Authors North Summer Social 2011
However, by the time I got close (this is the hospital chapel next door), the clouds were a-darkening and a-smouldering, so I was glad to get indoors before the deluge started. It was an interesting-looking place promising the gruesome artifacts of 'Heroic' medicine and a very suitable location for our speaker, Sue Armstrong and her talk on her book: A Matter of life and Death.
After a lunch of salmon, chicken satay and lots of other delicious things (and excellent company) we assembled in the conference room where everything was waiting. John Rice, our new committee member, gave an excellent introduction and then we got on to the main feature: Sue's talk.
The subtitle of Sue's book is 'Inside the Hidden World of the Pathologist'; a topic that I find particularly interesting because it is my brother's specialism - and I've always wondered what exactly he does.
Pathologists are important. 70% of diagnoses require the services of a pathologist, Sue pointed out; but like a lot of essential services they tend to go unnoticed and are not often mentioned. Two members of the audience came up with further examples of these after the talk: one hospital was built and it was only afterwards that they realised they hadn't included a path lab. Another audience member related how she had been seriously ill with septic shock, and it was only after the pathologist changed her antibiotic that she showed any sign of improvement.
Recently, as a result of the Alder Hey hospital scandal (when a pathologist was shown to be using children's remains for scientific research without permission), it was generally felt by the medical profession that the science of pathology had acquired an unfavourable image. Sue was commissioned to interview the profession to provide feedback.
The pathologists she interviewed were eminent and inspiring (you can see some interviews here). They included Professor Sebastian Lucas who was one of the main doctors who researched into AIDS. Dame Julia Polack who is the longest known survivor of a heart-lung transplant and when presented with her own lungs declared them to be the worst case she had ever seen.
Pathologists, Sue discovered, were not cold fish. Their voices cracked when they talked about the loss of children. Instead their knowledge made them realise the tenuous nature of life and how quickly it goes. They regard the lump of matter that is the corpse and have plenty of time to consider it - and how one day 'that is going to be me.'
She also described specific examples, which whetted my appetite to read more: the sequencing of the DNA of the 1918 flu; the man who owns a body farm which has proved so essential for forensic science; and the doctor who has done so much work out in the field as a paediatric pathologist.
The Alder Hey crisis, Sue found, had left a legacy of paperwork and restrictions. Every single specimen of any description now has to have specific permission to be used, if not it has to be discarded. As a result post mortem rates have plummeted significantly which can mean that mistakes and crimes like Harold Shipman's could go undetected. Not only that but research is restricted, which has serious implications for scientists' ability to find and treat new diseases.
As Helen Shay, who gave the vote of thanks at the end, said, it was one of the more fascinating talks we've had recently at Authors North. It is no wonder that Anna Ganley sold so many of Sue's book at the end!
By that time, those smouldering Yorkshire clouds had lost all restraint and were precipitating quite copiously, haemorrhaging rain, you might say. But I guess that would be taking things too far.
Thank you to Anna Ganley for organising things so well for us as usual, and thank you to Sue Armstrong for such an excellent talk.