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A Significant Medical History


He was once the life and soul of every party. Everyone in Glasgow's East End knew Burdie. "Burdie, give us Lily the Pink", they'd shout in the pub and Burdie would be only too happy to oblige with his signature tune.

But Carntyne man James Conner will never sing again. He'll never speak in that loud, booming voice again. He'll never again taste his favourite food or savour his favourite drink.

James has had a major operation for throat cancer and complications with the treatment have meant he has been in and out of hospital over the past few months.

"You can see in people's faces that he is only a shadow of what he was," says his daughter, Janie, "and he gets frustrated that he can't speak."

Give him his due, though - James, who will be 70 on Friday, may be down but he's not out.

He pours himself a wee Guinness into a syringe and feeds it into the peg in his stomach.

There's a mix of defiance and mischief in the action.


"You can't keep a good man down," the retired roofer writes on his notepad, grinning widely as he holds the message up.

Sister Amahl Mathie, head and neck cancer nurse specialist based at Gartnavel, shakes her head at him. "You're a terrible rascal," she remonstrates and they laugh together.

Illness has robbed James of many of the things he enjoyed and took for granted, as we all do, and Amahl doesn't see the point of nagging or judging.

It's part of why James and his whole family love Amahl so much.

She is a life saver, they say.

They have nominated her for the NHS Diamond anniversary awards and are thrilled that she is a finalist in the Extra Mile Award category.

"A diamond makes people feel special and she is our diamond," says Janie, 40, a mother of two and a grandmother. "She has defintely made our family feel special and we have no doubt that without the help, advice and comfort shown by her, my father would not be with us today."

Over the past few months, James has been so ill that he has often wanted to throw in the towel.

"Most of his strength to fight on has been encouraged by this wonderful nurse," says Janie. "So many people feel lost and worried and anxious at a time like this. We felt all those things when my mother, Agnes, was ill with kidney problems and we couldn't get any straight answers.

"Whereas with Amahl, if we have a question, she will answer it and if she doesn't know the answer, she will find it for you and make sure that you understand it. You are never left wondering."

It's pretty obvious from the start that Amahl is everything the family say she is.

The minute she comes into the room James' eyes light up. They hug and for the next few minutes Amahl is absorbed in trying to sort out a problem he has with the tracheostomy in his throat.

And then she takes time to advise him about his medication and sort out a solution.

The family know by now that when she promises to do something, it's as good as done.

Amahl is trying to make sure James has as good a quality of life as possible. "It's important to James that he gets out and sees some of his pals, goes to the shops and to the bookies. People thrive on that. It's an awful lonely day if you can't get out."

She also recognises the strain on the whole family has been massive. They are a close and caring family.

Janie has three older brothers; Eddie, 46, James ,45, and Thomas ,44, and they have all mucked in to help their parents.

Having Amahl at the end of a phone or ready to visit has made all the difference to what they are going through.

"It's the caring, the touching, the empathy," says Janie. "It's the way she comes across and reassures you and it really calms you.

"She was obviously born to be a nurse and loves not only her job, but also her patients. From her toes to the last hair on her head, she oozes sincerity, compassion, care and consideration for her patients and their families.

"No matter when you need advice, she is there for you.

"She will always call us if she has anything new to pass on or if she has not heard from us for a few days.

"Nothing is any trouble to her. She really is a saint."

James has had a tough time since his cancer was diagnosed last autumn. For such a sociable man, someone who loved to talk, having to communicate by writing is always going to be a barrier.

"Because he was an alcoholic, he would miss hospital appointments and by the time they found the cancer it was quite aggressive," explains Janie.

Her father, she says, started drinking heavily about 13 years ago after her brother, Paul, was murdered. "He took it really badly. He could never understand how it happened and how he never got to say goodbye.

"Some people think he has done this to himself and we as a family say you've only got yourself to blame, dad'.

"Amahl isn't like that. He is an individual to her. There is no prejudice because of his drinking."

"All we can do is give support and advice to our patients," Amahl says. "We can't tell them what to do."

Amahl has been trying to shut her ears to the praise Janie is heaping on her. "I am hugely embarrassed and touched," she says. "But a nomination like this has to go to the whole department.

"The only reason I can do my job is because I am so well supported by my colleagues.

"The list is endless. There are so many people making sure that everything is as calm and easy flowing for our patients and their families as it possibly can be."

Amahl, 42, of Elderlsie, who is married with a stepson, works closely with her fellow specialist nurse, Trish McDonnell.

Their base is Ward 5A of the Ear, Nose and Throat department at Gartnavel and together they cover north Glasgow, responding to patients' individual needs.

Since they started in the post five years ago, they have had several hundred patients between them.

Amahl says: "I was working on the wards as a staff nurse and we recognised then that when people were discharged they didn't have anyone to contact if they had a problem.

"We as a unit worked for many years to get these posts up and running and I feel very privileged to be involved. Every day you feel you are trying to make a difference.

"Patients don't come on their own - they come with families. Every family has a very difficult time and they cope with it differently and we need to make sure they are supported."


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Sister Amahl Mathie and James Connor

Amahl visits James and his daughter Janie