How nearly dyi af­ter child­birth in­spired my wi to cre­ate Call The Mid­wife

As her hus­band Stephen McGann, who plays the doc­tor in the se­ries, re­veals in a mov­ing au­to­bi­og­ra­phy

Irish Daily Mail - - News - by Stephen McGann

I had to find this woman and ask her to be my wife

SHE is the writer be­hind Call The Mid­wife, one of the most beloved TV se­ries of mod­ern times. He is part of the McGann act­ing dy­nasty. When they met, there was a mag­netic at­trac­tion which has never waned. But as Stephen McGann (who plays Call The Mid­wife’s Dr Pa­trick Turner) re­veals in this ex­tract from his mov­ing mem­oir, they were tested to the ex­treme by an ill­ness that nearly cost Heidi Thomas her life when their son was weeks old.

LOVE at first sight? I didn’t be­lieve in it. I found it rather a trite idea — a self-con­firm­ing jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for a love that two peo­ple build by en­deav­our. But love at first sight is ex­actly what hap­pened to me when I first met Heidi Thomas. So what do I know? It’s 1986. I’m 23. A young ac­tor. I’m liv­ing in a coun­cil flat in East Lon­don and I’m au­di­tion­ing ev­ery day.

One morn­ing, I get a call about a play called Sham­rocks And Croc­o­diles. I’m due to meet the writer and di­rec­tor in Liver­pool, so I take the train from Eus­ton and set­tle down to read the script.

It’s the story of a fam­ily torn apart by the death of a father, and it’s bril­liant. Sear­ing, in­tel­li­gent and thought­ful. I turn to the front of the script to read the name of the au­thor. Heidi Thomas. I’ve never heard of her.

The themes are far too ma­ture and deftly crafted for her to be a young writer, so my guess is she’s a ma­ture woman — a mother re­turn­ing to work af­ter rais­ing chil­dren, or a wiz­ened aca­demic on a sec­ond ca­reer.

I’m met at the the­atre stage door by the di­rec­tor and taken into a small room. As I en­ter, Heidi Thomas rises to greet me.

I’m speech­less. She’s young — early 20s like me, but with a com­plex­ion and elfin fig­ure that makes her look like a teenager. She’s a Liver­pool na­tive, yet sounds like the head­girl of an Ed­war­dian con­vent school. This woman — this girl — wrote that beau­ti­ful, bru­tal, black-hu­moured script?

We dis­cuss the play. Heidi starts to speak, her high-toned stac­cato sprin­kling the room like bird­song. I see her qual­i­ties right away — and my heart is soon bang­ing so loudly in my ribs that I fear she’ll hear it.

I have to get that job. I have to see her again. Has she felt it, too?

She has. When I leave the the­atre, she races out into the nearby city square to find me. In her head — she told me later — a sin­gle word re­peated it­self over and over: ‘Found. Found. Found.’

I got the job; and in the fol­low­ing weeks, Heidi and I fell ir­re­deemably in love. We’d stay in the re­hearsal room dur­ing lunch breaks and we’d talk and talk. We knew that we loved each other, but we both had part­ners. What we had was some­thing else, some­thing re­quir­ing a dif­fer­ent kind of bond­ing.

The play was a great suc­cess. It con­cluded, and we wrote to each other for a while. Be­ing young and stupid, I con­vinced my­self that the mo­men­tous things I felt for her must be a re­cur­ring fea­ture of life. We lost touch.

Two years went by. Then, we met again. I was film­ing a com­edy se­ries in Liver­pool and when I walked into a bar one evening, she was sit­ting there. My heart thumped in my chest.

We ex­changed pleas­antries. She told me she was soon to fly to the Soviet Union on a jour­nal­is­tic as­sign­ment. She looked lovely. She was also newly sin­gle. My heart was bang­ing against my ribs like a Vic­to­rian school­mas­ter thwack­ing a ruler on a slow boy’s head. Tell her, you fool! Tell her how you feel! Say some­thing! This is im­por­tant.

What did I do? I started an ar­gu­ment. A silly, petty ar­gu­ment about noth­ing. My only ex­cuse is that the ro­man­tic ten­sion was so in­tense it re­quired an out­let. I watched her eyes brim with tears as we bick­ered, and I could feel the head­mas­ter’s ruler thwack­ing me harder. I was scream­ing at my­self to stop, but couldn’t.

We parted fros­tily, and I re­turned to my ho­tel room, shell-shocked. I closed the door. At that pre­cise mo­ment the truth be­came clear. Heidi was the love of my life. My an­chor. I’d never find any­one else like her. And I’d just blown it.

I slept fit­fully, and rose early to work. When I came back to my ho­tel the fol­low­ing evening, there was a book of love po­etry by Brian Pat­ten pushed un­der my door, and a card in­serted at this poem:

‘Doubt shall not make an end of you nor clos­ing eyes lose your shape when the retina’s light fades; what dawns in­side me will light you.’

My heart stopped. Enough was enough. I needed to find this woman and ask her to be my wife. And this time I needed to be some­thing other than a com­plete id­iot.

She’d left her num­ber on the card, so I rang her mother’s house in Liver­pool straight away. ‘Can I speak to Heidi please?’ ‘She’s gone to the USSR.’ ‘Al­ready? Have you got a num­ber for her?’

‘She’s in Siberia. Be­hind the Iron Cur­tain. It’s not like ring­ing the coun­cil.’

Heidi re­turned sev­eral weeks later — and within two years we were mar­ried. It was 1990, we were both 27, and we aban­doned city liv­ing for ru­ral Es­sex.

Heidi was now a TV scriptwriter — well-paid work that helped smooth the all-or-noth­ing na­ture of my act­ing ca­reer. We wanted chil­dren, but five years on, the preg­nancy hadn’t ma­te­ri­alised.

It turned out Heidi had an ovar­ian cyst which had ren­dered her in­fer­tile — the re­sult of long-term en­dometrio­sis [an in­cur­able con­di­tion in which tis­sue nor­mally found in the womb lining devel­ops ab­nor­mally else­where].

The spe­cial­ist was hope­ful. If the cyst was sur­gi­cally re­moved, we might have a short win­dow of op­por­tu­nity for con­cep­tion.

We wasted no time. Heidi was ad­mit­ted to hospi­tal in late Oc­to­ber 1995. Af­ter her op­er­a­tion, she’d maybe have six months in which to con­ceive, said the spe­cial­ist. The clock was tick­ing.

That Jan­uary, Heidi bran­dished a pos­i­tive preg­nancy test. We tried not to get too ex­cited, but we al­lowed our­selves to imag­ine the house echo­ing with new cries.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Af­ter six weeks, the preg­nancy ter­mi­nated nat­u­rally. We cried tears for that un­formed lit­tle ves­sel of our hopes. Now at least we knew that con­cep­tion was pos­si­ble. But the fer­til­ity ‘win­dow’ had shrunk to only a cou­ple more months, so we had to be or­gan­ised and res­o­lute. At that point, our plans went west, in more ways than one.

I landed a job in a tour­ing ver­sion of the cow­boy mu­si­cal Calamity Jane, play­ing Wild Bill Hickok.

We were in no fi­nan­cial po­si­tion for me to turn it down, so we care­fully planned our baby at­tempts for those weeks when I’d be play­ing in the South-East — close enough to com­mute from home.

When the cur­tain came down, I’d whizz back in my car to con­tinue my night’s work. Mem­bers of the cast, aware of my ef­forts, en­cour­aged my hur­ried exit with cries of ‘Break a leg!’ and ‘Yee hah!’

Once again, we were suc­cess­ful. As the weeks rolled by, things felt bet­ter. More se­cure. Each week was a new mile­stone, bring­ing us closer to the time that we knew the baby would be safe.On De­cem­ber 29, Heidi went into labour. At the hospi­tal, three hours went by. Then a sin­gle adult voice was heard — pro­fes­sional re­lief de­void of emo­tion. ‘It’s out.’

I caught a blurred glimpse of blue­coloured flesh — like a lit­tle dol­phin — as the staff hud­dled around the new­born and car­ried it off to clear its throat of mu­cus.

Sec­onds went by. Then at last I heard the baby cry. Not a full cry. More of a slow, bruised groan.

The mid­wife car­ried the lit­tle groan­ing thing over to me. I saw its face for the first time. Red and bruised from the for­ceps, gri­mac­ing with pain. A boy. I had a son. Do­minic.

Over the next few weeks, Heidi and I got to know our beau­ti­ful son. It looked as though Do­minic would be our only child. The win­dow of fer­til­ity had closed as quickly as it had opened. But we felt blessed.

By the end of Fe­bru­ary, it was time to buy Do­minic his first proper pair of shoes. So one bright Satur­day af­ter­noon, we drove to Cam­bridge and pur­chased a lovely pair of blue lace-ups.

Af­ter­wards, Heidi and I strolled around the shops with Dom in his buggy, en­joy­ing the per­fec­tion of the mo­ment. A fam­ily in frozen time. Hap­pi­ness like the del­i­cate fil­i­gree on a dragon­fly’s wing.

She was drift­ing in and out of con­scious­ness I cried like a baby — on and on. I wailed

Fewer than 72 hours from this per­fect mo­ment, Heidi would be close to death. She felt the first stir­rings of pain that Satur­day. Then she be­gan to retch, over and over. She thought she had eaten some­thing that dis­agreed with her.

By Sun­day, she was moan­ing with pain. That af­ter­noon, a locum doc­tor came to the house, ex­am­ined Heidi, said it was food poi­son­ing and gave her a Val­ium tablet and two parac­eta­mol.

It was a se­ri­ous mis­di­ag­no­sis — from an over­worked locum who’d drawn hasty con­clu­sions. By Sun­day evening, the pains had been re­placed by fever and Heidi was vom­it­ing bile. She was drift­ing in and out of con­scious­ness.

We didn’t know it, but the rea­son the pain had stopped was that her in­tes­tine was dy­ing off — be­cause her small bowel was con­stricted and turn­ing gan­grenous. That, in turn, was killing the nerves that cause pain. But it was also the be­gin­ning of sep­sis, as gan­grene be­gan to in­fect her blood.

Heidi was slowly start­ing to die. It was now 24 hours since we’d seen the doc­tor, yet I still didn’t call him again. Why not? Was I a com­plete id­iot?

Maybe. All I can say is that when you’re in such a sit­u­a­tion, the wildly un­likely night­mare is hard to imag­ine and harder to em­brace. I had no ex­pe­ri­ence to draw on, and I was still young enough to be­lieve such tragedies are things that hap­pen to other peo­ple.

Yet there was an­other el­e­ment, too — some­thing that would prove al­most cat­a­strophic.

Heidi is in­cred­i­bly sto­ical in the face of ill­ness, some­thing she com­bines with a very strong dis­like of ex­ces­sive fuss. Though pro­foundly ill and fever­ish, she was still in­sist­ing that she didn’t want to bother the locum again.

She stayed in bed all day. At around mid­night, I took a good look at her and no­ticed her lips had turned blue.

But she kept say­ing: ‘I’ll be fine. I just want to sleep . . .’

Then she went off to be sick again, and came back crawl­ing on her hands and knees. She didn’t even have the en­ergy to climb into bed. That was the mo­ment the veil lifted. The mo­ment I fi­nally did some­thing. The mo­ment that prob­a­bly saved Heidi’s life. I tele­phoned the locum. A dif­fer­ent one an­swered. ‘Look, ex­actly how ill is she?’ he said. I said noth­ing, but sim­ply held out the re­ceiver to­wards our nearby bed­room. At that mo­ment, my wife was giv­ing out a chill­ing scream of pain. I put the re­ceiver back to my ear. There was a stunned si­lence on the other end. ‘I’ll be over right away,’ he said. The doc­tor came and im­me­di­ately called an am­bu­lance. ‘If you’re lucky, it’s a burst ap­pen­dix,’ he said omi­nously.

We got to A&E at around one or two in the morn­ing. The reg­is­trar was wo­ken from his sleep — just one hour af­ter his last mam­moth shift had ended.

‘We need to open you up to find out what’s go­ing on,’ he said.

At about 4am, as we reached the doors to the op­er­at­ing the­atre, the reg­is­trar pro­duced the nec­es­sary con­sent form for Heidi to sign. But she had seen some­thing that made her hes­i­tate.

‘I don’t want a colostomy,’ she said. ‘Heidi . . .’ ‘I won’t sign.’ She was res­o­lute. ‘Some­times it’s the price of life, I’m afraid,’ said the reg­is­trar. ‘No. I won’t do it,’ said Heidi. ‘How about if I put this...’ said the reg­is­trar. He drew a lit­tle sym­bol on the form. ‘This means that we can open you up and...pro­ceed as nec­es­sary.’

And then it was time. My girl. My life. I’d first met her through the doors of a the­atre. Would I leave her the same way?

I watched her dis­ap­pear among the scrubs and harsh lights.

Go home — she’ll be out soon, said the se­nior house­man. ‘If it’s longer than a cou­ple of hours, it means . . . some­thing else.’

When the tele­phone fi­nally rang, it was 11am. Seven hours later.

At the hospi­tal, the se­nior house­man ap­peared with the nurse. ‘Let’s find some­where where we can talk,’ he said. They led me down the cor­ri­dor to find a room where we could be alone.

Even­tu­ally we came to a stock­room that was piled high with card­board boxes.

The doc­tor and I perched on the card­board boxes. There was a pause. I sat — ears ring­ing — wait­ing for the in­evitable, ter­ri­ble, lifechang­ing words.

‘Well...’ said the doc­tor. ‘First, I just want to say that your wife is a very, very brave and strong woman. Quite ex­tra­or­di­nary.’

‘Is.’ He said ‘is’. Present tense. Hope like frail fil­i­gree. ‘Is she . . . OK?’ I whis­pered.

The doc­tor looked ex­hausted. The surgery had been com­plex, he said. ‘When we opened her up, we dis­cov­ered that her small bowel had be­come con­stricted and was blocked by ear­lier scar tis­sue. A large sec­tion of it had be­come gan­grenous.’ ‘But . . . is she OK?’ The doc­tor nod­ded kindly. ‘She’s re­cov­er­ing in a spe­cial-care ward, but she’s still ex­tremely ill. She has peri­toni­tis [in­flam­ma­tion of the ab­domen walls] and se­vere sep­tic shock.

‘She was close to death. The op­er­a­tion was a suc­cess, but there’s a real risk of fur­ther in­fec­tion. She’s not out of trou­ble yet.’

He must have seen my eyes brim­ming. Lean­ing in, he smiled and said: ‘She’s strong, your wife. Stronger than any of us ex­pected.’

Heidi looked des­per­ately frail — pale as death. It was dif­fi­cult to see her be­neath the mass of tubes and ma­chines crowded in and around her body.

She was heav­ily se­dated: she’d be there with me one mo­ment, and then drift off the next. The mem­ory of her look of joy and sur­prise when she first saw me sit­ting by her bed still breaks my heart.

In those first days, our son was be­ing cared for by rel­a­tives. I sat and watched Heidi’s face for hours and hours. Frag­ile and brave and beau­ti­ful.

I felt a love for her that still as­ton­ishes me with its force. She was ev­ery­thing to me — and I could feel it as a phys­i­cal thing.

I couldn’t live without her. It was no longer a ro­man­tic no­tion, but a ma­te­rial fact. I didn’t want to. One day rolled by. Then an­other. She held on. On the third day, the nurses took her for a shower.

‘They put me in a wheel­chair to take me there, and then they placed me on a plas­tic chair un­der the shower head,’ Heidi told me.

‘I could barely move without as­sis­tance. It was two women in their early 20s, and that was the mo­ment I re­alised what real nurs­ing was about, as op­posed to medicine.’

Her eyes filled with tears at the mem­ory.

‘They said: “We’re go­ing to do this to­gether, Heidi, be­cause it’ll make it quicker for you, as you can’t be out of bed for long . . .”

‘And they gen­tly washed me. Just to feel that wa­ter on my head and shoul­ders — the gen­tle­ness with which they did it. It was just in­cred­i­ble.’

That gen­tle act of care in her dark­est time was some­thing Heidi never for­got. Years later, she wrote a hugely suc­cess­ful TV se­ries that had ex­actly this kind of nurs­ing care at its heart.

If the burn­ing love and com­pas­sion for med­i­cal prac­ti­tion­ers in the writ­ing of Call The Mid­wife has any true birth­place, it was in that shower room. She con­tin­ued to im­prove. Then sud­denly she started to feel un­well.

The nurses be­gan to hurry about, and the doc­tor was called. I could see their frowns. I could tell what they meant. I rushed into the nearby toi­let and found a va­cant cu­bi­cle. I sat on the seat. I started to sob — great gasp­ing sobs twist­ing my face and smear­ing my sleeve. I cried like a baby — on and on and on. I wailed. I will never, never feel so help­less as I did at that mo­ment.

The next day, Heidi had im­proved so much she was able to move into a gen­eral ward. It would be an­other two weeks be­fore she left the hospi­tal, 20lb lighter than when she came in. Nine­teen years on, I ask Heidi how she thinks the ex­pe­ri­ence changed her.

‘The sim­plest thing I can say is that it stops you be­ing so afraid,’ she says. ‘When you’ve dealt with some­thing com­pletely ter­ri­fy­ing and come out the other side, you can re­flect on it and think: “Well ... I came back.”

‘Some­times all you need to know about life is that there can be an­other chap­ter.’ And me? I still feel shock and a rush of raw grat­i­tude. And I’m grate­ful that a part of me will al­ways be sob­bing in that toi­let cu­bi­cle — stripped of all dis­trac­tion, un­der­stand­ing clearly what was most im­por­tant.

Ev­ery day is beau­ti­ful and frag­ile. Ev­ery day has the pos­si­bil­ity for love.

O ADAPTED from Flesh And Blood: A His­tory Of My Fam­ily In Seven Mal­adies, by Stephen McGann, pub­lished by Simon & Schus­ter on July 27, €24. © Stephen McGann 2017.

Pic­tures:ALANDAVIDSON;BBC

In­spired by re­al­ity: Stephen McGann as Dr Pa­trick Turner in Call The Mid­wife, writ­ten by his wife Heidi Thomas, right Lit­tle mir­a­cle: Heidi with her new­born son Do­minic

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