The cute nurse and the abusive ME patient (updated)

After the Gilderdale story made headlines this past January (and the other coverage of assisted suicide and mercy killing that happened around the same time), I was expecting both stories to be featured in some British drama fairly soon, and the main medical dramas on British TV are the British weekly programmes Casualty and Holby City, both set in the same hospital in the fictional city of Holby (really Bristol). Assisted suicide was covered in the story of Megan, the old Irish nurse who was in the show around 1990 who developed terminal cancer ad sought her colleagues’ help to die. Charlie Fairhead initially stole morphine from the hospital cupboard to that end but was prevented by another nurse; after much protest and delay, they finally supply her with illegal heroin, which she administers to herself.

So how do they cover M.E.? Well, that took until a couple of weeks ago, but Casualty has a cute nurse named Kirsty, who lately has been turning up to work late and disappearing, has collapsed and has presented with bruises on her arms. Last Saturday we saw her husband, named Warren, played by Stephen Lord who played Jase Dyer in Eastenders. The guy was slumped in a chair and asked Kirsty to help him up so he could go to the loo; he told her something to the effect that “they all don’t think M.E. is real” (meaning Kirsty’s colleagues). So, here’s a frustrated M.E. sufferer, cooped up in his flat, requiring help to get up to go to the loo (and no doubt other basic things), and needs his wife back pretty much all the time, even though she needs to work to keep a roof over their heads.

Uh, no. Apparently Stephen Lord has a history of playing nasty characters and this one is no exception:

FORMER EastEnders star Stephen Lord laughs: “People haven’t started throwing things at me yet. But I’m from Salford. I’m always ready for it.”

The actor, writer and director, who played Jase Dyer in Albert Square, has swapped Walford for Holby in his latest role as ex-fireman Warren Clements.

Casualty (BBC1, tonight, 8.20pm) sees nurse Kirsty’s (Lucy Gaskell) working day disturbed by mysterious phone calls from her husband Warren, who is playing one of his mind games. What is his secret and does it explain the bruising on Kirsty’s arm?

Viewers have yet to learn the full story about Warren. “He’s got an abusive nature which comes through mentally and also, as will be revealed, physically. I was living in America when the BBC offered me this part, which is quite a complex role,” he explains.

A few facts about M.E. and abuse wouldn’t go amiss here. M.E. patients are one of the most abused patient groups in the world and have been for years, because large sections of the medical profession have long been under the misapprehension that it’s a mostly psychological illness, or rather, an “illness belief”. There are numerous true stories of children with M.E. being seized from their families and abused in hospital, of parents being accused of causing or perpetuating their illness, of sexual abuse, of people being sectioned when they refused particular types of treatment (and, in one case, suffering a devastating relapse and subsequently dying), of patients being expected to endure noise and light when they are hypersensitive to both, of patients facing strenuous efforts to get them to “admit” that they weren’t really ill, all when they were really ill, really weak and in an awful lot of pain. The story of Lynn Gilderdale would not be believable if it were fiction.

People with ME that’s severe enough to leave them housebound have nothing much to gain from being abusive to partners or family members who care for them; the carer or partner can leave and he or she will still be ill. They are certainly less capable of dishing out abuse, particularly physical abuse. All the literature shows that they are much more vulnerable, and receive abuse, disbelief and denial from family members as well as healthcare professionals.

Of all the stories they could have picked to feature M.E., why this one? It’s a bit like having one opportunity to cover domestic violence, and using a fictional story in which a woman abuses a man. Oh, and the victim is a nurse, of all things. It’s not impossible for an M.E. sufferer to abuse a medical professional, of course, but it’s much more likely to happen the other way round, so what is the purpose of covering this issue in this way? Of course, if it was done more realistically, it could knock a the haloes off some characters’ heads, but there are plenty on both programmes who are not angels by any stretch and are known as heartless or as backstabbers. There were so many ways they could have handled this, and they take the option that is least convincing for anyone who knows anything about M.E. and potentially very distressing to some of them. It’s another opportunity lost in this area by the BBC this year.

Update 18th Nov: I submitted this complaint letter, via the BBC Complaints form. If you want to submit your own, it is better that you have watched the show, and do not copy this one, as it will make both look like part of an orchestrated mass complaint.

Recent episodes of Casualty have featured the nurse Kirsty collapsing at work, presenting with unexplained bruises and being absent during working hours. The most recent episode reveals that her husband, Warren, has the neurological illness ME and requires help doing basic things such as getting up to go to the toilet. Interviews with the actor, Stephen Lord, who plays Warren, reveals that he is likely to show an abusive side “physically” and it is already being reported that he is playing “mind games” with Kirsty.

This is an unrealistic portrayal of an ME sufferer, which is offensive given that this is the first instance of Casualty covering this issue in some time, if at all. It is the first appearance of ME in Casualty since the highly-publicised Gilderdale court case.

ME sufferers have historically been the victims of abuse, both at the hands of their relatives and, particularly, the medical and nursing professions, including removal from their families as children, sectioning because their physical illness was judged to be mental, various cruel means of forcing them to “admit” that they are not really ill, and hospital environments that fail to take into account their environmental sensitivities (requiring quiet or low light, for example), all of which has been known to cause the sufferers’ condition to drastically deteriorate, sometimes permanently.

An ME sufferer also has little to gain from being abusive to his or her carer (and most sufferers are female), as such behaviour is likely to persuade the carer to leave. They are also unlikely to have the strength to inflict physical harm, particularly if the illness is so severe that they cannot get up to use the toilet on their own.

If there was a rare opportunity to cover domestic violence or rape, surely the storyline should feature a male perpetrator and a female victim, since this is the norm for both crimes. To feature a storyline about ME and abuse in which the perpetrator is the ME sufferer and the victim is a nurse is a similar back-to-front approach.

I recommend that the story-writers read some literature on ME; I suggest “Shattered: Life with ME” by Lynn Michell (Thorsons, 2003) to start with, and re-write this story rapidly before much more damage can be done.

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