Til death do us part: When a doctor becomes a patient and writes about it

Til death do us part: When a doctor becomes a patient and writes about it

This is an extract from a memoir written by two of Ireland’s most respected doctors, Dr Kate McGarry and Dr Finbar Lennon, with an introduction from Finbar. They were married for over 40 years. Dr Kate McGarry was President of the Irish Heart Foundation in 2015 and was a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians for thirty-two years. Finbar took over the writing of her memoir when Kate’s health failed and she sadly passed away.

Til death do us part: When a doctor becomes a patient and writes about it
Dr Kate McGarry and Dr Finbar Lennon, their memoir, The Heavens Are All Blue by is published in Trade Paperback by Hachette Ireland, £13.99 , available from all bookshops

“AFTER Kathleen died, I cleared the junk from the shelves lining the four walls of the downstairs study and filled them with books of all sorts and sizes. Whereas she collected clothes all her life, I collected books. Most of the clothes she never wore and most of the books I never read. The books were originally placed for show, but quickly, their massed ranks, with familiar names on their spines, began to peer down at me as I sat beside the desktop computer, wondering what to do next. She had commenced writing the story of her life, as a physician and a patient, six months before her death and I promised I would complete it for her.

“I began to read again. Some books I read from cover to cover, including the recent ‘illness memoirs’, but to get a feel for the vast expanse of literary endeavour, I read chunks from the ‘grandmasters of prose’. I also read about how to create and structure a story, but that was a mistake, because I did not understand or appreciate the essential technique. A surgeon’s mind is full of hammers, nuts, and straight lines, devoid of imagination, voice, or nuance. I did, however, have some minor literary pedigree and was not a completely lost cause! At first, I had to depend on Kathleen’s lead and grow into the role of narrator. I was a good student and quickly learned my lines! A book can have many voices, but one of them had to be mine. Readers are drawn by conversation that is not prepared or polished and by a story with a meaning and a message. We never meant more than what we said, but it was important the unusual dynamic between a physician and surgeon came across in our own separate voices.

“We were two successful doctors, who had spent 30 years in hospital practice as specialty consultants — she in general medicine and me in surgery — and we were acknowledged as competent in our respective areas of practice. The management and care of patients with cancer was a significant part of our clinical work. When a doctor becomes a patient, their sense of vulnerability is all the greater because of the sudden, unaccustomed reversal of roles that takes place: From always being in control to a situation of total submission. Suddenly, you see your hard-won, cherished world of benevolent power spiralling away and are hopelessly lost in the crowd.” — Dr Finbar Lennon

SILVER LININGS WHEN THERE’S NO HOPE?

Til death do us part: When a doctor becomes a patient and writes about it
Dr Kate McGarry and Dr Finbar Lennon


Connemara, July 2017

I have decided to write a book about my personal experience with cancer, as a doctor who becomes a patient. At the time of my diagnosis, a physician friend of mine said I would find ‘silver linings’ in this phase of my life. Perhaps, if people survive cancer they can look back and develop new perspectives on their lives and see the experience as somewhat enriching.

But what about me? I am not likely to get better, so what ‘silver linings’ can I expect? Maybe, when I finish this book I will have some new message that will help my fellow patients, or maybe not. And so, on a rainy day in Connemara, I have started to write this story, not knowing what the end chapter will be. Last Friday, we attended the burial of the ashes of a dear friend, at the beautiful Caislean cemetery in Renvyle. It reminded me that death will find us, whoever and wherever we are. Kate.

Til death do us part: When a doctor becomes a patient and writes about it
Dr Kate McGarry and Dr Finbar Lennon


“Kathleen recorded in diary form her personal observations on her illness and treatment. She wrote all of these excerpts on her fading life in flowing handwriting, with gradually diminishing, and then no spaces between the words. She was in a hurry. There were things she wanted to say for, and about, herself and her family. She was the main character in the story. She did not want to leave the reader in any doubt about her knowledge of her illness, her emotions, or the importance of the family bonds and solidarity that sustained her. She packed a lot of information into short segments of prose and often in random order. Some of it was repetitive, for effect, but all was part of the same canvas, spread over separate pages of her two working diaries and in assorted notebooks, ready to be placed in order and given some form by the loving, discerning hand of one she trusted to recount her story of darkness and light.

“I was an important character in her story and she wanted me to contribute to it equally, to make it into a joint enterprise. And so it became our book.

‘Of course, you know, I won’t be a ghost writer,’ I said jokingly to her. ‘I will appear in the book from time to time (a lot of the time), trying to make an impression!’ ‘That’s OK,’ she replied. ‘I will be happy as long as you are writing for me and about us.’

“I spent six months poring over her diaries and notebooks, where she had outlined her medical history and her recollections and commentary about her illness and its impact on her over its 18-month duration. Like so many others before us, ours was a love story cut short, seemingly at random, by an act of God (or is that attribution of blame fair?). Kathleen’s cancer struck relatively late in her natural life cycle and near the end of her professional career in medicine. Retirement and our children’s emerging family formations were beckoning, and we were looking forward to more time spent together and new milestones in the years ahead. But, having read a number of recently published memoirs about death from cancer, I wondered what our experiences had to add to the mix that was different and compelling.

“Then, I realised Kathleen’s was a case of an unusual cancer in an uncommon patient and that, as such, it’s a story that has not been told before. Our combined medical experience and perspectives might add a new twist to an account of an unpredictable illness, where the doctor is taking the medicine, instead of prescribing it. The story of a doctor trying to influence her own life’s final journey, rather than that of one of her patients, perhaps brings a new dimension in itself.

“And so it is Kathleen’s words that will tell the essential story of her illness, while mine, dependent as I am on the emotional voice pushing the pen, will recount how we lived and coped together through the pain and anguish it caused. I cannot change or edit her recorded words, but I can try to place them to best reflect her primary intent. I will travel a distance every day and stop abruptly, because the tank is empty; I will start again another day and must simply go where the story takes me. A torrent of words may flow or just a trickle. I will not rest until the large and small writ is recorded, and each of these may take as long to compose and yet be all in vain.

“All I know is that I am travelling with the person I love and I will not stop until the work is done.

  • The Heavens Are All Blue, by Dr Kate McGarry and Dr Finbar Lennon, is published in Trade Paperback by Hachette Ireland, £13.99, available from all bookshop.

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