He walked into the clinic room with an air of confidence. He had just turned seven and he wanted everyone to know.
His mother offered me her familiar smile. She has attended every clinic with him since he was a little baby. The last seven years had offered her an abundance of grey hair and deepening creases on her forehead, but it never dampened her spirits. She was always on time and never forgot to carry his ‘red book’ and an appointment diary. She was his bona fide secretary all right! For good reason, too - he had far too many hospital appointments.
“Well, Mr Aodhan* ,” I started, “So, you are seven? Wow, that’s really big!” I was genuinely impressed at how well he looked.
“Yes, doctor,” he said with his characteristic nasal twang. “Look how I climb.” He took off onto a chair and climbed further up, dangerously close to the high window ledge in the clinic room. As he did so, he kept turning back to look at my face - he wanted to catch the look of pride in my eyes and possibly a hint of mist gathering around them. As he climbed, he mainly used the right side of his body since he had low power in his left. But he was adaptable and agile and he used parts of his left side as leverage. He propelled his left hand forward with his right, egging it on and supporting it as he made the most use of it. I clapped as a renegade tear escaped from my eye.
He hadn’t finished, though! He climbed down just as easily and came straight towards me. Before I knew it, my stethoscope was now slung around his neck. He next proceeded to put it on his ears using his right hand mainly but allowing his left hand to help as well. Next, he was unbuttoning his green shirt to expose his chest. I could see old scars on his small torso: war wounds of a time when he was too ill for anything. As he turned his neck to the side, I caught a glimpse of a long tube underneath the layers of his skin that drained the excess cerebrospinal fluid from his brain to his abdomen. He, however, didn’t care much about it. He listened to his heart intently, then returned the stethoscope back to me, buttoned up his shirt and went right back to his seat. He had just completed my consultation and done a good job, too!
I felt so intensely honoured to be his doctor. I can’t think of any other job that could have given me so much happiness.
We laughed together. There was plenty of joy in this room today, things were different from before. The family unit had seen days when it wasn’t clear Aodhan would make it to see the next sunrise. But through it all he remained determined to grow, develop and evolve and has created his own brand of normal.
The road ahead for Aodhan and his family remains challenging. I used to wonder what quality of life he will have and I somehow held the view that if a young child cannot be out and about playing football or messing about on the grass, he or she doesn’t have a great quality of life. I know Aodhan probably won’t be agile enough to play football (though he is probably going to prove me wrong at this rate!) but he has pleasures and joys. As he walked out of the clinic room with his stylish hemi-circumduction gait I felt so intensely honoured to be his doctor. I can’t think of any other job that could have given me so much happiness.
Shilpa Shah is a paediatric consultant and college tutor in Craigavon Hospital. When she is not working, she enjoys gardening, reading, writing and cooking. She also plays the ukulele badly.
- *Names and other information that could identify someone have been changed.