Hazel McHaffie

Story telling

Christmas presentEven I am not mad enough to post a blog on Christmas Day!  But I can’t resist the temptation to give you a little Christmas present on 24th: a wonderful auditory experience.

The Reith lectures are prestigious radio talks given each year by eminent figures of the day. The 2014 ones were given by a man for whom I already have huge respect: Dr Atul Gawande. He’s a surgeon but also an accomplished writer, and someone who admits he’s in the business of disturbing people’s complacency.

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on PerformanceI’ve read and reviewed several of his books so I had high hopes, and his verbal presentations didn’t disappoint; indeed he made them remarkably conversational and free from humbug and jargon. The gift – to me – was that each one hinged around a compelling story, reflecting my conviction that stories capture an audience but can at the same time convey deep truths. I was instantly gripped; I was receptive to his messages. I hope they captivate you too.

In Boston the first talk began with a moving account of Dr Gawande’s son who, aged 11 days, was found to have a serious heart defect – diagnosed thanks to the wisdom and understanding of a paediatrician who noted that his oxygen saturation monitor was attached to the wrong finger, giving a false reading. Dr Gawande talked of his 37 nieces and nephews in rural India for whom such skill would not have been available, and led into the substance of his message, reasons why doctors fail: ignorance, ineptitude and necessary fallibility.

In the second lecture (in London) he gave a graphic account of a little girl who fell through the ice of a pond in Austria and drowned, but, thanks to extraordinary team work and slow but methodical application of science, was brought back to life and a productive future. From this he developed the idea of how systems built upon the knowledge and discoveries of the centuries can allow doctors to deliver incredible care. Discipline, every member of the team doing what they do best, makes daring possible.

Edinburgh was the setting for the third lecture and this time we heard about Dr Gawande’s daughter’s piano teacher. Peg had cancer and it was thanks to the compassion and sensitivity of those around her that she got to live out her last weeks and months doing what she loved best – teaching music; giving her pupils treasures they would never forget. From this moving narrative he unpacked the question of what to do when you can’t fix the unfixable and how important it is to really listen to the patient’s own priorities. Mere length of life isn’t the only goal; it’s how you live that shortened life.

For the last lecture in the series the speaker returned to his family’s roots in New Delhi. It was knowing that the requisite knowledge to save life existed elsewhere in the world but not in India, that drove Atul’s father to study medicine himself. He wanted that knowledge for his people. From here the speaker moved into the cultural differences that make the elderly a revered part of families, and that allow an elderly widow of 82, newly treated for heart failure, to regain her self respect by becoming a cook in her own huge care facility, whereas in the Western world she would be stripped of her value to society.  We segued smoothly into the importance of sustaining the reasons a person wishes to stay alive.

Beautifully done. And it’s those graphic stories that will remain with me. I shall hang onto that thought as we move into a new year and I try to pick up the reins of novel writing again after my enforced sabbatical. I wish you all the joys of discovery through reading.Christmas trees in snow

And all blessings of the season whatever it means to you. If you are sad or lonely or troubled, may you share something of the peace it symbolises and the warmth of kindness, and find the courage to hope.


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