Ward rounds were occasions of terror. In our short white coats we trooped behind the gods and demi-gods and tried to escape notice. Sir John Perkins was especially terrifying. He was tall, grey-haired and always dressed in black; black jacket and waistcoat, black trousers with a fine pin-stripe and sword-edge creases and black shoes reflecting their surroundings like a looking glass. Finely spoken and austere, his slim presence brought silence to the room as we waited for wisdom to emerge from his thin lips.
In those days we had Nightingale wards; long narrow rooms with beds lined up on either side, each with its own set of curtains. Half an hour before Sir John arrived Sister Carstairs had every patient settled in bright white sheets, hospital corners immaculate. Every bed was square with its fellow, every surface polished, every odour dispelled.
On this particular morning curtains were drawn around a bed at the far end of the ward. Sir John’s eye fixed upon it first. “An emergency, Sister? Is someone in need of my attention?”
Sister Carstairs looked unaccustomedly flustered, “A visitor, Sir John, an interloper. A brief admission from Casualty because they were short of beds. A lodger, merely. Gone tomorrow.”
“Nevertheless…” said Sir John and marched to the end of the ward and pulled back the curtains to reveal O’Brien. Those of us who had done stints in Casualty recognised O’Brien. The Irish drunk was a frequent visitor, but it was rare for him to con his way into a bed for the night.
Once the curtains were drawn the smell became noticeable and as Sir John drew back the bedclothes it intensified. “So, Patrick,” said Sir John, “It’s the feet, is it?”
It was the feet. O’Brien was wearing a hospital gown that left his legs exposed. He was not an attractive man; unshaven, obese, unwashed, hairy and malodorous. His feet were black with ingrained dirt and his ankles ulcerated. Sir John stripped off his jacket and handed it to Keith Pritchard, his Senior Registrar. He turned on his heel and marched in his shirtsleeves to the sluice. Shortly afterwards he reappeared with a towel wrapped around his waist and carrying a yellow plastic bowl filled with warm water. He set it down on the floor and kneeling before O’Brien proceeded gently to wash his feet. He took the towel and dried them. “Some talcum powder, Sister, I think.” he said.
Then he dismissed us; the students, the junior doctors, the nurses, almoner and the rest.
“Some coffee, perhaps, Sister Carstairs?” and he and she retired to her office.
Six months later Sir John Perkins died of lung cancer. We had not known that he smoked. He was succeeded as consultant surgeon at that famous teaching hospital by Keith Pritchard who learned from Sir John how to dress well and how to inspire respect in his students. He later became Surgeon to the Queen. Tony Baldini, the Senior House Officer, also became a consultant surgeon. He had learned to terrify his students and was notorious for humiliating them in front of their friends. Liam Murphy, my friend who had cowered with me at the back of the crowd, became a consultant obstetrician in Cork and the father of seven children, all boys. Sister Julia Carstairs never married. I learned never to think of myself as better than my patients.