This week we changed our walk from the Victoria Embankment to the grounds around the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth Road. It was a lovely spring day, the roses, edging the lawn outside, in full bloom.
The actual building was constructed as the Bethlem Royal Hospital for the Insane in St George’s Fields, moving there from Bridewell and then Moorfields in 1828. Probably from as early as 1598, visitors were allowed to come and laugh and poke at the poor inmates. Known as ‘Bedlam’, it was a popular stop on the London tourist trail and a source of income for the hospital and staff. When the asylum moved to Beckenham in 1936, the Imperial War Museum transferred to Lambeth from the Imperial Institute in South Kensington..
I first saw the Imperial War Museum from my room in the clinic opposite, on a snowy evening in February 1990. Though still attached to various tubes after surgery for breast cancer, I was able to walk around and look out of the window. The snow was no longer falling, but it lay thick on the windowsill, glistening under the starlit sky. The elegant snow-covered Imperial War Museum across the road, with its tall cupola looked like a fairy castle in the moonlight.
I needed cheering up. As a consultant pathologist, who had worked in a cancer hospital for 4 years, I had carried out numerous autopsies on women with breast cancer. Virtually all the women I encountered with breast cancer had died of the disease. When I lectured on the subject, I pointed out how good the prognosis for breast cancer was, but I still thought it would prove fatal for me. It didn’t – and that was 30 years ago. Now the outlook for patients with breast cancer is better than ever.
I can’t decide whether it is better or worse to be in the ‘trade’ if you are a doctor and have a life-threatening disease. Of course, the surgeon, the anaesthetist and the radiotherapist were all friends as well as colleagues. I could stop the breast surgeon in the corridor and ask for a quick word about the hard lump I found while having a shower. But it also meant that I was well aware of the worst possible outcomes and because I was a doctor I felt I had to be extra brave, not make a fuss or ‘come it’.
Although I had long since retired, when I was admitted with a near-fatal heart attack in 2016, I was treated more like a colleague than a non-medical patient, who might not understand the medical terms and find being in a hospital frightening. For me, a hospital is almost home from home and the antiseptic smell is reassuring rather than threatening.