The Violent Society: Surgery staff in front line facing an angry public: Liz Hunt examines cases where doctors and health centre staff have found themselves the victims of violent attacks

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ONE OF the most violent incidents involving a general practitioner took place in February last year when Dr Bimal Roy Burman was taken hostage at gunpoint by a middle-aged woman, and tied up at her north London surgery.

The woman, distraught at the death of her son and angered by the coroner's verdict on his death, doused the surgery with petrol which she said she would ignite. She eventually gave herself up.

Dr Roy Burman was 'helpless, frightened and humiliated' by her six-hour ordeal. 'All I could think was 'this woman is so unstable, she could drop the lighter any minute and it would all be over'. Despite my shock and fear my heart went out to her - she was a mother and was still grieving for her child . . . By 6.30pm, I was exhausted, shaking and very very frightened when Sheila (the woman) said, 'For the sake of your children, I'm letting you go'.'

The survey found that surgery staff were also at high risk and often the first line of defence in dealing with violent members of the public, as Marjorie Condie, 51, found out one afternoon 17 months ago.

The man who terrorised Mrs Condie, practice manager at the Pinn Medical Centre in Pinner, north-west London, and two receptionists with a knife and gun, blamed a doctor at the practice for his wife's death in hospital three days earlier. The couple had only recently married.

All the doctors were out on visits when the man entered, grabbed her and pressed the knife against her neck. 'At first I wanted to laugh,' she said. 'It seemed like it couldn't be happening but then it was as if everything was in slow motion.' She added: 'He asked one of the receptionists to ring Capital Radio. He wanted everyone to know about his wife's death and that he had a hostage.'

Mrs Condie said that she tried to maintain eye contact with the man and talk to him but he was often irrational. However, he did let her speak to two patients who came to pick up prescriptions but she was unable to warn them.

The man then demanded that she lock the surgery and Mrs Condie told him that she would have to go upstairs to get her keys. He agreed but kept the other two women with him. She was able to ring the police who arrived within minutes. 'They negotiated with the man and persuaded him to let us all go and take them hostage instead. He insisted that I help him tie them up. They were there for another five hours,' she said.

Mrs Condie returned to work the next day determined to 're-establish peace at the centre'. One of the receptionists was unable to face working there again. Panic buttons have been fitted.

Women GPs on home visits are particularly vulnerable as the experience of Dr Godafreed Irani, a GP in Willesden, north-west London, shows. She was called out late one night by a man who insisted that she 'get off her backside and get over here because my wife is dying'. Dr Irani said: 'He greeted me at the door and was quite polite but once in the bedroom when I began to examine his wife he changed. I saw a flash behind me and suddenly he was taking photographs . . . Neither he nor his wife said anything at all although I kept asking them to stop. I couldn't stop working. I was there as a professional and she was sick.' Dr Irani was shaking and crying when she left the house. Shortly after the couple were removed from her list.

(Photograph omitted)