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'Find out what makes your patient live and then do your darnedest to make it happen'

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Seeing her uncle’s grief lessen when he was around his great grandchildren, helped Heather realise the healing benefits of giving patients a role to live for

My Auntie Edna had a massive coronary on Mother’s Day just gone and slipped away within about 3 hours. She was 85 and had been married to my Uncle Jim for 63 years.

Apart from enforced separation during the war years, they had always been together, every day.

Full of foreboding for his future, I immediately visited Uncle Jim, my cousins and their family. Understandably, with such a sudden death, they were numb with shock.

Having watched Christine, my sister, and I go through the death of two parents within six months of each other, I knew they were looking for guidance now on how their beloved father would cope alone in the terraced house he had shared all of his married life with ‘Birdie’, his nickname for her.

Brought up in another generation where the male tradition was never to display your feelings, I wondered how Jim would cope. As my cousin Joan made tea in the kitchen his mask fell as he moved from telling me of his Lancashire Dialect poetry triumphs (he is a famous poet across the county) to describing her final hours.

His chin started to wobble. ‘I’ve never been without her’ he said, as I held his hand.

Then my sister arrived followed by my second cousins with their children. Suddenly Jim transformed from what looked to me like the blackest pit of despair to a smiling, happy great grandfather, calling the toddlers to him and proudly showing Christine and I their pictures, scattered all round the room.

I was transported back to my mother telling me that I was born 6 weeks before the death of my grandfather Thompson. Following his death, his wife Florrie took to her bed and ‘turned her face to the wall’, my mother thought she would never survive.

And the same thing happened. All of a sudden Florrie called out ‘where’st child?’ And we were inseparable for the rest of our lives, me and my gran, Florrie.

Meanwhile in Little Hulton, Salford (top 2% in the index of multiple deprivation), I am undertaking a piece of action research with a group of fathers to discover whether we can improve their wellbeing and through that, their children’s wellbeing also.

Now we all know that men are hard to reach when it comes to their health, but here’s the thing we have found: addressing lifestyle issues like smoking or wider determinants of health like housing is tough going because we are thinking of them as MEN. When we think of them as FATHERS, the picture changes.

For the bonds of parenthood are strong and if we approach them to enable them to be the best parents they can be they respond wholeheartedly to the recognition of their importance within the family. Most of the focus in parenthood is almost wholly on mothers and, as Little Hulton fathers tell me sadly ‘women no longer need men, but children need fathers and vice versa’.

This is what one father, who has been a user of mental health services for all of his adult life says in his recent blog:

“As I wait anxiously for my appointment time to arrive, I sit fidgeting, grasping my keys when something catches my eye, a symbol and a stark reminder why I keep entering services to improve my life, a photo; a photo of my children attached to my keys, smiling and happy, my babies, the reason I keep searching for the promised land of dreams, to help me, to help them keep smiling just as they do in that photo.”

I have to tell you that this father is transformed. An agoraphobic since he was 18, last week he travelled seven miles outside Little Hulton on his own for the first time in 16 years to attend a meeting with me. I need him for my work. He feels he is important for the first time ever, he tells me. A chronic monthly attender at his GP surgery, he hasn’t been at all this year. His son’s psoriasis has entirely cleared up, such is the changed mood in his house.

The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, in his famous text ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ tells us, from his observation of who lived and died in the German concentration camps of the Second World War, that the key factor in survival was to have a purpose, a reason for living. He describes the moments when he sees the light of hope leaving a prisoner’s eyes and a few days after, they died.

“When we think of them as FATHERS, the picture changes”

I watched my GP colleague Dr Anand Chitnis on the BBC programme ‘Protecting Our Parents’ agonising over how to keep an elderly married couple together, when one of them was bed-bound and falling into the clutches of dementia. You can clearly see their ‘lights going out’ as soon as they are apart and go back on when they are reunited.


My uncle will continue to write poetry, perform it at his local stroke club and raise money for Derian House Children’s hospice- and he will survive and stay well because of it and because of his love for his great grandchildren.

We all need family, we need community, we need hope and we need to feel in control of our own lives. Next time you are faced with this picture, ask your patients one question for me: what makes them LIVE, and then do your darnedest to make it happen.

This blog is dedicated to Edna Atherton, a wonderful wife, mother, aunt, sister, grandmother and great grandmother.


Heather Henry is a Queen’s Nurse at NHS Alliance/Brightness Management Limited

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