The Village Doctor

Holly MacKenna MD reminisces: a physician meets her first mentor for coffee and is reminded of what it means to be a healer.

“There he is now.”

I squinted into the sun at the small sports car pulling into a nearby parking spot. It was a beautiful day in Carlow. A rare heat wave allowed me to wear short sleeves and, for the person meeting us, to drive with his car top down. His face was very familiar to me, but retirement had added a relaxed element to the wrinkled smile of the man who had been my first clinician mentor twenty-five years earlier.

“Ah Holly, it’s good to see you.”

John McDougald mentored me during medical school when I ventured over to my parent’s homeland to shadow the Irish village doctor. At that time, he ran a small clinic, or a “surgery” as it is called, in County Kildare. He gently guided me through patient visits and explained how everything worked. He laughed at my astonishment at how his prescriptions were sent electronically to the local pharmacy, which was not a common practice yet in the States.

More than that, he was the first doctor – apart from my father – to model the practice of healing to me. During our lunch breaks at the surgery, I accompanied John in his modest vehicle to homes in the village for house calls. One woman was experiencing chest discomfort and needed the doctor to see her before the ambulance was called. Another was too ill to make it into the surgery for a needed checkup. With each visit, he demonstrated kindness and the ability to be fully present for the person in front of him. It wasn’t until later in my career that I realized what a rarity this could be in a medical system that required a physician to be accountable to so many entities apart from the person in the exam room.


It wasn’t until later in my career that I realized what a rarity this could be in a medical system that required a physician to be accountable to so many entities apart from the person in the exam room. Click To Tweet


My time in Dr. McDougald’s surgery allowed me to experience what could be considered by some a romanticized view of medical practice. He and his staff were like a family who welcomed me as a long-lost daughter. They meticulously guided me between patient visits. The villagers were all willing to have the young American medical student join their sessions and hear everything about their families and daily struggles. Every afternoon, the clinic would pause for tea. Anyone present was offered a cuppa, and there was no point in pretending to resist.

Beyond being a traditional Irish village doctor, John McDougald was someone his patients could lean on when times were tough. He didn’t concern himself with their ability to pay on time if life made it difficult. He provided preventative care for the soul. He once asked me to sit out for a visit he was having with a woman whose husband had died earlier that week. He had told me there wouldn’t be much to see as they were just going to “have a cup of tea and a chat.”

Years after my time with him as a student, I saw John again. I was home in my father’s village of Castledermot with my mother and two brothers. We had traveled there for my father’s Month’s Mind Mass, an Irish Catholic tradition in which the recently departed is remembered by loved ones and honored with the priest’s blessing. I had navigated my dad’s initial funeral in a dream-like state with minimum emotion. My 8-year-old niece was at the funeral reading a prayer, and I used her presence as an excuse to stay strong. The Month’s Mind held no such shield against my lingering grief. As soon as I entered the church, I saw my godfather Martin, my father’s brother John, and my mentor John McDougald.

Seeing those three paternal figures waiting for me gave me the permission I needed to surrender to the crushing loss, and I spent much of the Mass weeping. It was then that John McDougald handed me his handkerchief. He didn’t turn away or avoid eye contact. He stayed with me and offered a light to follow as I struggled to escape the darkness which had swallowed me. I realized how much being present through another’s discomfort is often the ultimate form of offering healing.  John did this regularly, without thought, as he remembered what it was to be a healer before anything else.

During our most recent meeting, as we sat outside in the courtyard of the tearoom in Carlow reminiscing about my time as a medical student under his tutelage, several ladies came up to excuse themselves so they could say hello or give a quick handshake to their now-retired doctor. They each listened as he introduced me, and they said how lucky I had been to learn from the best. Now, in the latter half of my own career, I agree in a more sincere and enthusiastic way than I did when I first heard those words back in his surgery so many years ago.


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