Terminal Illness

Last night I watched ‘Prime Suspect’, the first of that iconic long-running television series starring the brilliant Helen Mirren. This episode charts Jane Tennison,┬áthe female DCI’s gradually earning of the support of all but one of her initially resistant male team. Tom Bell’s superbly odious sergeant is the exception. Such institutional prejudice was a real issue at the beginning of the final decade of the 20th century.
Today was dull, cold, and overcast. This morning I finished reading Susan Hill’s ‘The Betrayal of Trust’, and occupied myself with domestic chores preparatory to my departure for England tomorrow. I had been unaware that Susan Hill, one of our most gifted writers, had written a crime series focussed on DCI Simon Serrailler.
Written at a pace engendered by skillful use of short sentences and crisp dialogue, this is a gripping tale worthy of the author of ‘The Woman in Black’. It is only towards the end of the book that she drops in a couple of clues. The denouement draws together the strands of the lives of the expertly depicted personnel, all of which display the novelist’s gift for characterisation. Her descriptions of place and dwelling contribute economically to our understanding of the people.
But. As one would expect from this author, her book is about much more than the unravelling of a crime. It is a treatise on disability, dementia, terminal illness, and euthanasia.
One evening, late in 1997, over the space of three hours, what seemed to be ‘flu’-like symptoms reduced my wife Jessica to a terrifying inability to swallow. I telephoned the emergency GP service and spoke to a most unhelpful doctor. He refused to visit and told me to give Jessica aspirin. ‘If she can’t swallow, how am I going to give her aspirin?’, I asked. The response was that I should contact my GP in the morning, and if I became concerned in the night take her to casualty.
In the small hours of the morning I drove my wife to Newark Hospital’s casualty department, by which time panic had set in. There we were seen by a man in white, presumably a qualified medic. He stuck a spatula into her mouth, peered into it, and said he couldn’t see anything. He took a blood test, told us to go home, and said we would have the results in three days. I stood between him and the couch, faced him squarely, and asked: ‘If you can’t see anything, why can’t she swallow?’. At that, without a word, he walked out of the room leaving us alone. After what seemed like an age another man came in and announced that we were being sent to Nottingham. There followed a 25 mile ambulance trip.
Within minutes in one of that city’s casualty departments, with the aid of more sophisticated equipment, epiglottitis was diagnosed. I asked the doctor on duty what would have happened had I not stood firm. He replied that at the next stage Jessica would have been unable to breathe and would not have lasted the night. She was treated, rapidly improved, and we thought that was that.
Jessica seemed well, we forgot about the blood test, and I resumed my commuting to London. A couple of days later, in my consulting room 125 miles away, I received a phone call from my GP sister-in-law. ‘It’s myeloma’, she said. I had no idea what that incurable bone barrow cancer was. This is what the test had revealed.
There followed ten years of various treatments, including blood transfusions, two stem cell transplants, and finally, an unsuccessful donor transplant. Initially, periods of remission were such that Jessica was able to continue working as an emergency duty social worker. The months of relief gradually became shorter and shorter, and the relapses longer and she retired on ill health grounds after about five years. She died on 4th July 2007.
I am unable to follow this with what I had for dinner at Le Code Bar. Perhaps I’ll do that tomorrow.