I had a brain tumour like a lemon but still had a cocktail party

I had a brain tumour the size of an orange but still had a cocktail party on the ward (now that IS a superwoman!)

  • Shirley Conran, 87, revealed her appreciation of the NHS began earlier this year
  • Medics at St George’s University Hospital, Tooting, discovered she had a tumour
  • Mother-of-two reflects on the ‘excellent’ care that she received  
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

For years there has been an avalanche of gloomy news stories about the National Health Service slowly falling apart, through lack of money, grubbiness, tottering bureaucracy and medical incompetence.

You always got the impression that were you ever to find yourself in hospital, you’d better get out quick in case they accidentally kill you.

Otherwise you risk being stuck for months in a dirty-sheeted bed in a corridor, being examined by a doctor called Shipman or a sweet-faced nurse with a deadly syringe in her pocket.

It’s only during our current coronavirus crisis that people are beginning to appreciate our neglected National Health Service.

Shirley Conran, 87, (pictured) reflected on the NHS care she experienced earlier this year at St George’s University Hospital in Tooting, South London

My own appreciation of the NHS began earlier this year when it saved my brain — and, indeed, my life. I’d gone in with a tumour the size of an orange that had robbed me of my personality (I’d become aggressive and distant) and my ability to read, write and even walk.

From the moment I entered intensive care, my jaw dropped in astonishment and stayed that way. It was like being whisked into the next century, with all the high- tech equipment.

Professors, doctors, nurses and ward cleaners were all so impressive; a tight-knit team doing their utmost to save the lives of the patients every single day.

Boris Johnson, for one, will recognise the overwhelming gratitude I feel for those who saved my life.

It started last summer when I felt mildly ill. On Saturday, July 6, I had a productive day. As a designer, writer, and founder of the Maths Anxiety Trust, I remain busy at the age of 87.

I stopped writing at 7.30pm, had something to eat and then watched the news. I drifted to sleep and awoke to about five minutes of lightning flashes. I feared I was having a stroke: I wiggled my arms and legs and recited some poetry. Everything seemed to work as usual. I phoned 111 just in case.

They sent an ambulance and took me to St George’s University Hospital in Tooting, South London. I was in A&E for two days, after which they gave me two MRI scans.

At one point I was lying on an examination couch surrounded by people in white coats who must have assumed I was asleep. I like to focus on the funny side of life, and they sounded like Monty Python greengrocers. One said, ‘It’s much bigger than an olive.’

Shirley admits she bit her sons heads off when they tried to speak to her about the symptoms of her brain tumour. Pictured: Shirley with her son Jasper Conran

Another: ‘The size of an egg.’

‘Eggs come in different sizes.’

‘A small lemon?’

‘A big lemon!’

I later had a variety of long meetings with the neurosurgery team. When they told me I had a large tumour, I said with disinterest, ‘How do you spell tumour?’

They said they couldn’t tell me whether it was malignant until they operated, but wanted to wait to see how quickly it grew.

My neurosurgeon Timothy Jones told me it’s quite normal for those with such tumours to not feel worried. In retrospect, my feelings had been detached for a while —unlike those of my family.

My sons Sebastian and Jasper had tried to speak to me about my symptoms but I’d bitten their heads off. I was generally more aggressive and no longer felt that passionate, protective mother’s love.

It was during my four-hour meetings with Dr Louise Fenner — when I couldn’t answer her simple questions — that my self-confidence slowly eroded.

It was decided I would return in four months to see whether the tumour had grown. And, heavens, did it grow: from a big lemon to a small orange.

My sons noticed a decline, particularly over Christmas. They’ve since told me they were worried sick they were going to lose me. I was struggling to walk, talk or write properly and, strangely, didn’t seem that bothered.

Shirley (pictured) said the night before she had surgery, her family were closer to tears than she was as they drove her to hospital 

My neurosurgeon told me my operation would take five-and-a-half hours. He had this determined look of intense concentration, like my late family friend, champion racing driver Stirling Moss. It was a glint that said he wouldn’t leave anything to chance. Instantly, I felt safe.

Timothy Jones kept saying: ‘We have to be careful and not disturb your hairstyle too much.’ Considering he was going to drill a large hole in my head, I thought this was unlikely.

In the lead-up to the operation, I was aware I might die. One of my closest and feistiest friends, Deirdre, was over from Australia. I passed her my favourite gold bracelet across the lunch table. She understood that it might be the last time we saw each other.

On January 7, the night before surgery, my family were closer to tears than me as they drove me to St George’s. Again, I felt as if I was an observer in a dream.

In surgery at 9am the following day, someone pricked my wrist and I drifted off. I came round at about 6pm with Jasper and Sebastian’s wife Gertrude at my bedside. Timothy Jones was delighted that the tumour wasn’t malignant; I was lucky.

But at 1am and 2am the next day, I had two seizures. My body started shaking and trembling, and my bottom lip was chattering away as if I were in a snowstorm. I was whipped off to an intensive care ward.

There was a mass of high-tech instruments with screens around my bed. I was appointed a Filipino nurse, Tony Tru, for continual surveillance. This is where things became particularly impressive.

As an author, I’ve been eight times round the world, and my publishers paid for top hotels and penthouses for my publicity tours, but I’ve never come across anything like the care I was about to receive.

Shirley (pictured) claims the public aren’t aware of the progress that parts of the NHS are making on an international level

Being rushed into an intensive care ward a few hours after surgery was like being wheeled into a spacecraft: on the ward, life seemed 100 years ahead of today. It was white and glistening chrome. There were 12 beds on both sides, with a wide central aisle.

At 5.30am that same morning, all the consultants and nurses trooped in — about 35 of them, all in dark day clothes. What struck me was the purposeful rhythm that everyone moved to: faster than normal but not too fast, as if in a ballet choreographed by Matthew Bourne.

Then they all started twittering like sparrows in a tree. Suddenly it all stopped. During my two days in intensive care, I saw this happen when the 12-hour shift started at 5.30am and 5.30pm. That rigour projected efficiency; I was in safe hands.

Here I was in the NHS that’s supposed to be a dumpy old organisation, but clearly there are very expensive parts of it that are forging the way. What’s really being kept from the public is the progress that parts of the NHS are making on an international level, with their research and experimental work on dangerously ill patients. I was one of them.

I saw how hard the teams of doctors and nurses worked. And I noticed how the senior people didn’t mind picking something off the floor, doing menial duties.

Everyone treated me with kindness and warmth and addressed me as Shirley.

There were a number of tests I had to pass before departure from hospital would be contemplated. On the first day in intensive care, I was asked to read, which I was able to do immediately.

Shirley was in a room without windows post-surgery and had her timings all wrong. Pictured: The British writer with her son Jasper 

On the second day, I was propped up in bed and interviewed by a speech therapist. Writing also came back quickly. Immediately after the operation I talked like a drunken person, and it took me a week to get over that.

At 11.30pm on my second night in intensive care, they decreed I could move to another ward.

One of the nurses who pushed my bed from intensive care into the Brodie ward remarked that I was high as a kite, although not on medication. I just found it so exciting: there was so much to see all around.

The Brodie ward bay had six very advanced beds surrounded by machinery. It was lit in an eerie way, with an ice-green glow.

I’d been without windows post-surgery and in intensive care, and assumed this was another windowless room. I had my timings all wrong and believed it was 11.30 in the morning when it was actually 11.30 at night.

Five women patients were lying still with their eyes closed and their mouths open. Rather chilling.

I said ‘hello’ to the woman opposite and asked her what she did when she wasn’t in a hospital bed. Apologetically she said: ‘Oh, I’m just a housewife.’ I said, ‘There’s no such thing as just a housewife!’ I harangued her about that for a bit and made her laugh. Then I spoke to the person on my right who was clearly awake.

‘I’m just a housewife, too,’ she said. I replied: ‘There’s more to you than being just a housewife.’

Shirley (pictured) was given her own private room for two days, which she claims was better than any of the paid hospital rooms that she’s experienced 

She must have remembered my book Superwoman, about household management, because out of the gloom she said: ‘Are you Shirley Conran?’

‘Yes,’ I said, surprised. By this time the whole room was awake. Afterwards it was referred to as that cocktail party Shirley Conran held in the middle of the night. Morning tea was brought in two hours early at 5am. Everyone looking after us was exceptional. Even the chef — not a cook, but a chef — who made us superb porridge every morning. It took him 35 minutes and he wouldn’t have any of this packet rubbish.

I was on the Brodie ward for about five days and then they needed my bed. So I was whisked off to a private room with my own bathroom, for two days, which was better than any paid hospital room I’ve been in.

I asked if I was expected to pay for the television and the two nurses’ jaws dropped. They said, ‘This is the NHS — everything is free to everybody.’

My surgeon was in and out all the time. But it was the psychologists who determined when you left. Once I had proved I could talk, read, write and walk, the task I chose from their short list was to cook a cheese omelette in a special little nearby kitchen. Like everywhere else, it was spotless.

On January 16, after ten days, my son Jasper picked me up. Both he and Sebastian were amazed at the transformation. Jasper remarked that my brain was as sharp as it had been 15 years before.

Shirley (pictured) revealed that she’s not quite back to normal, but the NHS saved her brain and sanity in under six hours 

That said, it has been a long, slow recovery. I convalesced for a month. My family have all helped me tremendously. I have moved to a new flat near Sebastian, who has been very attentive.

I was told I’d recover externally by mid-April and the swelling on my head has gone down.

I was due a MRI scan this month, but it has been postponed because of coronavirus. So, too, my physio appointments.

Coronavirus means I no longer have my cleaner, but my sons regularly check up on me — and it’s a comfort having Sebastian so near.

I’m still not quite back to normal, and tire easily. But I kept a diary throughout my hospital stay, and on the day before I went home, I wrote: ‘I am well! It’s hard to believe.’

To me it still feels like a miracle.

In under six hours, the NHS saved my brain and my sanity. For every minute of the ten days, the hospital staff cared for me as if I were the Queen, which is how they cared for everyone.

Two years ago I had to have a knee replacement in a famous private hospital, where the care was excellent and the bill steep. My free care at St George’s Hospital, Tooting, was not only as good, it was better.

Here I am at 87, having lived to tell the tale of how with the right love and care — not to mention mindset — you can battle back from the brink of death.

Now, not only do I have a repaired brain, I have as much enthusiasm for life — and all its many projects — as ever before.

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