Local cyclists: the doctor

This article was published in 2012, in Newsletter 100.

‘Cycling to the Bedside’: GP Hugh looks serious during a staged house visit. Recently the family of a patient in Grantchester reacted very enthusiastically when they spotted his bike.
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Green tea, yes, and coffee for himself. Eleanor had opened the door and smiled shyly. Ten in the morning was early for her. In the kitchen the old teabags go into the bin under the sink, and my bicycle-eyes spot a pair of brake-pads in the refuse. They still look OK. The doctor probably thinks that safety for the cyclists on the street is a question of effective brakes. That is why he changes them every few months or so.

Hugh is a local doctor in family practice. He does two night shifts every week and has probably seen all the streets of Cambridge, those well lit and those in the dark, on his nightly rounds: driver, defibrillator, and even a blue blinking emergency light. He is a sweet and gentle man, and he likes his night shifts with their drama and their peculiar calm. If he cannot sort it out, he can always call an ambulance to take over.

Four days a week he works in the surgery. Like his colleagues at the surgery, he also has a duty to provide care for those too frail to come to his surgery. Some emergencies, but also a good portion of old friends and long-term care are on his list, and for about two hours around lunchtime he looks after them, cycling the streets of the neighbourhood.

Now Hugh can do the whole round in half the time, and with much more pleasure

It all started when the local parking enforcement implemented a new procedure. Parking attendants now no longer honour his emergency notice. ‘Doctor on Call’ on the windshield was worthless now, and when the parking tickets started to roll in, Hugh invented the bicycle alternative. It could be called ‘doctor on call with limited gear’. A hybrid bike, lights, brakes, pannier, backpack, that is all it takes. Now those parking tickets are a thing of the past, and he can do the whole round in half the time, and with much more pleasure. Yes, sometimes calls fall into place in the north, and the next day it is the turn of those in the south… The gear is limited, but all the necessities are covered. A call-out at night with dark hallways and certain neighbourhoods may make the carrier of drugs anxious, but during the day visiting patients on the bike is more like an urban excursion, where scenic routes are allowed, and encouraged, and occasionally a private errand could be accommodated – much more easily than with the car. Sometimes he meets a friend on the street, yes, this doctor has many friends, and such social interaction is precious and crucial.

The door bell rings and the surgery manager calls in with some paperwork. The doctor enters ‘Old Age’ under cause of death, 88 years, while playing golf. This patient has now been looked after for good.

Back to bicycles, and lifestyle. ‘You don’t smoke, you use the bicycle to commute to work, your patients will invariably pick this up, and we do want to nudge them towards a healthier lifestyle: healthy for themselves, and healthy for the planet. Some people think cycling is just for kids and students, yet it makes a real difference when they learn that the man with the fluorescent jacket and the newly fitted brakes is a medical doctor on call. Yes, I am happy to be a kind of model cyclist. Not everybody can do it, but a colleague at the surgery is now also going for the bicycle. And I am sure a few of my patients have got the point too.

No, no, it is safe. I am very visible with this fluorescent jacket, and I make sure I have good brakes at all times. Those brakes! I have only taken one slightly malicious hit from a local taxi driver. In Cambridge they seem to conduct an undeclared war on cyclists, but you learn to live with this. Just as you learn to live with the rain. Most of the time it is really only a drizzle, and in the winter, should it get really cold, a pair of gloves does the trick.

Of course you do what you preach. At home we also make sure that the children use the bicycle in a safe manner. Henry has now completed a safe cycling course, through the school, and the bikes are regularly serviced. For the price of a full tank of fuel you can cycle for a whole year. This is really amazing when you think of it. I am a doctor, and I do imagine how healthy a cycling nation would be.

About 50 miles on the bike every week, and that is not very much really, including the commute to the surgery. Yes, I may try the fixed gear some other time, not now, we still have to go shopping. What do you think about these disk brakes? I have seen plenty of them in London recently, they are supposed to be much better.’

Cycle safely and brake well, Hugh, the first cycling doctor of a whole peleton to come. There may be an opening for a bit of organisation here: We could call it The League of Cycling Doctors on Call with Reduced Gear. Perhaps Dr Brian Drake of Histon will be the honorary president. He cycled the Cambridge villages in the seventies with his leather bag in the front basket. And in the city centre you spot the paramedics on bikes.

Michael Cahn