Viewpoint: A lesson in compassion

One December morning, more than 40 years ago, a consultant’s kindness to an exhausted junior doctor provided an example to be followed for life

Location: UK
Published: Thursday 9 December 2021
42593 stephan mejzner

‘Dr Mejzner sent me to deliver these to you.’

It was my fellow senior house officer Tom at the door. It was 1978, four months into my new SHO job at St George’s Hospital, Lincoln.

I had arrived from India only a year earlier with Hema, my wife, and we were still trying to adapt to an unfamiliar country, health service and weather.

I was working one-in-two on call, leaving only alternative nights with my family. Those nights I spent studying for the MRCP, unless Hema had mercifully hidden my books, or my two-year-old son had used them for scribbling (better that than his other pastime of putting butter blocks on radiators).

Dr Mejzner was a pleasure. I learned much more than medicine from him. He once invited me to dinner at his house. We didn’t have a car. He said public transport would be uncomfortable for Hema, who was pregnant, and he picked us up from our flat in his car.

In mid-December of that year, on a night of treacherous snow, Hema came home with our new baby, Smitha. With the worst timing, I came home from a heavy day’s work with the flu.

We had very little food in the house. The following morning, I called in sick. The first thing he did was to enquire about the health of mother and baby. The second thing he did was tell me not to worry.

These were natural acts for him, but perhaps evaded some others. I’ve experienced and witnessed racism and intimidation. I’ve seen consultants express visible irritation when junior doctors phone in sick, their focus being on where they would find a locum rather than their colleague’s health.

I’ve even seen a consultant’s displeasure when hearing that the new SHO due to start on our firm would be taking maternity leave.

I can understand how even a minimal disruption to our pressured and precariously staffed departments can herald a crisis.

But I wonder if we have become depersonalised and disconnected. Dr Mejzner was under pressure, we all were, and yet his compassion extended even beyond the workplace.

I’ll always remember him. Tom, at the door with a loaf of bread and a litre of milk, said: ‘And he asked me to do any shopping you might need.’ It’s one of the kindest and most thoughtful gifts I have ever received.

Radhamanohar Macherla, now retired, was for more than 20 years a consultant physician with Barts Health NHS Trust.

Stephan Mejzner, 1921-2002, was a consultant geriatrician at the then St George’s Hospital in Lincoln. We are grateful to his family for the picture they supplied

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