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My Toughest Case: Dr Phil Hammond

‘The baby was 32 weeks and not breathing. I’d done six intubations, but never on my own’

Early in my medical career, between stitching my glove onto the top of a man’s head and watching my spectacles fall into an open wound, I realised a career in surgery probably wasn’t for me. So I joined a GP training scheme. But to get there, I still had to do two years of hospital jobs, starting with the most inappropriate one imaginable; six months on a special care baby unit.

It was the toughest time of my life, trying to put drips, drains, tubes and catheters in the tiniest babies. Luckily, the nurses saw me coming and when it was quiet, we’d swap roles. They’d do all the high-tech fiddly stuff and I’d fetch the HobNobs. But when it was busy, I’d be called into action. In 1988, the training mantra was “see one, do one, teach one”. As one consultant advised: “If you’re not sure what you’re doing, put on a mask of relaxed brilliance.” But no mask can calm a premature birth and the dash to special care.

The baby was 32 weeks and not breathing. The unit sister was busy with another baby. I’d done six successful intubations (passing a tube into the trachea to allow ventilation) but never on my own. I chose a tube, picked up the laryngoscope and prayed my glasses would stay on long enough to see the vocal cords. I eased the tube in and fate directed it to the correct hole. As the tiny lungs inflated, the mother placed some amethyst next to her baby “for the healing energy”.

This baby was in limbo for weeks, unable to come off the ventilator but hanging in there. I’d take blood and fiddle with the ventilator, willing him to thrive with science, while the mother brought in healing beads, horse’s hair, homeopathic creams. Nothing worked. Then one morning, she stuck a picture of the Pope on the incubator and went for a coffee.

Sleep deprivation does odd things to the mind. I decided to fashion the Pope a Jimmy Savile wig out of a yellow X-ray form. Sister spotted it as the mother returned, whipped it off and turned it upside down. “What’s that?” asks the mother. “It’s Dr Phil’s lucky horseshoe. He made it especially.” From that moment, her baby picks up. In a week, he’s off the ventilator. The parents want to name the baby after me and I’m given a huge box of chocolates. I give them to sister, obviously. Baby Phil may have escaped special care, but I’ve still got five months to survive.

Phil Hammond is a GP and comedian. Blogs, books, dvds and tour dates at Drphilhammond.com