Today’s Star columnist, Dr Mary Wren: Defying the odds to live on

UGC Columnist Dr Mary Wren
UGC Columnist Dr Mary Wren
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I have just been to see the Stephen Hawking film The Theory of Everything about the Professor of physics at Cambridge who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease 50 years ago.

This is a condition where the muscles of the body degenerate and a person becomes weaker, unable to walk, unable to swallow and breathe and ultimately dies.

The person retains their thinking but it becomes hard to communicate, because the muscles for speech cease to work. Life expectancy is short – often only a few years.

There is a very powerful part in the film when Stephen is diagnosed. The doctor tells him that he will worsen and will die within two years. He also tells him that he will still have his thinking but will be unable to communicate with others. What a massive blow.

This made me think about what doctors say to their patients and the massive impact it has on their lives. I think it is really important to be honest with people and give them the best information available.

Statistics can help a person make decisions, plan, have important conversations with loved ones etc.

In Stephen’s case, what the doctor said was wrong and he has defied the expectations and odds.

Half a century on he is still alive, has written books, inspired thousands and communicates through a computer.

Why is he alive? I wonder if it his stubborn personality that has somehow enabled him to overcome the natural disease progression. Or is it that he chose to not believe and agree with what the doctor said?

We need to listen to medical advice and weigh it carefully and not deny truth. But at the same time we need to keep that possibility in mind that doctors are sometimes wrong, that diseases don’t always follow the pattern we expect and there will always be exceptions to rules.

We are not just our bodies, we live in them. I wonder what part keeping a glimmer of hope plays? How much is what happens to us affected by our beliefs and choices and agreement? Someone defined hope as “a joyful expectation of good.” I like that, it makes me think that whatever situation I am in, it is possible for good to come and expectations to be changed. In my honesty with patients I hope I always keep a flicker of hope.

n Last week’s column on forgiveness ended midway through a sentence due to production problems.

Here is the final paragraph in full.

We read stories in the papers of people who chose to forgive murderers, rapists etc and we wonder how they can. We can’t choose what is done to us but we can choose whether we live in bitterness or freedom. Forgiveness sets us free.