Case Notes – notes on a father.

Family, Medical, Poetry


In July 2016, getting off the plane in Cork, the mobile rang with the news that a doctor had been called out to my father in his nursing home. A few days later, I swapped my London hospital for my childhood hospital and the professional became personal.

As both a writer and a healthcare professional, I make notes all the time – to record, to process, to remember. Making notes at such a time made sense on several levels. Hence, I recorded each day’s occurrences with dates and times, alongside “vital signs” such as Dad’s heart rate, blood pressure readings and what his clinical state was each day.

As a healthcare professional, values such as blood pressure and heart rate are part of a language that I can navigate comfortably. When it is one of your own in the bed, it can quickly become overwhelming, as you understand that the numbers are heading in the wrong direction.

The tension of wanting to act has to be tempered with the knowledge that the family member in the bed is not actually your patient. Nevertheless, you help take care of things.

Two concerns became apparent on writing the notes up. These were the impossibility of trying to describe a man such as my father and the layers of life he packed into his eighty seven years. Themes emerged when the notes were typed up chronologically, signposting those layers. Mapping the themes helped to provide structure, which in turn helped to manage the difficulties of working with the content.


1. Black Bush

He chides me for buying good whiskey.
Has me pour us both one.

When the nurses aren't looking.

2.    Famous Grouse

The landlord buys him a double
when I wheel in him in after two months.
The regulars startled into silence.

3.    Whiskey plus Nutilis

Mix 100mls of whiskey with 100mls
of water, add powder, use a spoon.
The GP says why not.

1.    Oral

Standard treatment for chest infection.
No need for a second nurse to mix the dosage.
Or an ambulance to find their way.
2.    Intravenous

The protocol says they should be
started within the hour. Requires a vein.
Takes four and a half.
3.    Intravenous round two

Used for resistant strains and hard cases.
No infective, bacterial organism left alive.  
Ineffective in cases of underlying frailty.

Barbara O’Donnell was born in West Cork in 1975 and works full time in the NHS in London. Her poetry has been published in Atrium Poetry, Dear Reader, Ink, Sweat & Tears, Skylight 47, South Bank Poetry, The Night Heron Barks and Three Drops Press. One of her poems was included in the 2019 Culture Matters anthology “The Children of the Nation – An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland”. She also dabbles in essays and flash fiction.

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