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25 January 2017

Even as a seasoned doctor, patients’ motivations can surprise you

The daughter who wanted to save her 99-year-old mum against all odds – and the amusing reason why.

By Phil Whitaker

My registrar, Caroline, rang the bell, and we waited together in the winter evening’s drizzle. The door was opened by a neatly dressed woman in her sixties, her face etched with anxiety.

“Thank goodness you’re here!” she said.

“You sounded very worried about your mother on the phone,” Caroline said as we stepped inside.

“Yes, frightened, in fact.”

Caroline and I exchanged a look as we walked along the hall. People describing themselves as frightened are communicating a whole different level of concern. This lady’s elderly mother was likely to be very sick indeed.

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I was surprised, then, to find a spry-looking woman sitting in the fireside chair. She gave us a grin and waved a cheery hand in greeting. Her breathing rate was elevated, admittedly, but my initial impressions were starkly at odds with her daughter’s degree of anxiety.

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I observed, while Caroline took a history. It turned out that their own doctor had visited during the day and diagnosed a chest infection. The antibiotics that he had prescribed were an appropriate choice but they wouldn’t have started to work yet. I listened while Caroline tried to uncover the reason for the out-of-hours visit request, but there seemed to have been no deterioration or new symptoms to have prompted the urgent call-out.

While Caroline conducted her examination, the daughter remained hovering in the doorway, her hands clasped tight. The mother was running a fever, as expected, but her oxygen saturations were good, likewise her blood pressure. There was no mental confusion. Everything looked satisfactory. I was increasingly puzzled as to why we had been called round.

I glanced at the notes printout. The mother and the daughter had the same surname, so the daughter was probably unmarried. They lived together, and I wondered if the daughter had never left home. That would suggest a very close relationship. Perhaps that explained her degree of fear – the prospect of losing the maternal figure she had lived with her whole life.

I noted the mother’s year of birth: 99 years old. To ease the tension, I made a light-hearted remark about how she’d be getting a card from the Queen on her next birthday. This provoked a spiel from the daughter: she said that you’d have thought there was an automatic process for Buckingham Palace to identify centenarians, but when she got in touch with the people in charge, she found out there wasn’t, so she’d had to make them aware of her mother’s impending anniversary.

My puzzlement deepened. The birthday was still nine months away. The daughter was increasingly coming across as neurotic, hassling officialdom so far in advance of her mum’s landmark celebration.

“I expect you’re planning quite a party,” I said.

“I should say,” the daughter agreed. She mentioned the country house hotel they had booked – one of the area’s poshest. They had already had a dry run, inviting guests to the house to check whether her mother would have the stamina for it. Caroline had reassured them that the infection should soon resolve with the treatment already begun. Mother and daughter exchanged a conspiratorial smile and, after a pause, confessed that the bookmaker William Hill was going to be paying for the lavish do.

We listened with increasing amusement as they explained that, 20 years previously, they had put £100 on the mother living to receive her centenary greeting from the Queen. The odds quoted at the time had been very long. As year after year of good health passed, the payout – more than £10,000 – had gone from whimsical fantasy to tangible reality. All the mum had to do was hang on another nine months.

The prospect of losing a loved parent was bad enough, but the daughter evidently found any illness now to be intolerably worrying, threatening as it did to rob them of their audacious winnings just as the final hurdle came into sight. 

This article appears in the 18 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era