Sunday, 28 January 2018

The Good, the Bad and the Hope that's to be found in all of us

There were a number of people last week, who for good and bad reasons, made me stop and think. Some of the people, and some of the situations they were in, had both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aspects. For example, on the bad side of the ledger, there was Boris Johnson’s demand for an extra £100 million a week for the NHS, and the suggestion that we should build a bridge between the UK and France. Some might have found these suggestions vaguely funny. I didn't. And I didn't think there was anything funny about Theresa May’s use of the term ‘child pornography’ when she spoke in Davos last week. Possibly drawing on a well-intentioned perspective, she called on social media organisations to take more proactive action over their platforms being used to promote terrorism and ‘child pornography’. Of course, most of us would think that is a good thing.

However it is never ‘child pornography’, it is always child sex abuse*.

In another mixture of good and bad, I read the story of Larry Nassar, the disgraced US gymnastics team doctor who received his sentence (175 year imprisonment) for his abuse of female athletes in his care. He was already serving a 60 year sentence for his sexual abuse of 7 girls. Last week he attended a sentencing hearing, at which a further 156 girls and women came forward to speak about the abuse they had suffered under the guise of Nassar giving them medical treatment. The ‘good’ element in this story was the judge, Rosemarie Aquilina. She allowed each of these witnesses time to talk about the impact the abuse had on their lives and their wellbeing. The extracts shown on television made for hard viewing, and I cannot imagine what it would have been like to actually been in the courtroom.

A number of the young women asked Nassar’s for an apology, which he did, albeit in way that appeared grudgingly and insincere. Some of the young women talked of forgiveness, something I found incredibly brave to do. In another story last week, which also involved the abuse of a professional relationship, it would be impossible for the perpetrators victims to offer forgiveness. All but 2 of victims are now dead. This was the case of Niels Hoegel, a nurse working in Germany, who is currently serving a life sentence for killing 2 patients and the attempted murder of 2 more. Last week, he was back in court, charged with the murder of 97 further patients between 1999 and 2005.

During his original trial he said he ‘enjoyed’ the feeling of giving his patients a cardiac crisis and then being able to resuscitate them. Hoegel used a variety of drugs to cause the cardiac crisis and in resuscitating them. It was these drugs that allowed for toxicological examinations of some 500 patients and the case notes of hundreds more. The German authorities also exhumed 134 bodies from 67 cemeteries as they gathered evidence. In shades of Mid Staffordshire, the German police have said that due to the local health officials prevaricating over whether to alert the authorities or not, Hoegel could have been stopped earlier and lives saved.

The last person who caught my attention last week was Tessa Jowell. I watched in awe, the coverage of her speech to a full house of members in the House of Lords. I thought her speech was powerful, poignant and totally compelling. At the end of her speech, the entire crowded House of Lords rose to their feet and applauded her. The standing ovation was long lasting and was almost without precedent. At the end of May last year, Tessa Jowell discovered she could not speak.  A few days later her doctors diagnosed the problem was a brain tumour, a glioblastoma multiforme. The prognosis is not very positive. She had the tumour removed 2 weeks later. She is shortly to set off to Germany to receive  a new and revolutionary immunology therapy. 

Her speech was aimed at raising awareness of the fact that in the UK, we have the worst survival rates for cancer than anywhere else in Western Europe. She called for both more international co-operation and greater access to ‘adaptive trials’. These are clinical trials that allow a person to try more than one treatment if one doesn’t appear to be working. And they can do so even if they have not completed their first trial. This approach to research is both good and bad. In those where the cancer clock is ticking it is perhaps not surprising that people might want to try all available treatments, whether proven and approved or not. The down side is that such approaches breach the safeguards in place in developing new drugs, which are there to protect us all from ‘snake oil’ remedies and unrealistic expectations.

Tessa’s speech was also rich in emotional narrative. She drew on the Irish poet and Noble prize winner, Seamus Heaney, who just before he died sent the words ‘Noli timere’ (Latin for: do not be afraid) by text to his wife Marie. In her speech, Tessa said she ‘wasn’t afraid’, and ‘in the end, what gives a life meaning is not only how it is loved, but how it draws to a close’. She said her hope was that the debate she had started with her speech would provide hope for other cancer patients, ‘so that we can live well with cancer, not just be dying of it. All of us. For longer’. Which would be a good thing.


*If you have been affected by sex abuse (current or historic) the BBC have collated information and sources of support for children, young people, and concerned parents.