Fatal mistake

How could my Angela have slipped through the net?

Published by: Amy Thompson
Published on: 24th March 2011

There are some things in life you never forget. Sometimes because you’ve worked to commit them to memory, like how to spell or add up. Other times because they just make you smile.
I remembered all sorts like that  – like knowing every line in Dirty Dancing, or how my sister Angela went everywhere in high heels, even the beach!
Now, watching her stitch sequins on to a princess costume for her granddaughter Portia, five, I had a feeling I’d never forget this either.
‘You never used to be arty when we were kids,’ I smiled, as she frowned in concentration.
‘Portia loves dressing up,’ she replied. ‘I’ll be making another one for her before you know it, for her birthday.’
The funny thing was, I remembered when me and Angela hadn’t got on. I was a year older and she’d always pinched my clothes without asking.
But when she’d had her son John-Lee at 16, followed by Jade and Daniel, we’d grown closer and were now best mates.
‘Shall we nip out for lunch?’ I asked, as Angela held up Portia’s finished costume.
‘Sounds like a plan,’ she grinned.
Wandering around town, we chatted non-stop. ‘Guess what,’ Angela smiled, as we tucked into a KFC. ‘Daniel’s girlfriend is pregnant. I’m going to be a grandma again!’
‘That’s great,’ I beamed. ‘Just don’t get roped into baby-sitting too much.’
Angela was already a grandma of five, and she was only 44.
‘I don’t mind,’ she smiled. ‘I love spending time with them.’
The next day, I called her, but she couldn’t talk for long. ‘I’ve got food poisoning,’ she groaned. ‘My tummy really hurts. I’m vomiting blood.’
‘Poor thing,’ I soothed. ‘Go and see the doctor.’
‘Not now, I’ll be fine,’ she replied.
Angela had always been a tough cookie.
While I’d picked up every cough and cold going, she hadn’t seen a doctor since falling pregnant with Daniel 21 years ago.
But after two weeks of suffering, she gave in. ‘The doctor thinks I’ve got an ulcer,’ she told me. ‘He’s given me antacids.’
‘It’s probably all that cola you drink!’ I tutted. ‘You should cut back on it.’
‘All right, Mum,’ she joked.
After two weeks of taking the medication, though, Angela’s symptoms were worse and she went to hospital.
‘They’ve given me different medication,’ she told me later. ‘Fingers crossed it’ll work.’
As the weeks rolled by, there was still no change. Popping in to see Angela a month later, I found her doubled over in pain, sipping ice water.
‘You look terrible!’ I gasped, taking in her pale face. ‘Have you lost weight?’
She nodded, taking another gulp of water. ‘I can’t keep anything down,’ she winced.
‘I’ve got pains in my chest, too.’
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘I want the doctor to check you again. This isn’t right.’
‘No,’ she shook her head. ‘I’ve already been to the hospital five times and my doctor must be sick of me. I’ve had an ultrasound scan and blood tests.’
I stared at her, baffled. She’d kept that quiet! ‘I didn’t want any fuss,’ she sighed, reading me like a book.
‘What were the results?’ I asked.
‘They came back abnormal,’ she replied. ‘I’ve been diagnosed with anorexia, depression, period pain… I don’t think they really know. It’s probably nothing, I’m just being a nuisance.’
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. You only had to look at her to see something wasn’t right. After she’d had her kids, she’d gone up to a size 24 – now she’d shrunk to a frail size 12 in just three months!
But the doctors would have picked up on something, surely?
Another two months passed and Angela dropped to a size eight. I was no medic, but I knew I wasn’t being paranoid. Before I could take her to hospital again myself, though, Angela called me.
‘I’ve been admitted,’ she said. ‘They want to do a CT scan.’
Finally, her health problem was being taken seriously.
A few days later, I went to Heartlands Hospital, Birmingham, with my hubby Wayne, 44, and Angela’s partner John, 42, to be with her for the results.
‘At last we can get to the bottom of things and they can treat you properly,’ I said, squeezing Angela’s hand as her consultant walked in.
But things weren’t that simple…. ‘Your scan shows you have tumours in your stomach and gullet,’ he said, gravely. ‘I’m sorry Angela, it’s stomach cancer.’
My world seemed to tilt as his words sank in, and I felt Angela’s arms around me as I began to sob.
‘It’s all right,’ she soothed, calmly. ‘I’m still here. I’ll be fine.’
She might have looked weak, but my sister was still so strong.
A week passed and doctors tried to start her on chemotherapy. By now, though, her body was too malnourished to handle it.
I couldn’t help thinking, if she’d been diagnosed earlier, would it have been a different story? Would she be responding to treatment better? She’d been ill for four months and no one had known why – but cancer had been secretly eating away at her.
So why had her GP and 10 other doctors at Heartlands missed it?
Finally, we were dealt a devastating blow.
‘The cancer’s too aggressive to treat,’ the consultant said. ‘I’m afraid it’s terminal.’
Taking a deep breath, Angela steeled herself. ‘How long do I have?’ she asked.
‘A few weeks,’ he replied gently.
Until that moment I don’t remember ever seeing Angela cry. But even then, it wasn’t for long.
While I was seething over how long it had taken the doctors to diagnose her, she refused to wallow in pity. Instead, she focused on the time she had left.
‘I want to go to the beach, and ride a horse,’ she said, making a to-do list.
‘We’ll do it all,’ I nodded.
Then she looked at me, anxiously. ‘I want you to promise me something,’ she said.
‘Anything,’ I said, tearfully.
‘I’m scared my grandkids won’t remember me…’ she trailed off.
My heart broke.
‘They will,’ I vowed. ‘I’ll make sure they never forget.’
Angela deteriorated rapidly over the next three months. By November, she was in a hospice and nearly died three times over a two-week period.
‘She’s holding on for something,’ her nurse frowned.
Oh, of course… ‘It’s her granddaughter’s birthday,’ I said.
On November 25, when Portia turned six, she visited Angela and chatted about her birthday plans and what outfit she’d wear…
The following morning, I got the call I’d been dreading.
Angela had died in her sleep.
In December, we held her funeral at Woodlands Cemetery, in Birmingham. A month later, her sixth grandchild, Vinnie, arrived.
The hospital’s apologised and put measures in place to make sure this never happens again, but 11 times her symptoms were misdiagnosed – 11!
The cancer was too severe to save Angela, but if they’d spotted it sooner, she could have had some more time.
Nothing will bring her back, so all I can do is fulfil my promise by making sure she’s never forgotten.
I used to wonder why I remembered so many seemingly pointless things. Now I realise how precious each tiny memory is.

A Heartlands Hospital spokeswoman said: ‘We would like to apologise to Mrs Skeffington’s family and send them our sincerest condolences…. We are putting into place changes as a result of the sequence of events experienced by Mrs Skeffington.’
Christine Layton, 45, Rugeley, Staffordshire