Books: Owen Gallagher's A Spoonful Of Medicine is just what the doctor ordered
Stories from the 50-year medical career of a globe-trotting Co Antrim GP range from the harrowing to the hilarious and will ultimately do your heart good, writes Brendan Crossan
IN HIS youth, retired GP and author Owen Gallagher made three declarations to himself: he would never live in his native Glenavy; he would never become a doctor and he would never marry a Glenavy woman.
As he launches his updated semi-autobiographical book A spoonful of Medicine, first released in 2004, Gallagher smiles fondly at how each youthful declaration crashed and burned.
He took more than a few global detours during his 50-year medical career before deciding to return home to Glenavy. He assumed the reins of the general practice surgery his mother and father ran in the village and he's happily married to Catherine (nee MacCreanor). They have nine children.
It was in the early part of the ‘noughties' Gallagher discovered how much he loved the cathartic aspect of writing, while also displaying a wonderful lightness of touch in his story-telling.
The original creation in 2004 contained 12 short tales of a well-travelled Irish doctor. In the intervening 16 years, A Spoonful of Medicine has morphed into a collection of 32 short stories about the travails of Gallagher's colourful medical career and, perhaps more importantly, the many characters he encountered along the way that took him to places such as France, Nigeria, Uganda, England and Dublin.
Available via Amazon in e-book form, A Spoonful of Medicine bobs and weaves through the years and is almost lyrical in style.
“I want to make people laugh with this book. I want the reader to appreciate what medicine was like 50 years ago. Things that happened back then they'd probably be struck off for now," Gallagher laughs.
“I try to base my writing on [All Creatures Great and Small author] James Herriot. He was a vet in the north of England in the 1930s and he only got his book published in the 1970s. He'd actually given up writing because he couldn't get a publisher.
“Apparently he put his books in a drawer and his wife came across them and they ended up being published.”
Gallagher describes his own musings as “a gentle style that would appeal to the whole family” – some chapters are indeed bordering on the medicinal. He achieves two things with the second edition of A Spoonful of Medicine: firstly, he retains a lovely, enviable innocence in his story-telling while at the same time illustrates with impressive deftness some of the terrible experiences doctors and other medical professionals inevitably face.
“I just wanted to write entertaining, amusing stories with little morals and philosophies running through them,” he says. “I write about various illnesses – diabetes or heart failure – and I write about the characters involved and the funny things that happened.
“I mean, some things in medicine are so awful, where there is certainly no humour in them, so you had to search for humour in other situations.”
He adds: “Some of the trauma that some young doctors faced still haunt me to this day.
Lay people think doctors are all cool – they are, up to a point – but we're traumatised by some of the things we've seen.”
In Chapter 18, entitled ‘Buried Alive', the 68-year-old Glenavy man illustrates this very point where he had to tell a “distraught father” he'd lost his 10-year-old daughter due to a tragic accident.
Humour, he says, has been a great coping mechanism throughout his career – and while there are some sorry tales contained in the book, they are an essential ingredient that gives it its authenticity. But you will laugh either side of these more gruesome passages.
The first chapter features an amusing character called McLeod – a high-ranking doctor in a permanent state of incandescent rage who had a young Gallagher – aka James Griffin in the book – yearning to fly planes, only poor eyesight intervened.
Dr Mike McColl is another intriguing character introduced to the reader, with Gallagher describing him as “a riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma. He could be happy or morose, kind or cutting, agreeable or irritable, accommodating or unobliging” who liked to use a “smattering of Ulster-Scots”.
There are a thousand other colleagues that will keep the reader entertained throughout.
All the short stories, Gallagher says, are “true or slightly distorted” while his medical colleagues' identities are disguised for obvious reasons.
Asked if he regretted becoming a doctor, Gallagher is emphatic in his answer. “Not in the slightest," he says. "It was very tough at times but I had just a wonderful life as a doctor and I'd recommend it to anyone.”
A Spoonful of Medicine is generally an uplifting, quirky, irreverent and thoroughly engaging account of what life was like for doctors back in the day. It will, in all likelihood, do your heart good.
:: A Spoonful of Medicine (2020) by James Griffin (aka Owen Gallagher) is available on Kindle, priced £3.97.