Friday Diary: Theatre in cinemas, and Jessye Norman and my spinal surgery history

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Thanks to the last 18 months of lockdown, we’ve already got used to adapting to seeing live theatre on our computer screens; and though it absolutely isn’t the same, it did at least theatrical activity happening. And of course it increased accessibility, as you don’t have to be physically there, so theatres in London and around the UK could reach audiences potentially across the world.

But for me, online theatre actually reminded me, cruelly, of what I was missing, and I found it almost unbearable to watch. Instead, I started getting hooked on things that are actually made for television screens — after a lifetime of being at the theatre every night, and never having the chance to actually watch television, I started to binge watch Netflix and other channels, watching things like Homeland in their entirety, as well as newer series like the unimaginably brilliant Call My Agent and Succession (I can’t wait for the new series later this month). My husband and I are also slowly getting through The West Wing. (A leading director friend tells me she’s seen it four times over).

But now that ‘normality’ is being restored — at least for now — it is good to see some of the enterprises that pre-dated lockdown (and proved a boon during the early stages of it, when the National was able to stream past recordings of NT Live to the nation) are coming back.

Today it was announced that the current, sell-out (and vastly expensive, at least from a ticketing point of view) production of Anything Goes has been filmed and will be streamed into cinemas from November 28. And yesterday it was announced that the forever-touring The Rocky Horror Show will be broadcast live to cinemas from the Peacock on October 28.

Sharing surgeons with Jessye Norman… and Maggie Smith

When the great American opera diva Jessye Norman died in 2019, the New York Times reported in her obituary: “The cause was septic shock and multiple organ failure following complications of a spinal cord injury she suffered in 2015, according to a statement by her family.” (She is pictured below at a Carnegie Hall recital in 2008).

Last week, The Guardian reported, “The circumstances surrounding the injury and disappearance from public life were never explained.” But then it went on to report that the late singer’s brother is now “suing two renowned doctors and a leading London private hospital for allegedly leaving her paralysed when she underwent surgery in 2015 to try and cure a longstanding and painful back problem.” It says of his claim, which has been lodged at the high court in London, that it alleges that a series of mistakes meant “the deceased was effectively paralysed from the waist downwards, she could not walk, she could not stand even in a standing frame and she was wheelchair-bound”.

I don’t intend to make these sad events about me, but I read the story with some alarm and concern, as one of the two specialists the suit is against is Mr Kai Lam, a spinal consultant, and the private London Bridge Hospital where he practices. Lam had conducted my own original spinal fusion in December 2010 at London Bridge Hospital.

When I was once again in overpowering pain a few years ago, I returned to see him at London Bridge Hospital. By now I’d had an unrelated stent placed in my heart, and was on medication to deal with it. He booked me for a surgical procedure at the hospital — a facet denervation, which involves putting a needle into the back under anaesthetic.

I was already in the operating theatre, with a cannula in my hand, when the anaesthetist made a standard check on what medications I was on. I replied that the list had been supplied to Mr Lam’s assistant. It had not made its way into my records at the hospital prior to the surgery, so they had to call her up to get the list. When they did so, the anaesthetist noticed that one of my medications should have ceased a few days before undergoing an anaesthetic. So although I was already on the operating table, the procedure was cancelled. I was sent to a cardiologist at the hospital to confirm that I could stop taking that particular medication for a few days. A week later, I was re-booked for the procedure. I, meanwhile, had filed a complaint to the hospital about this potentially serious failure of communication that got me as far as an operating theatre before a risk was assessed. After I had the procedure, I was in recovery in my room when a hospital administrator visited me — and asked if I wanted to proceed to a formal complaint. He inferred that if I did so, it could impact my future relationship with that surgeon.

My trust in him was broken anyway, and I subsequently found another spinal specialist in interesting personal circumstances. I was at an old University friend’s house party. And over my shoulder heard a woman telling someone, “The answer is being heavy.” I pivoted around, and said: “What was the question?” It turned out she was a doctor. And we got into a discussion about my own heaviness and spinal issues. At which point she told me about her husband who is a spinal surgeon.

The thing about expert medical practitioners is that you are invited to put all your trust in them, as Jessye Norman did. And yes, spinal surgery comes with attendant risks, and not necessarily always the desired outcomes. (I am now a year on from my own second spinal fusion with my new consultant —who found, incidentally, that my original fusion hadn’t taken — and am still dealing with reduced mobility, but a lot less pain).

A happier coincidence than Jessye Norman and I sharing the same spinal surgeon, however, was provided when I met Maggie Smith, who had had a hip replacement about a month before I did. When I told her this, she asked me where I had it done. I replied, “At St John and Elizabeth in St John’s Wood.” To which she answered, “Me, too. Who was your surgeon?” I replied, “Robert Marston”. And she said, “Me, too!” And now we live in the same area of West Sussex. Though I’m yet to see her in the local branch of Waitrose, where she once told Graham Norton she shops….

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