Intended for healthcare professionals


Anna Donald

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 04 February 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b436

The wonderful Anna Donald

Thank you to Richard Smith and Muir Gray for their moving obituary of
Dr Anna Donald.
I had come across the Anna Donald blog, having been alerted to it by Dr
Smith. Mystified, I clicked on line and entered the world of Dr Anna
Donald and found myself awed, inspired and humbled.

Anna was only in her early 40s when she died and yet had achieved
more than most of us would if granted several life times! She combined a
rigorous scientific mind with a powerful sense for the sacred, which
underpins all life.
Whilst living in the shadow of death with advanced cancer she still
managed to write beautifully teasing out the very stuff of life, and in so
doing helping the rest of us gain profound insights into the world of
living one day at a time, in that “uncomfortable, ambivalent space of
knowing-not-knowing which is fascinating, humbling and maddening”.

Her experiences touch each one of us deeply because we too are human
beings living with the knowledge that we are mortal, yet seldom allowing
ourselves to think about this taboo subject, let alone share our innermost
thoughts or fears about dying with others. Anna says: “more life is just
more- and how much do you need? - in this horrifically banal age of eat
till you drop because there is nothing else to do”. The art it seems is
making the most of what you have, “making the meaning in the now, for the
now” and realising that life until old age is a privilege not a right.

She also shared what it’s like to be a patient undergoing
chemotherapy and radiotherapy “lit up like a Christmas tree on the scans”.
She referred to the “kindness and competence” of health professionals who
have the power to transform the patient experience so that the unbearable
becomes tolerable. I am sure there are lessons here for the commissioners
of health care. So much emphasis is placed on throughput of patients and
“bed management” targets that all too often the patient’s experiences and
journey through the health care system are overlooked.

Anna explored spirituality and the mind-body connection. She
described meditation as opening her up to “a kind of joyful consciousness
beyond thoughts and body which, interestingly, did not seem to be body-
beholden”, adding wryly this is somewhat comforting when you’re facing
imminent death “when the lease on your body runs out”!

Anna used her amazing scientific brain to explore metaphysics or the
world beyond the material. To Anna “all things are sacred if you choose to
allow yourself to be plugged in”. She also reflected upon the nature of
science “that wonderful, slow tortoise” which evolves slowly by making
sense of what has gone before and only occasionally making revolutionary
leaps in understanding. Reading her words made me realise that so much in
life that is a fundamental truth is in fact a paradox, such as life and
death, the material world and the spiritual. I too have always been
fascinated by the meeting of science with the sacred, and Anna makes the
two appear not as polarities, but as complimentary, maybe two sides of the
same coin?
I urge all of you to go on line and enter into Anna’s world for
yourselves. You will be enriched and transformed by the experience and
maybe learn to look up at the stars now and then, and count your

Competing interests:
None declared

Competing interests: No competing interests

08 February 2009
Ghislaine C Young
Nurse Practitioner