Medic turned critic, John Quin recalls his time at Glasgow Royal Infirmary in the early 80s in an exclusive extract from his new book, Dr Quin Medicine Man
By John Quin
Glasgow has had a gang problem for years, razor boys like the Tongs and the Fleet. There’s maybe a hundred or more with daft names like the Sighthill Mafia, the Young Shettleston Tigers, the Carmyle Tahiti. Back in the 80s the top gangster was Arthur Thompson. He might nail you to a floor. Drug rivalries made the city ripe for turf wars.
The Doyle family came in as a group package after their house was firebombed. This was part of an ongoing gang feud now known as the Ice Cream War, a conflict that arose around local heroin sales. Ice cream vans would ramble around the meaner estates selling 99s, ice cream cones embedded with pillars of chocolate flake. But they’d also sell you a few bags of scag and a yellow plastic ‘sin bin’ full of used needles nicked from the hospital. The director of Gregory’s Girl, Bill Forsyth, made a movie that chimed with the madness. He named the picture (with dark irony) Comfort and Joy.
I arrive for the morning shift just after seven a.m. to carnage. What were white coats on the backs of my colleagues are now black rags stained with soot. Most of the Doyle family died of smoke inhalation. Maybe about five of them made it to A+E first before succumbing in ITU. I meet my friend Paul at the handover as we swapped shifts, his face smeared with black stains. He looks shell-shocked, exhausted, his pupils large, his sleepless eyes heavy:
“It wouldn’t have been so bad but we had to repeat lots of the bloods. We filled out the forms saying here’s blood from a Mr. J. Doyle. But then we realised they were called Jim and Johnny and Joe. And so we had to do them all over again.”
Some nights I’d cross the car-park in the dark and get back to my room in the residences around two in the morning and play Sons of Pioneers by Japan and stare out at the empty M8 with its flashing yellow signs warning of ice, its slick surface brightly lit by the overhead gantries. Sons of Pioneers, the hungry men. I thought of myself as one of those hungry men, hungry for action. One month in country and I was getting used to it, getting into it. Being in A+E felt similar to being in the jungle under fire. I saw Big Pat, my senior colleague, was another Martin Sheen figure, another Captain Willard who had been in firefights, had ran point more times than he could care to mention. Pat was the guy who shouts ‘fire in the hole!’
And me? I was more like that wired no-nothing teenager from some South Bronx shithole. I came from a slightly tamer variant of the Wild West known as Westwood, East Kilbride: a ‘new’ town famed for its roundabouts. Polo-mint city.
I looked out at the motorway and its shadows and felt the early hours drag by. Watching the occasional lonely car zip west through the rain I knew I should try to sleep but my mind kept going over and over the craziness I’d seen earlier that day. A wee girl of seven with 80 per cent burns, a sight I’d never want to see again.
A+E was my war zone and the trips down there were an adrenalised high away from the steadiness of my ward, my boat if you like. I’d have that line of Captain Willard’s buzzing in my head every time I’d escape the hole, the hell of Casualty and get back to the wards or my kip overlooking the motorway, my hootch: never get out of the boat. I resolved to spend as much time as I could on my own boat: the ward in the block high above A+E.
A+E was like the sea, unimaginable in its fury at times. John Berger compares a doctor’s role to being not dissimilar to that of one of Joseph Conrad’s Master Mariners. But I could see how as a mariner you could become lost and desensitised, and I got a sense of how you could even become despairing, like Pat, thrashing out. Ultimately you might become a total degenerate like Colonel Kurtz, a Harold Shipman figure deciding arbitrarily who would live and who would die.
I would not become a consultant A+E doctor.
That kid, that wee girl. What had I just seen? Something I’d never visualised before and hope would never see again. But I’ve never been able to forget her image. What I saw was seared into my brain. When we see something horrific (something we’ve never come across even in photographic reproduction or TV or the movies) the retina receives the image and relays it the brain where we try to make sense of what has just happened. But I couldn’t make sense of this: not at first.
I’m standing in one of those jaundiced corridors of A+E about to clerk someone in. I’ve got my paperwork in my hands. And then there is a palpable sense of fear. People are running. Then she swept past me on a trolley fast on her way to Room Nine and the paediatric resuscitation team. There was a frantic air, a buzz of panic, and a sudden pallor in the faces of those who would try to save her. I saw the scarlet anger of her injuries. Both of her legs were bright red, this I remember. More of those black soot stains too that reminded me of the Doyle family, stains on her arms, stains on the white sheets. Even now I realise that I have been suppressing something. This is how we deal with true horror. How we try and forget the truly awful detail. But now I remember it all. The red colour was her legs and it extended upwards; the red line stopped on her tummy. I saw something you should never see. And I knew she would die. Here was a child in great suffering. And me? I stood paralysed in uncontrolled pity.
I knew now too that I could never become a paediatrician.
But A+E was, in many ways, less of a Coppola madhouse, at times it was much more like a Mike Leigh movie: a Mike Leigh movie starring some of the saddest dafties on the planet. Bampots like those vacant-faced junkies who injected their femoral arteries with temazepam. They would then look down in appalled wonder at the mottled, marbled, pre-gangrenous appearance of their leg and say: aye, just lap it aff doctor.
Dr Quin, Medicine Man by John Quin is published by Biteback Publishing