Penny Ballinger’s ‘small gesture’ transformed her patient’s outlook on life. She is the winner of this year’s BMA writing competition
A handful of seeds and half a dozen seed potatoes; the strange contents of the paper bag in the drawer of my consulting-room desk awaited my next patient.
A small gesture, from one gardener to another – one that might have become horribly awkward; but worth the gamble perhaps, remembering the laborious conversation through the Polish interpreter.
We had been talking about pain, even trying to score it in some meaningful way, but in the fragmented answers his narrative resonated more with anger and depression.
An immigrant? He had been a pioneer, left his home and family, worked hard in an alien country and took heavy, manual work – and sent money home.
The pay was good but in the silo world of the factory it was his countrymen who oversaw production. In the smoking break, he shared joshing and stories of home with successively younger, hopeful fellow Poles whose backs and bodies took the strain of heavy repetitive work more yieldingly.
A gruff-voiced bear of a man, his seniority still respected, the youngsters warmed to his perseverance and looked out for him.
No time to learn English, with the long hours and perpetual tiredness. Missing his garden back home, he had been forward-thinking and rented an allotment, which he cleared during several weekends and encouraged a few others to follow his lead.
But now …
His perpetual cough he had shrugged off, so it was his workmates who had nagged and persuaded him to see a doctor when he struggled to swallow, made the appointment, accompanied him.
And so the diagnosis, the surgery and the chemotherapy unrolled. He coped … coped with the tracheostomy and the speaking tube. He coped.
‘It was his workmates who had nagged and persuaded him to see a doctor’
But the factory let him go and besides he hadn’t the energy or the speed to keep up any more.
Benefits? He said he struggled, heating, food … rent.
A bed-sitting room. Four walls. No company.
His friends working hour after hour had little time to spare for visiting and bonhomie.
Strange how the translation ‘he can’t afford any seeds for his allotment’ had registered with me in this island of hopelessness.
So, reviewing his pain, the paper bag had been slipped across with his prescription.
Months passed and gradually his attendance became less frequent until one day a bunch of beetroot appeared in my in tray.
The interpreter, grinning widely, reported the source and I dutifully roasted and liquidised them that evening, handing her a vibrant pot of borsch to be dropped by on her way home, given that she was now herself a keen member of the allotment society.
And so a pattern appeared to have been set.
‘The muddied prints of his allotment friends trailed to his door’
On the allotment, his status was now ‘king of the plot’. Fierce slug opponent and source of brassica wisdom during potting-shed tea breaks …
At reception, he was no longer the angry Pole but the bringer of fresh vegetables, new potatoes, gherkins to be pickled, tomatoes to be bottled; while behind the scenes, the back-office staff reciprocated with liquidised soups and broths.
So, summer melted into an autumn of mellow harvest and delight at the produce the allotment yielded until, as a matter of course, the cancer recurred in the late winter.
He wasn’t alone any more in the last few weeks because the muddied prints of his allotment friends trailed to his door, along with the receptionists whose frostiness had been turned with green beans and kale.
A handful of seed potatoes and a few seeds had been all that was needed to change his perspective and had given him some months of joy and status.
A small thing, perhaps, but it had triggered the support and friendship he needed so that he did not die alone and impoverished in a foreign land but surrounded by friends, and friends who will remember him fondly – as the apple tree they planted in his memory, yearly, gets stronger and taller and finally bears fruit.
Penny Ballinger is a medically qualified advanced nurse practitioner from Gloucestershire
Find out more about the writing competition