Hazel McHaffie

compassion

On the shoulders of giants

Some time ago I listened to one of these programmes where people tell their stories of good triumphing over tragedy. In this case it was a woman called Zoe, who told of her experience losing 5 early pregnancies. The consultant, she alleged, had told her not to even start looking for support; there was nothing out there. In response she set up her own helpline: originally called Saying Goodbye, now the Mariposa Trust.

Actually, it’s not true there’s nothing out there. I worked in the field of parental loss for decades, and there are a number of organisations that reach out to grieving families in their need. As a researcher, I myself studied what bereaved parents want and need, and my findings were widely disseminated.

Which all brings me to today’s subject. It’s important not to forget that what we do builds on the shoulders of others; often of giants. And it’s the same in literature. We’ve all benefitted from reading other people’s work – volumes they’ve laboured over, struggled with, paid a heavy price for. Sometimes we aren’t even consciously aware that these writings are impinging on us, altering our way of thinking, touching us at some deep level.

I’ve had a weird sensation of deja vu this week. I’ve been reading One Life by Rebecca Frayn. It tells the story of Rose and Johnny, a young couple who unexpectedly discover a deep desire for parenthood. But unfortunately Johnny is sub-fertile, and Rose is unable to get pregnant even with medical help (IVF, ICSI).

I explored the scenario of infertility in two of my own early novels: Paternity and Double Trouble, so of course I was fascinated to see how Frayn tackled it. I’m not suggesting for one moment that this author has copied my work – her approach is quite different, and I don’t suppose she even knows of my existence! But we are neither of us entering virgin territory, we are both building on what has gone before, maybe our own experiences, certainly those of others who’ve delved into these sensitive areas before us, in factual accounts as well as in the world of make-believe.

And this is where fiction especially comes into its own, because it has a dual effect, touching the heart as well as the intellect. It allows and encourages us to get inside the skin of people like Rose and Johnny, to empathise with their emotions, and hopefully emerge more understanding, more open-minded, more supportive, more compassionate. My raison d’etre. I’m delighted to find another debut novelist entering into my world.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Fallibility in medicine

Any day now I expect to get a letter giving me a date on which a person unknown to me will thread a catheter into my heart and fire radio waves at it. There is a 2 in 1,000 chance he will kill me in the process. Not the time you’d think to be contemplating the matter of medical fallibility; but I can honestly say I am perfectly sanguine about this prospect.

Almost all surgical procedures carry risks. As pioneer Rene Leriche wrote rather more poetically in 1951: ‘Every surgeon carries within himself a small cemetery, where from time to time he goes to pray – a place of bitterness and regret, where he must look for an explanation for his failures.’ Note: Every surgeon. I’m also very aware that some specialties are more hazardous than others: hearts and brains are especially vulnerable areas to tinker with. Ahhh, brains! … now there’s a different kettle of fish altogether.

Henry Marsh is a brain surgeon, so eminent a one moreover that he’s been the subject of two major documentaries and was awarded a CBE in 2010 – click on this picture to see him in operationHenry Marsh in operation. But he hasn’t always been so single-minded and determined. His was a fairly circuitous route into medicine and even once he entered the profession he felt pretty jaded about it – bored even … until that is he encountered neurosurgery. Then he fell in love. In the thirty years since, practising his chosen discipline, he’s had countless successes, as well as his fair share of ‘terrible failures‘, all punctuated with periods of ‘deep despair‘. Not surprisingly. His is one of the most high powered, high risk, stressful and dangerous jobs.

If you think you carry a heavy burden of responsibility, if you ever feel guilty about things that have gone wrong on your watch, then I recommend you read his book, Do No Harm, published last year. In his own words:

‘As a neurosurgeon you have to come to terms with ruining people’s lives and with making mistakes. But one still feels terrible about it and how much it will cost … But nobody, nobody other than a neurosurgeon understands what it is like to have to drag yourself up to the ward and see, every day – somebody one has destroyed and face the anxious and angry family at the bedside who have lost all confidence in you … You can’t stay pleased with yourself for long in neurosurgery. There’s always another disaster waiting round the corner.’

Nor does he attempt to hide behind his colleagues or seek safety in numbers; he paints himself as fearfully human and flawed. That takes courage. He shares his bad temper, bad language, bad judgement calls, bad manners, his occasional lack of professional detachment.

Do No HarmBut through all the chagrin and curses shines his awe of the magnificence and significance of the human brain – something ‘infinitely mysterious’. As he slices into the soft white jelly he finds it almost incomprehensible even yet to believe that he is ‘moving through thought itself, through emotion and reason,’ rummaging amongst memories and dreams and reflections, all that is important in human life. But he is always, always aware that one false move, one moment of inattention, can take away for ever sight, or memory, the ability to recognise family, or the power to move … even life itself. And that sense of wonder and fear has never left him. Because of it, even today, moving towards retirement, he still gets stage fright, still feels intense anxiety, still builds in little superstitious rituals. He is brutally conscious of his own fallibility.

However, because he is now so experienced, he can afford to share stories from the past where he got things wrong. Would that all doctors could admit their failures and misjudgements and learn from their mistakes to the greater good of all. So often all patients/relatives are looking for is an apology. Mr Marsh is not afraid to offer one. I liked him the more for his humility.

Reading his account of life at the sharp end, though, I also experienced a lowness of spirit. As a patient, as a relative, as a health care professional, I’ve been frustrated and upset by inefficiency and disorganisation and absurd bureaucracy and bad practice within the NHS, and as an insignificant player in this vast organisation, felt horribly powerless. But I retained a vague sense that those higher up the food chain could bypass the nonsense and get results. Henry Marsh is at the top of the clinical hierarchy, but he too has been rendered impotent in the face of managerial and political directives. I so much identified with his feelings of resentment and anger when even he couldn’t get tests done, or results made available, or colleagues to cooperate; when he couldn’t prevent serious operations being cancelled at the eleventh hour.

I also felt his very human pain when conditions were inoperable, when patients developed catastrophic complications, when they died. And I silently applauded. Wouldn’t we all want to be looked after by a surgeon with compassion, a man who really cares? He learned this valuable lesson during his student years: ‘It was their (surgeons’) kindness to patients, as much as their technical skill, which I found inspiring.’ Indeed. Me too. I’ll be looking for that when I am finally admitted for that procedure on my heart.

A legitimate question to ask of one’s surgeon is: What would you do if it were your mother/your child? And this question resonates with Marsh particularly because many years ago he was the parent of a baby son with a brain tumour; he felt the frailty and powerlessness of any parent anywhere in such circumstances. The feeling was resurrected to a degree when he became a patient himself needing operations on both eyes, when he broke his leg, when his mother was dying of cancer, when his father developed dementia. It’s salutary being on the other side and, he believes, an important part of any doctor’s education. I could identify with this too; my recent experiences on the receiving end have highlighted the essential imbalance between the clothed and unclothed; the upright and the supine; the caregiver and the customer.

Do No Harm is alive with vibrant stories, details of many patients with many different conditions and diagnoses, treated with various degrees of success. I could personally never cope with the burden of mutilation, death and disaster that litters Marsh’s path; I have neither the psychological strength nor the ability to forgive myself. I’d have sunk without trace very early on. But I’m sincerely awed by the courage of clinicians like him who bear that burden for us all.

, , , , , ,

Comments

In sickness and in health

In all the pomp and pageantry, emotion and style of Friday’s royal wedding, one of the most telling moments for me was when the Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, read out the prayer composed by the young Prince William and his bride, Catherine Middleton.

Having given thanks to God for their shared love and happiness, they asked for help
– to keep their ‘eyes fixed on what is real and important in life
– ‘to serve and comfort those who suffer
and
-to ‘be generous’ with their ‘time and love and energy’.

Wow! If they stick to the intention, what a force for good they could be. After too many years of sorry royal shenanigans, this country could do with a fresh start based on sound godly principles and genuine human compassion.

Interestingly, long before the wedding date was announced, I was booked to attend a weekend focusing on just how Christians could reach out to embrace and support others, valuing and working with diversity. It necessitated travelling on Friday 29 April. Honour dictated I respected the prior booking, of course; I went to Manchester not London! And there we were picking up exactly the issues encapsulated in that prayer: love in action.

But since we’re talking of spiritual and practical matters, how about a little parable to illustrate where my mind was going as I watched the wedding highlights in my hotel room on Friday night.

Drag your mind away from spring blossom, blue skies and warm sunshine, and back to the big freeze of January. Ruined railingsBlack ice coats the road. A car skids completely out of control, demolishing an ancient boundary wall and ornate railings. A flowering almond tree escapes with a scored trunk, but a beautiful dissected-leaf red maple (OK, acer to you horticultural experts) is broken off completely, leaving only a bare stump.

The site is left untouched while insurers and loss adjusters crank their wheels ever so slowly. Time passes. Nature rests. But with the coming of spring the temperatures creep higher, sap rises in the trees, and lo and behold, that sorry neglected stump is discovered to have sprouted vigorous new growth just inches from the rubble! What a triumph of hope over expectation.

I wonder, did Her Majesty feel a similar sense of renewed hope as she listened and watched in the Abbey on Friday? Certainly a fair old swathe of her subjects did, if news reports are anything to go by. I hope – and yes, pray – their confidence is justified.

I’ll keep you posted on the tree. Will it one day once again vie with its near neighbours for vigour and beauty, I wonder?Young maple treeEstablished maple tree

, , , , , , , ,

Comments