Botesdale GP Dr Andrew Yager's book tells most memorable moments based on his time at health centre
A deafening roar. A terrifying explosion. And, far too close for comfort, a ball of flame and a pall of smoke. As house calls go, it was on the dramatic side.
For a country GP this was definitely not in the textbooks. The patient’s brother-in-law staggered through the back door – shocked and dazed but unharmed.
A Tornado jet had crashed in a field just feet away from the back garden.
One minute Andrew Yager was checking his patient’s medication. Moments later he was rushing to help the crew, who by staying put until the last minute had steered the stricken plane away from buildings, but still managed to eject safely.
Few of Andrew’s experiences in 30-plus years as a GP were as hair-raising as that one.
But as with the work of every doctor they encompassed the whole of human life from the hilarious, to the inspiring, to the tragic.
They range from the couple whose unfailing resilience brought them joy in the face of tragedy, to the agitated motorcyclist who turned up on the doctor’s doorstep with a bee in his ear.
Then there was the time he was shown a painting worth millions of pounds, a treasured token of a doomed wartime romance, hanging above a patient’s bed.
Now Andrew is sharing some of his most memorable stories in a book based on his time as a partner at Botesdale Health Centre in Suffolk.
Each one can stand alone but together they build a picture of his career, reflecting his deep interest in people and their lives.
They are also a tribute to the people of Suffolk, their character, dignity, and stoicism in the face of adversity.
Andrew retired from the health centre three years ago but is still working in two other roles to improve the care of people with cancer.
He is primary care lead for Suffolk and North East Essex Integrated Care System for cancer patients, and also works for the East Anglian Cancer Alliance.
“I started the book before lockdown,” he said. “I had always liked these stories. Then I thought I could write them down.”
Annie, his wife of 36 years and constant support throughout his years as a GP, said: “He would tell some of them to family and friends and have them in fits of laughter.
“But we did have tears as well sometimes, when Andrew read the stories to me it took us right back to the moment. It would take us back to the emotion of the time.
“The other thing I find interesting was a lot of our colleagues, doctors and nurses, found it resonates with them, too.”
Andrew said: “I did it as a thank you to Annie and the family, really. I thought let’s put all this down, then when I got going I thought, I have something to say.
“Then I got on to including something about general practice, and I also wanted to say something about the Suffolk people.”
The couple, who have three children, speak with pride of their combined 80 years of service to the NHS.
Both are the children of doctors, and they met when he was doing his GP training in King’s Lynn, and she was nursing there.
Andrew’s father Stewart was a GP in Scunthorpe. At first they lived next to the surgery, so even as a child he was well aware of the demands of a family doctor’s life.
“I remember Dad often going out at night, and the sound of the garage door closing when he came home,” he said.
Belfast-born Annie’s father Jim was a consultant orthopaedic surgeon. Her mother was a nurse.
“We were brought up in Belfast during the Troubles. When I started nursing at 18 the children’s hospital was on the Falls Road,” she said.
“When I met Andrew’s parents I always felt very much at home in their home. For both of us the life was not strange.
“And when we went across to Northern Ireland on holiday my dad would take Andrew into theatre with him, he would say ‘do you want to come and give me a hand?’”
Andrew began his career as a hospital doctor but never felt really comfortable with ward work.
Becoming a GP he knew he had found his niche. “I was like a duck to water ... that whole thing of being able to communicate properly with patients.”
General practice in the 1980s was a world away from today where surgeries struggle desperately to fill vacancies.
Then, it was such a popular career choice that jobs were like gold dust with dozens of young doctors competing for every post.
“The ’70s and ’80s were the golden age for general practice – the number one career choice,” said Andrew. “But now it has become a really difficult job, unwieldy and complicated.”
Not that it was ever an easy option, because the commitment to patients was 24 hours a day, with doctors taking turns to provide overnight cover.
Andrew and Annie were on the brink of accepting work in New Zealand when the chance of a partnership at Botesdale came along.
With the words of his GP trainer ringing in his ears ‘jobs like this come up once in a blue moon .... you may not get another chance’, they went to the interview.
Within a few weeks they had made three big decisions . . . to join Botesdale, get married, and have children.
“We were over the moon with Andrew getting the partnership – we couldn’t really believe it,” said Annie.
General practice then was very much a family affair, with Annie answering the phone at home when Andrew was on call.
“I was a sister in children’s day surgery at the West Suffolk Hospital,” she said.
“When we had the family I always worked part-time, and was very aware of Andrew’s commitment when he was on call.
“We had a bell in the garden so we could go outside and play with the children.
“When Andrew’s bleep went off, he would have to find a public phone to call in.”
And he added: “We used to have a pocketful of change for the phone. Then my first mobile phone was the size of a car battery.”
He recalls a wise old doctor asking him to name the most important piece of equipment for an on-call GP. It was jump leads, because in the days of 24 hour responsibility for patients the last thing you wanted was a car with a flat battery.
That advice did not stop him discovering one night – as he dashed out to help a man in agonising pain – that his keys were locked inside the car. Cue a brick and a smashed side window.
The story of baby Lottie is one of the most heart-rending – and hopeful – in the book.
She was the daughter of a Nina and Richard, and lived only six months because of a devastating genetic condition that left her skin as fragile as a butterfly’s wing.
In a further terrible blow, Nina’s second pregnancy was terminated due to the same condition.
But their resilience in the face of tragedy saw them through, and they went on to have two healthy children, to whom Andrew and Annie are godparents.
Harry and Gertrude were in their 80s. He was a quiet, wiry, man of the soil, who cared for his wife steadfastly as her mobility declined.
But Andrew’s concern about his ability to cope was eased in the strangest way . . . by seeing Harry’s lovingly-tended garden and meeting his two tortoises, one of which he had looked after for 78 years.
It convinced him that Harry was a born carer who would tenderly look after Gertrude for as long as he was physically able.
Getting those kind of insights through a home visit is becoming rarer now and he wonders if it will be to the ultimate detriment of primary care.
Called to the home of one patient to tend to her friend he commented on the beautiful artwork on the walls.
She offered to show him her favourite. It was all she had to remind her of the young European aristocrat she had fallen in love with during the war.
He had fled to Britain and become a bomber pilot, bringing with him one of his family heirlooms . . . a painting by the French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir which he gave her as a token of his affection.
Tragically, he was killed, leaving her bereft. To her, the value of the picture did not matter. It was all she had left of her one true love.
Stan, who tended Andrew and Annie’s garden for many years, was not a man given to complaining or worrying.
When he fell ill, and hospital treatment did not help, he simply carried on as normal despite becoming frailer, finally laying down his tools for the last time just three days before he died.
“What I really learnt from him was how to live a dignified, joyful and steadfast life through adversity,” Andrew writes. “I am very proud to count this ‘Suffolk stoic’ as a friend.
“When I went to Botesdale, general practice had probably not changed that much since the start of the NHS. Everything was still quite old-fashioned.
“But from the 1990s onwards so much changed. Technology has changed everything and medical science has advanced so much.
“Back then you knew your patients and their families. You saw your own patients and continuity of care, seeing the same person, works.
“We were lucky to work in a time when there was less pressure. It was long hours, but less intense, and more rewarding – more people-based.”
While acknowledging the incredible advances in medical science, he also wishes the NHS would return GPs to their pivotal role in local communities.
The book touches on the contrast with the situation today, but he is clear he did not want it to turn into ‘a rant’.
“I enjoyed my work. I was very lucky,” he said.
The tales of a Suffolk GP is available from Diss Publishing, The Leaping Hare at Stanton, Waterstones in the Buttermarket, Bury, and on Amazon. All proceeds from book sales will go to Red Cross Ukraine.