I never expected her to actually go and bloody die.
It was a friend who recommended Kate Granger’s first book to me. I read it in one sitting. It resonated hugely with the concerns that I felt about the environment in which we both worked – and in which Kate was now a patient. An environment where the little things mattered, and where kindness was as important as competence but often overlooked in the name of efficiency.
Soon, Kate and I were ‘friends’ on Twitter, and as I got to know her through her tweets, my overriding feelings were of awe and respect rather than pity or sympathy. Yes, she was young, and going through a particularly shitty illness, but what she was doing with her experiences was amazing. I wasn’t sure – and I’m still not sure – that I would have the strength to do what she did. I would be more likely to be weeping and wailing in the corner, feeling sorry for myself, than trying to change the world.
Which is what she did. She always used to say she was ‘ordinary’ and ‘normal’ – in that fantastic Yorkshire accent, with a sideways glance that suggested the punch line was just around the corner – but she wasn’t. She had a way of being able to recognise and then verbalise the things that bothered her, in a constructive way, and an extraordinary generosity in sharing her (not always pleasant or positive) experiences for the greater good. Healthcare is better because of her.
We met a few times – not enough, but there you go. First, at a conference in Edinburgh, where I sat next to her and we giggled our way through a session on advance care planning. On introducing herself, she said ‘I’m Kate. You could probably tell by the headscarf’. ‘You don’t look too bad for someone who’s supposed to be dying of cancer’ I said, and we fell about laughing. I knew then that she would have been a friend regardless of the cancer or not – and that we shared a similar, black sense of humour which some might have deemed inappropriate. ‘I like your ipad mini’ I said to her, as she tweeted her way through the conference. She told me, matter of factly, that it was easier to hold than an ipad now that the chemotherapy had given her a peripheral neuropathy. I gave her a CD of some Vaughan Williams that I knew she’d enjoyed at the Proms, and that she wanted to listen to when she died. ‘I’m not bloody ready yet!’ she said, and we laughed again.
The second time we met was at the Royal College of Physicians, when I was invited to the launch of the film that she and Chris (the amazing, amazing Chris, who deserves a whole blog of his own. And a Range Rover) had made for Dying Matters week. I’ve not been able to watch it since she died. Through talking to her there, and to her colleague (and inspiration, though he will hate me saying that) Frank, I knew that she and I were very similar kinds of doctors – relentlessly focused on communication, tediously obsessive about the little things, occasionally prone to the moral high ground and continuously self-critical about times when we could have been better. Perhaps it was our star sign – her birthday is the day after mine – or perhaps it’s that we both suffered from a touch of imposter syndrome. I was honoured to be there and to meet other people who I had admired from afar. We did an Oscar style selfie, and drank champagne, of course. There was often champagne.
We met several times after that, and kept in touch with late night messages, peppered with swear words – hers and mine – particularly when treatment wasn’t going well, but also when she was working- we would chat about patients, jobs, frustrations, the NHS. She was a fierce advocate for the NHS in general, and for older people in particular, and was a brilliant geriatrician.
She was always very stylish, and I remember admiring a pair of lovely knee high boots she was wearing. ‘What size feet are you? You can have them when I die’ she said. ‘I don’t want your bloody boots!’ I remember saying. She asked me why not. ‘Because that means you’ll be bloody dead, and I don’t want you to bloody die.’ She hugged me. We drank more champagne.
The last time I saw her was at her house in Wakefield, a few weeks before she died. She had come home from hospital for the last time, and had stopped treatment. She had nephrostomies and was on strong painkillers. But she was still very much Kate. We ate brownies, laughed, chatted. I’d taken her a colouring book, and she roared with laughter to hear that my eight year old had suggested that I find quite a short one, in case she died before she could finish it. She talked about her family, her darling niece and nephew, her work, the holidays she had enjoyed with Chris, the things they had achieved together since her diagnosis. Chris hovered in the background supplying drinks and the occasional heat pack, and trying (and failing) to keep us on topic. When it was time to leave, she stood up and hugged me. ‘Die well’ I said to her. ‘I’ll give it a go!’ she said. And we laughed again, although not as loud or as long as before, as we both knew that this would be the last time I saw her, and that death was not far away.
And now she’s gone, like the lark in the music she loved, spiralling upwards into infinity. Thirty four. It’s no age at all. But when you look at what she did with those years, and how she turned even the most negative day into a positive force, you realise that it’s not always quantity. It’s quality. Every time I say ‘Hello my name is Elin Roddy’ I think of Kate, and am grateful for the chance to have known her for the time that I did, and for what she gave to me, and to all of us. Thankyou Kate. Peace be with you.
I never expected her to actually go and bloody die.