ears were declared spotless – drums visible as clear as day and no debris in sight – and no thrutching necessary.

A satisfactory outcome, but only possible because three people went to considerable trouble to make it possible, one of whom had to stay late; she denied it when I thanked her, but I could tell she was telling porkies. The papers tell us daily that the NHS is in dire straits, but I saw no sign of it that day and I was not treated like an unexpected item in the bagging area.