Clinical Review

Patient's experience

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: (Published 26 August 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:500
  1. Denise Prior,
  2. James Heathcote, general practitioner (james.heathcote{at}
  1. 1 South View Lodge, South View, Bromley, Kent BR1 3DR

    It's not often that I'm ill and I had no intention of saying anything, but Bill brought it up for me because I wouldn't.1 Nineteen years ago I'd gone to my previous GP with bad stomach pains, and he just told me that it was an ulcer, so I always put it down to an ulcer. We sometimes had the odd glass of wine together in the evening, but not every evening, so it wasn't alcohol causing my pain. My Nan had skin problems, and I've dealt with cystitis before, so it didn't seem worth mentioning.

    I never really thought I was ill, but the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet were driving me round the twist. I could have used a wire brush on them. It was so deep down I was making myself bleed, but I was scared: “What if something happened to me—what would happen to Bill and the kids?” He wouldn't have coped.

    When my GP phoned and asked me to have more blood tests done, I thought, “Why?” and Bill asked, “Why?” It's very unusual for a doctor to call, so you think, “Hang on, what's happening? It can't be much. I don't feel ill.” All sorts of things go round in your mind, but I didn't think cancer until I turned yellow. My son noticed it first in my eyes, but Bill was too scared to say anything. “Once you turn yellow,” he thought, “it's cancer, and once you're opened up, the cancer takes over your whole body.”

    I wanted to be told the truth. Every doctor except my GP said, “It's very serious,” but they wouldn't say, “You're not going to die” or “It's an everyday operation.” I kept being told, “You've got the best surgeon” but they couldn't tell me, “You'll be alright.” Why couldn't they tell us before the operation that gall bladders are removed every day? It was very scary. It was out of our control—something that had to be done. Bill said, “I can always do something to make things right, but not this one.” One doctor spoke to both of us but looked between us and said, “This is a life threatening operation.” When Bill asked, “How life threatening is life threatening?” he said, “You're just a partner. You'll have to ask the surgeon.”

    If I could have gone into hospital, had the operation, and come home afterwards it would have been OK. But because I had to stay there it destroyed me. It destroyed Bill. He couldn't handle it. He thought as soon as I went into hospital I would die, because before I met him he'd lost two premature babies. He said, “I'm not going to be the same after this. Something inside me has changed.” He scratched “HELP ME” across his tummy with a knife—that's how stressed he was.

    Two weeks after I came home, Bill woke up feeling very tired and complained of heartburn. I called an ambulance, but before it arrived he had died from a heart attack. He was 38.


    • Competing interests None declared.


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