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
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.
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