We stand between the candle and the darkness

We are the thin red line; we are a pudgy, bourgeois, middle-class Horatius at the bridge. The hordes are out there, just outside the surgery door. Because freedom isn’t free; the price is eternal vigilance, yet, demeaningly, we are called “gatekeepers” by those we protect, as if we are standing at a booth handing out tickets.

“I’ve an awful cough and an awful sore throat,” he said, “and I’ve been fighting it all week.” I checked to see if I had a military cross handy and if the Queen was available for the presentation ceremony. “And ‘they’ said I should get some antibiotics.”

“They” again, I thought, the hydra headed enemy, the barbarian at the gates. “Earth has not anything to show more fair,” said William Wordsworth, “than a big pair of swollen pus covered tonsils.” It’s always a welcome sight to us general practitioners because it means we can fire ahead and prescribe antibiotics with a clear conscience and avoid yet another draining fight.

But his throat, predictably, was absolutely completely positively normal—not a speck of pus, not a fleck of erythema. Even the soaring imagination of Arthur C Clarke would have shrivelled in the face of such unflinching normality.

I may be only a small soldier, but I am still a soldier; the war against unreason and wasted resources is unending. Ours is a thankless duty, yet no less noble for that. If a deed is valiant and brave, does it matter that the minstrels do not make a song of it? We stand between the candle and the darkness, and if we slumber, the soft underbelly of hospital medicine and drug budgets would be swiftly disembowelled.

Yet we do not begrudge them their innocence and ignorance. General practitioners don’t brag of ourselves. We don’t have flags or old school songs or esprit de corps; we don’t wear robes or hoods; we don’t do academic processions or gaudy pageantry. We don’t need these superficial things because our cause is just and our bonds run deep, much deeper than mere sex; for us, every day is St Crispin’s Day. We are the few, the happy few, we band of brothers.

“It’s a virus,” I said defiantly.

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