I met consultant paediatrician Dr Brendan Watson, who died yesterday, on what was then the worst day of my life. He arrived just hours after the birth of our son Alan and he was explaining the prognosis to the spina bifida child’s stunned and uncomprehending parents.
As I wrote in a previous blog we were devastated. We had married only a few years earlier and had a son, Daire, not yet two. I can remember Dr Watson explaining the seriousness of Alan’s condition and the likelihood his life would be short – shorter still if he picked up an infection. I remember clearly his warning that in his experience 50% of the parents of severely disabled children would find the strain intolerable on their marriage. The husband would find it very hard to accept, he said.
We had questions, but perhaps not the right ones on the day. Our knowledge of spina bifida was totally dependent on what he was telling us – there was no Internet then to provide a wealth of data. So we absorbed what we could and he listened and explained without giving any indication he had to be somewhere else. We didn’t know that day that his caseload included not just spina bifida but also cystic fibrosis patients at Cork Regional Hospital (now Cork University Hospital).
In Alan’s 22 months his condition went from crisis to crisis, our emotions bumping along for the roller-coaster ride. The one constant was Dr Watson who always answered our questions honestly. His humanity was what I found especially comforting to Trish and I; his professionalism and compassion so reassuring.
Alan had his good times, when we had him at home and managed to lead a somewhat chaotic family life. To have Alan there with his brother and us was just terrific. But usually Alan was fighting a constant battle in hospital, which meant looking for Dr Watson. Trish always seemed to be the one to seek him out and ask the right questions when he was doing his rounds. Whenever I did it I left my brain somewhere else, overwhelmed by tiredness, work pressure, marriage concerns – Trish and I seemed to always be rowing, mostly out of frustration about Alan’s health.
There was one thing we noticed about Dr Watson after a while. He would answer your questions but never volunteer any other information. One time we asked about something that had been on our minds for a while and we wondered when he responded why he hadn’t said that before. But he explained that we had not been ready to ask it back then and were not prepared for the answer. He was right – we hadn’t really wanted to know the answer weeks before and he knew it. Wow, that was a real revelation and to us it showed us what a wonderful consultant he was.
Two other incidents stand out. Towards the end Alan had refused to allow us tube feed him. We watched his weight drop alarmingly and had alerted the hospital. Unfortunately, Dr Watson was away on holidays so when we brought Alan in we were seen by someone we did not know. As Trish removed Alan’s clothes the doctor appalled us by asking if Alan was a boy or girl. Distraught, Trish hurriedly dressed our darling boy and we left in a blaze of tears and anger. A couple of days later Dr Watson, just back on duty, of his own volition rang Trish to ask what was the matter with Alan. When she explained he told her to bring Alan in immediately.
Of course Alan made fools of us by allowing medical staff to tube feed him and began putting on weight. And just when we started to relax he began to lose weight again and we knew in our hearts this was the beginning of the end. The next few months were a blur of false alarms – being called to the hospital as Alan panicked the medical staff by declining rapidly, only to pull through either by the time we got there, or a short time later. Still, we hadn’t asked Dr Watson if this was the final stage, but Trish did finally.
He told us it was, that he couldn’t say how long Alan would live, but that it was very short. We asked him to stop medicating Alan other than to ensure he was not in pain. And that’s what happened.
Dr Watson told us once that none of his patients lived beyond 21 – thankfully, quite a few people with cystic fibrosis and spina bifida have a higher expectancy today. We asked him how he managed to stay detached from his patients, and he responded that he had no choice. For peace of mind there was no other way.
Unfortunately, we never met him again after Alan’s funeral, but we’ll never forget his kindness, thoughtfulness and professionalism. He was a terrific listener, always making himself available no matter how busy his schedule. He was always there for us and Alan, and we will never forget that.
May he rest in peace.