Monday, June 27, 2011

Authors North Summer Social 2011

The Yorkshire weather held off long enough for me to walk from Leeds station for this year's summer social. It was in the Thackray Museum of Modern Medicine - an invigorating half-hour's walk slightly up hill, excellent aerobic weight-bearing exercise - and so good for the normally desk-bound writer.

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.


Anonymous marly youmans said...

What pleasant events you all seem to have--gives me ideas for what we need out here in the middle of nowhere!

Yes, increasing governmental restrictions are costly in all sorts of ways. We have started using picky new software to facilitate governmental paperwork here, and now the doctors are slowed down, trying to master it.

Tue Jun 28, 07:04:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I suppose it is a benefit of living in a tiny, densely populated country, Marly! (I knew I'd find one, some day).

Yes, strange how sometimes something that is supposed to 'facilitate' often ends up doing exactly the opposite.

Tue Jun 28, 07:19:00 pm  
Blogger Colin Shelbourn said...

Good summary of the day - I almost felt like I was there!

Wed Jun 29, 01:00:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Colin!

Wed Jun 29, 01:02:00 pm  
Blogger Jean said...

Yes, it was a good day and an interesting talk. By the way the bald head in the second photo down belongs to my husband. He asks if you could please Photoshop this to draw in a thick rug of hair where his bald patch is.

Thu Jun 30, 11:00:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Heh, heh, tell your husband that there are certain members of my family that would regard such a neat small tonsure with envy!

Thu Jun 30, 11:09:00 pm  
Anonymous marly youmans said...

Yes, I've always been a bit envious of how close together writers are on your side of the puddle. Here, I have been thinking it might be better to make communion between artists of all sorts because we have people with various callings around and about--and that would be the only way to develop a group in such a relatively remote area.

Fri Jul 01, 03:56:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Sounds like an excellent idea, Marly. I think this might actually prove just as fruitful, even more so. All those different ways of seeing the world...

Fri Jul 01, 09:35:00 pm  

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