The first time I accompanied our nephews and niece to the soft play I have to admit to thoroughly enjoying the whole experience. Is it just me, or is there a small child in all of us who likes to come out to play once every few years? This is why fathers buy their three-week old children train sets for Christmas, when the child’s far more interested in lots of sleep followed by an hour at the breast (and in truth, so probably is Dad).
For those unused to the concept of the ‘soft play’ centre the venue consists of multi-level scaffolding poles around which wipe-clean padding is secured along with cargo nets, big plastic slides, tunnels with perspex windows and the odour of stale vomit. Naturally, the little ones need an adult with them to help them negotiate the maze. Dad (or in this case, Uncle) bravely volunteers and heads out in a purely supervisory capacity, of course. It’s all great fun, enjoyed by one and all and kills time on a wet Sunday afternoon like Andy Lansley’s killing the NHS – brilliantly.
As the children grow older however, spending the day in a drafty warehouse eating heavily processed chicken-flavour nuggets and avoiding the damp patch by the rope bridge loses its appeal and youngsters turn to work experience to see them through a few tedious hours during half-term. Thus it is, that as general practitioners, we play host to sixteen year-olds harbouring the fantasy of “helping people” and “looking after old people – aren’t they just so cute?” for a day or so.
Don’t get me wrong: I like young people. Well, in truth, I like them when they communicate. The ones who come as patients and reply to my friendly and approachable enquiry as to how I might help them with a grunt, and a “You tell ‘im!” to the attendant parent aren’t quite so pleasant I must confess.
Youngsters on work experience are an entirely different breed. They arrive shyly at 9 am and I greet them in our conservatory before showing them through to my consulting room – I’ve seen five patients since 8.10, so they’ve already missed: “I need a letter for work to say my cat’s ill and had to go to the vet’s” and “my first cousin twice removed husband’s nephew has just found out that he has to have an ingrowing toenail removed – can I be screened?”. I seat them in a chair behind me and give them the chat – everything’s confidential: if you talk to anyone, I will find you – remember, I know which youth club you attend. They nod in agreement as the colour drains from their cheeks. I put down the machete.
I call the next patient, who enthusiastically agrees to an observer joining us and all three of us sign the consent / confidentiality form. Patients are amazingly generous about allowing young people to sit in on their consultations – we have notices all over the building stating that a work-experience student is with me today and that they need only let the receptionist or myself know if they’d prefer to be seen alone – very few do.
So the day progresses with me seeing patient after patient – if someone’s a little late we pass the time with “so why do you want to be a doctor?” and “which A’-levels are you doing?” or mini-tutorials about General Practice including how to swipe a Tesco Clubcard (which will be useful by the time they’re qualified and doing my job no doubt). I listen in to seemingly hundreds of crackle-free chests (nothing to show the student there) and take thousands of normal blood pressures (likewise). I explain everything to the patient and then, when they’ve left, I go over the background of the condition to the teenager. Come the end of morning surgery, they’re glazing over with utter boredom, and who can blame them? We’ve seen nothing more interesting that a common cold and they’ve understood virtually nothing of the proceedings anyway.
Everything conspires against the once enthusiastic youth – when normally there would be three home visit requests or possibly a couple of trips in the air ambulance, there is nothing. They retire back to the conservatory, put on an iPod and entertain themselves with The Ting Tings for a couple of hours whilst I write letters of referral, sort the incoming pathology results and letters, re-authorise medications and sign prescriptions.
Afternoon surgery passes in much the same way. There is brief excitement when the ‘phone rings and a receptionist announces the unexpected arrival of a cup of tea and a biscuit, but other than that, despite my attempts to explain things as we go along (resulting in acute hoarseness by the end of the day) – my companion is clearly slipping in and out of consciousness. At last, at 5pm, the parent arrives to collect their now virtually comatose youngster, effusive with thanks and bearing bottles of red wine. “Still want to be a doctor?” I ask as they leave. There is half-hearted nodding and a flicker of life glints through the three quarter closed eyelids as they trudge out.
“Thanks again, Doctor, it’s so good of you to have had him,” says Mum, “we asked so many surgeries and they all said no. Up until now, the only work experience we’ve been able to arrange was an afternoon helping out in the soft play tomorrow – and how dull will that be?” Hmm. I wonder.