It had been the worst snap of cold weather for many years. An elderly farmer had gone missing and a body had been discovered. I was the general practitioner on call for the night so I found myself in the back of a police car speeding through the darkness to a mountainside in a remote part of Ireland. I was glad I was not driving, the snow had fallen thickly and it was glittering in a hard frost. The moon was bright and it was as cold as it could get.
At last we reached the spot where several local men in high-viz jackets were waving torches. The car could go no further. A hearse pulled in alongside us and a portly undertaker, incongruous among the farmers and police in his suit, overcoat and city shoes, introduced himself. Then we all set off up the mountain at a fearsome pace.
The moon was so bright that we had no need of the farmer’s torches. Before long I could hear the police panting for breath. These local lads were fit. At last we stopped at the place where an elderly man lay, literally frozen in a snowy field. One arm was lifted, as if to wave goodbye, and his open eyes gazed at the starry sky.
There was not much for me to do. I placed a hand on his icy wrist, took note of the time and, pronounced him dead. But nobody moved .The ring of men waited silently staring at me. What else was I supposed to do? There was no family member to comfort. The police would contact the coroner. Still they waited. What did they know that I did not? Was I expected to pray?
At last, the police sergeant spoke: “How would you say, Doctor, did he die?”
I must have looked even more at a loss as I stared at him, speechless.
“Can you not tell by the look on his face?”
Just then the Undertaker arrived, puffing noisily. He came to the rescue. He first circled the body. Then he doffed his hat, squatted and stared long and solemnly into the man’s eyes. He stood and declaimed:
“He was walking and fell. He tried to get up. He felt a chest pain and suffered a massive heart attack. Then he died. ”
That did the job. Amid nods of acknowledgement and rueful head-shaking the body was lifted on a stretcher and the swift pace was resumed.
Twenty years later, I still don’t know what it was all about. I have asked several GPs in rural areas if they had ever heard of anything like it. Nobody had. It must have been a peculiarity of the place, a tradition started by a doctor with a sense of drama in the days before post mortems were commonplace. I have never had the nerve to try saying it myself. “From the look on his face I would say……..”