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The female voice from the doctors’ co-op was breathless with excitement and a tinge of fear: “Sorry to bother you on your weekend off, but it’s one of your patients. He’s attempting to shoot the duty doctor.”
It was Mother’s Day and, since I was not on call, it had seemed a good idea to go out as a family for a meal. The phone had rung just as we were heading out of the house.
“Patrick Brennan sent for a doctor for his mum, and when our doctor got there he pulled a gun”, the voice continued.
The gunman was someone I knew quite well. He was an eccentric character in his mid-40s, had a mass of auburn hair which surrounded his head like a bushy halo, and was unfailingly cheerful, probably due to his excessive daily consumption of brown ale.
He was intrigued by our suggestion that less drinking and smoking might prolong his life, and unrepentant that he had lost his job as a hospital porter by being drunk and disorderly in charge of a trolley. He lived with his elderly mother who was housebound and confused. She had recently taken to her bed, but, on my last visit the only solvable problem I could elicit was constipation and this easily responded to an enema.
“What do you want me to do?” I queried hesitantly, thinking for one bizarre moment that they wanted me to go and disarm Patrick, or at least talk him out of his intended action.
“Well, it’s his mother. The police have arrested him, but they are concerned about the old lady being left on her own.”
I drove to the Brennans’ house. Mrs Brennan was sitting up in bed as usual, looking rather regal, though pale and weeping. The room was full of flowers, and an enormous card proclaiming “Happy Mother’s Day” sat on the dressing table.
“He’s such a wonderful son”, she sniffed, “I just don’t know what got into him. We were going to have a really lovely day, but then I felt unwell you see, just like last weekend. Patrick thought another enema might help.
“He rang for the district nurse, but she was a bit put out when I asked her to do the necessary—she said the request had to come from a doctor. At this Patrick just seemed to lose control. He ranted and raged and, when she left, he slammed the door so hard that the glass broke. I heard him phone for the emergency doctor, and now he seems to have disappeared.”
I spent some time with her, and ascertained that her main need was for someone to stay with her until Patrick could return. I first rang a local nursing agency that could usually help at short notice, but they had no one available at all: “You see it’s Mother’s Day, and they all want to be at home with their families”. The agent sounded almost aggrieved that I hadn’t considered this first.
Unsure of what to do next, I reassured the old lady that some help would be found, and that, in the meantime, I would find out what was happening to Patrick. The police station fortunately was just a few minutes drive away.
Patrick was to be kept in the cells overnight, and his future determined by the court hearing and a psychiatric report in the morning. He seemed pleased to see me, and was drawing heavily on a cigarette held between his nicotine stained fingers. He regaled me with the whole sorry story.
After the nurse had gone and he had phoned for the doctor, he had picked up his air rifle and started to shoot empty tin cans at the end of the yard—his usual way of letting off steam. Hearing a ring at the door, he had hurried to open it, but realising that the smashed window would collapse inwards as he did so, he decided to make a neat job of it by pushing the pane outwards with his gun.
Thus it was that the young emergency doctor found himself looking down the barrel of a gun, with Patrick framed in the smashed window behind it. Understandably, he took off in a cloud of dust, leaving Patrick perplexed on the doorstep.
Within minutes six police cars, with flashing lights, and sirens wailing, had arrived. The road had been cordoned off, curious neighbours had come to their doors, and little boys on bikes had congregated behind the cordons.
Suddenly, a voice had boomed: “Drop your gun, and put your hands above your head”, and a bewildered Patrick had done so, as two policemen steadily approached him, revolvers drawn. Patrick was arrested, handcuffed and, in his own words, the rest was history.
“You didn’t intend to shoot the doctor then,” I asked.
“Of course not”, he wailed, “I only wanted him to prescribe an enema!”
I returned to the Brennans’ house; one neighbour was carefully boarding up the hole in the front door and another had volunteered to stay the night. Relieved, tired, and very hungry, I headed home.
“Don’t worry, Mum”, said my youngest, “we had a takeaway pizza. Happy Mother’s Day!”
This piece describes a quite remarkable experience. As with so many experiences in everyday working life, there were elements of humour, poignancy, perplexity, and frustration. Perhaps the element that stands out most clearly for me is the one which illustrates the essential nature of general practice: the contact with ordinary and extraordinary people coping with their lives and the problems they face in their own inimitable and idiosyncratic ways.
Opening the word hoard is edited by Gillie Bolton. Items should be sent to her at the address at the end of her editorial.