Monday 24 October 2016

There are lessons to learn from the death of David Bowie

There are lessons to learn from the death of David Bowie, writes Maurice Gueret, as a new Ireland rises like Lazarus

Maurice Gueret

Published 08/02/2016 | 02:30

David Bowie. Photo: Terry O'Neill/Getty Images
David Bowie. Photo: Terry O'Neill/Getty Images

The life and death of David Bowie deserved all the mega-coverage in recent weeks.

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I wasn't the greatest fan of his white noise. A paltry collection of greatest hits and his two final albums on my shelf testify to that. But, as Elvis Presley did before him and perhaps Michael Jackson afterwards, the skinny Londoner left a permanent mark on more than one generation. In contrast with the others, Bowie's death scene was relayed off-stage with tremendous dignity on that cold Monday morning in January. There was no hounding of a dying man by paparazzi, or columnists of grief. Nobody should ever feel coerced into naming their final, or any, illness.

Freddie Mercury's relaying of his Aids diagnosis to the world, in a press statement just 24 hours before death, serves as the abject lesson in media cruelty.


David Bowie chose exactly how much and how little his friends and fans should know. Now that he is gone, word has emerged that it was liver cancer that ended his life. He had 18 months from diagnosis to death.

Cancer can spread to the liver from another organ, but most of the time when we discuss this condition, we are talking about a disease that begins in the organ. Primary liver cancer is not a terribly common tumour - there are perhaps three or four cases diagnosed every week in Ireland, compared with 50 or 60 weekly cases each of prostate cancer or breast cancer. This is perhaps surprising, given that the liver is easily the largest internal organ in the body. Most cases arise in livers that have already been damaged, often by hepatitis viruses, alcohol or body-building steroids.

Morbid obesity, where the liver has become fatty, is accounting for a growing number of cases. Symptoms of liver disease can be vague. The yellow skin and dark urine of jaundice are more obvious ones, but pain or swelling under the right ribcage, weight loss and general tummy ails such as nausea, vomiting or ongoing loss of appetite should always be investigated.


The two best resources for readers who are worried about cancer are a good family doctor and the Irish Cancer Society. It broke many hearts a few weeks ago to see the society subjected to severe criticism, in the wake of its decision to cut back on the financial support of cancer patients.

It does such outstanding work supporting patients, leading cancer education, in research, and in provision of night nurses and volunteer drivers. It should never have been part of its mandate to pay hospital parking bills for cancer patients, or help them pay for their vital medicines. It is the job of a health-service minister to make sure that all cancer patients can afford to be sick, not a charity.


Last week, I began my election coverage with a peek at the health policies of some of the smaller political parties. This week we continue in the same vein, with Fianna Fail. You can't get much smaller than it is now! It's hard to take it seriously with Micheal Martin still at the helm. As architect-in-chief of the poorly thought-out Health Service Executive, and a former Hawkins House occupant, known as Minister for Press Releases, his copybook is one giant inkblot. I watched his Ard Fheis speech recently. He accused Enda Kenny of cosying up to the rich, and neglecting the homeless.

Lest we forget that Fianna Fail ran a soup kitchen for vagrants with helicopters all during Micheal's boom years in Health. It was called the Galway Tent. Fianna Fail promises a tax on sugar, 1,000 new GPs and a climb-down on universal health insurance. It also says three-in-four smokers will give up under Fianna Fail. Just like voters gave up on the party.


The Social Democrats are an earnest lot. But in 21st-Century politics, the importance of being earnest is not what it was. In an era when so many politicians are deeply unpopular, Lady Bracknell might construe it as careless to appoint no fewer than three of them to lead a new party.

Founded in the kitchen of one of their troika, these Three Pashas may all be very fine, upstanding folk in their own parlours. But in the public arena, the electorate likes to put one face on one leader in charge, not three. The sooner the new party makes a decision on this, the sooner it will climb off its lowly polling perch. The Social Democrats won't cut your taxes. It proposes to spend them more like Danes, Swedes and Norwegians. That leads me to expect plenty of crumbly pastries, hot saunas and salted herrings, but I'd like to see some medical meat on their policy bones. So far in Health, it wants nurses to do the work of doctors, more 'well-being' clinics for toddlers, and more money in primary care. It does have some impressive individual candidates, but I'd like to see a little less purple and more black-and-white detail before the election.


My day job involves writing to health services and practitioners up and down the country, and bringing their skill sets and contacts to the attention of family doctors, so that they have the most up-to-date information on their desk or desktop for the service of their patients. Last week, I had a momentous day.

A regional hospital wrote to me for the first time in three decades with the first names of many of the specialists at its institution.

Up to now, in best Irish public-service tradition, they had been known only as 'Dr F Flintstone' or 'Dr P Bladder'. I now know that 'A' is for 'Anthony' and not 'Anne'; 'E' is 'Eddie' and not 'Esmeralda'; and 'C' is the beautiful 'Carmel Anne'. Ireland is changing for the better.

Dr Maurice Gueret is editor of the Irish Medical Directory

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