Hazel McHaffie

The prime minister and the athlete

I actually wrote this blog in Slovenia. It’s the end of their summer tourist season so pretty tranquil at this time of year, and conducive to reflection.

I was trekking through a forest in the spectacular Julian Alps and got chatting to a delightful Welsh lady who mentioned that her friend wasn’t up to a long walk that day. No detail. Fair enough; mountains aren’t everyone’s chosen terrain. But later I met the said friend who spontaneously explained the medical reason for her absence. I hadn’t asked; she elected to tell me. It was her right to do so, not her companion’s.

Ahah! Medical ethics. My domain. In this case, more specifically medical confidentiality. And as I tramped through the beautiful Slovenian scenery my mind returned to this subject.

Now, I know that with fame comes a certain amount of prurient interest, and entering the public eye carries penalties. Even medical matters are not exempt from the list of details to be broadcast – cosmetic surgery, spells in rehab, diagnoses of serious illnesses – you know the kinds of things that sell newspapers. But where should the line be drawn? We’ve had two glaring examples of flagrant disregard of the basic principle of medical confidentiality recently here in the UK – one speculative, one based on scientific fact – that prompt me to pontificate on my blog.

Is the prime minister, Gordon Brown, mentally ill? Why? Apparently because he bites his nails, looks hung-over, ‘lacks emotional intelligence’, and isn’t allowed a wedge of Stilton cheese, a splurge of sauerkraut, or a glass of Chianti, which are known to react with his alleged form of anti-depressants. Hello?

Is the South African athlete, Caster Semenya, really a man? Why? Because she is exceptionally tall, has a deep voice, masculine features, and runs like a cheetah.

If indeed Gordon Brown were to be on anti-depressants, isn’t he entitled to have that fact, and his diagnosis, respected, as the rest of us are? OK, I hear you cry, but he’s sending our troops to war; he’s making or breaking international relationships; he’s responsible for our financial crisis. Fair enough. But surely the rest of the team who might well be told on a ‘need-to-know’ basis, could manage the consequences of such a disclosure without divulging the detail. The whole country doesn’t need to know. Do we? Our level of concern is: Is he or is he not fit to run the country? No, on second thoughts, let’s not go there!

In the interests of justice and fair play we might be entitled to know that Caster Semenya underwent tests. To allay damaging and widespread suspicion and speculation, if for no other reason. But why should intimate details about her internal organs become public knowledge? Why isn’t it enough to know she is not barred from racing in the categories she enters, and she’s earned her gold medal fairly? I’ve delivered babies of indeterminate gender and it’s hard to think of anything more harrowing for new parents than being unable to answer that first question: Is it a boy or a girl? And the child has enough to contend with without the taunts and innuendoes of a cruel world.

I guess I feel these matters more keenly because I can identify with them in odd ways. I’m not allowed to eat cheese (which I love) – for very different reasons. I can’t run like the wind, but I’m tall and rangy too. But because I’m not famous, no-one is speculating about me. And you are certainly not entitled to know my medical diagnoses. Even if it influences the material I generate for my blog which you may read … !

There is merit after all in being an obscure scribbler. A cautionary tale for all those young people who, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, say, ‘famous’.

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