Don's Diary

November 21, 1997


Breakfast at 9.30am of cornflakes and white toast which would have been rejected as unhealthy six week ago. Research has found that fibre is essential in the diet; other research, however, has shown that a bland diet enables food to stay in place during radiotherapy. A good example of the contextual nature of research. At 11.30am I set off for the radiotherapy clinic in Birmingham. I expected to be zooming up this motorway from my new home in Malvern to go to work each day but a cancer diagnosis in August put paid to that for a term. At the clinic I am asked if I mind having medical students observing my consultation with the oncologist. Remembering struggles to find placements for intending teachers I readily agree and find myself comparing methods. The oncologist asks what side effects I am suffering from and swings round to the students who respond nervously to his request for suggestions for treatment. The tentative naming of a drug is greeted with enthusiasm and an immediate checking of its side effects in a tome kept handy. "Never be afraid to check up on your memory", jokes the consultant. The session is a perfect illustration of "sitting by Nellie". This highly experienced consultant combines the giving of accurate information with good humour and an iron grip on time management.


Manage to surface early and read some material sent from my new place of work. Despite having to cope with the inconvenience of appointing someone who immediately falls ill, the principal and the staff have made enormous efforts to offer a welcoming involvement together with removal of all pressure. Reading Teacher Training Agency and Higher Education Funding Council communications at this distance leads me to muse on the value of so much of the work that we take for granted. Establishing quality is essential but what effect has the exponential development of required documentation had on quality? Does the effort of producing it lead to valuable insights about the educational process or could time be better spent? Set off up the motorway again at 11am. The clinic is running late. My wait is cheered by talking to a lively 80-year-old with throat cancer. "I got it through smoking; all my own fault, they say" I ask her how long she has smoked for. "Seventy years, darling. I think it might not be the smoking that caused it really or I would have had it before, wouldn't I?" There's a challenge for health education. In the evening the principal phones me. This is both exhilarating because it reminds me I have a challenging job to get better for and depressing because so much is happening that I want to be involved in. For years I have said how much I would like six months off the merry-go-round of work. My grandmother used to say, "Be careful what you wish for". Hmm.


Breakfast tastes as if I had swallowed several old forks so I down the anti-sickness pills. Magic. Thank you to the researcher who discovered this little wonder. Slogging up the motorway once more I think about the value of medical research. A valve has blown on the machine. It is not a minor repair and costs Pounds 40,000. This is the second one to blow this week.


A friend rings to tell me about a television programme that outlined the link between positive thinking and recovery from cancer. It sounds convincing. Initially I found the constant exhortation to be positive about my chances of recovery rather terrifying, particularly at times when I felt anything but. Would my lack of positive thinking mean that if I died it was my own fault? At the hospital I see a woman who has been there every day, smiling at everyone from her wheelchair. She has appeared very positive. Today she is hooked up to a drip and looks deeply unhappy. The data suddenly seems less than helpful. My 80-year-old friend, a fellow Catholic, wants my opinion on miracles. We rattle through a good old argument. The truth is that everyone there is hoping for one. The uncertainty of this particular field of medicine must make it difficult to work in but every day the staff greet us with humour, sensitivity and compassion combined with a high level of professional competence. These humane qualities seem to me the essential catalyst in ensuring people are truly effective in what they do.


Good weather helps the positive thinking enormously. On the journey up to Birmingham I pass the exit I will be taking from January. I am vicariously experiencing something of this term through papers and regular phone calls. Increasingly I trust that I will be in fine shape next term. Thinking back over the frantic pace of my most recent professional life as a teacher educator and local authority inspector I determine that I will manage my time sensibly. I will not take on too much. I will reap lasting benefit from this enforced rest. This resolution may last about a week. But above all, I hope that, faced with any new task, I will remember how lucky I am to be alive to do it. God willing.

Pamela Taylor

Vice principal of Newman College of Higher Education,Birmingham.

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