The ongoing myth of MS: an open letter to Holby City

I don’t watch all that much TV, and when I do my viewing tends to be a guilty pleasure. I don’t have the stamina to stay up late to watch the latest cult series, or the organisational skills to commit myself to following whatever the current Netflix talking point is.

In the evening, when I’ve managed to get the children to bed, and feed myself, all I am really up to is something unchallenging and familiar – the televisual equivalent of a milky drink and some comfy slippers. On a Tuesday night, Holby City fits the bill. For the uninitiated, Holby City is a drama set in an NHS hospital – the same hospital as the A&E department depicted in Casualty. All the doctors and nurses at Holby City work together, socialise together, frequently operate on each other, have inappropriate relationships with each other. Most operations will involve the patient suddenly developing ‘a bleed’, necessitating them being shocked back to life with a defibrillator – almost always successfully.

Like many of my colleagues in the NHS (when they admit it, after a few drinks…) I have followed Holby City for many years. The plots are often preposterous, but I like to think it’s all fairly tongue in cheek, and I like to laugh at it and get some satisfaction from pointing out to my non-NHS husband the plotlines that would never happen in real life, or would result in dismissal of most of the staff due to gross misconduct. However, the programme does have 4.5 million weekly viewers and so it has an important role in raising awareness – it’s recently successfully tackled bipolar disorder and skin cancer.

Last week, though, Holby City really let me down. Since I was diagnosed with MS, I’ve had to manage the expectations of the people around me as to what MS is, and how treatment and prognosis of the disease has changed over the years. There are so many myths about MS and it is really tiring having to dispel them. I have often thought that it would be great if one of the major characters in Holby City developed MS – so that people could see that normal life can continue, that there is hope after a diagnosis. That you’re not written-off.

In last Tuesday’s episode, nurse Adrian Fletcher developed paralysis in his legs after being stabbed by a patient (yes, another one of those preposterous storylines…). His immediate reaction was to assume that he had MS. And then to say that this would mean ending up in a wheelchair, and to death. At this point I expected the other characters in the scene (doctors) to tell him that most people with MS don’t end up in a wheelchair, that if his paralysis was due to MS it would likely be temporary, that there are many new drug treatments available for MS that can help people to live a normal life for as long as possible… but no. Instead the other characters looked ashen-faced and glum. At one point, Nurse Fletcher got a colleague to agree to look after his children for him, ‘when’ he was no longer able to.

Great. I’ve spent the last year trying to be positive – because my consultant has told me to – but after watching that episode the doubts came creeping back. Maybe I’m kidding myself. Maybe I’m too cowardly to admit the truth. Maybe I should make arrangements for the ongoing care of my children. And I felt really despondent and hopeless.

And then I felt angry. Angry because I feel as though the scriptwriters used something I am dealing with every day as a cheap way to build suspense, without considering the real impact this storyline has had on me and my state of mind. And here’s a calculation: MS may be rare, affecting one in 800 people, but that means that of the 4.5 million people who watch Holby City there are likely to be about 5 and a half thousand viewers with MS. I wonder if they’re all as angry as me. Or maybe they just feel more hopeless.

Holby City had a great chance to raise awareness of how MS really is and educate people that it isn’t the death (or even life) sentence it once was – sadly that chance has been thrown away.

P.S. If you’re wondering, Nurse Fletcher didn’t have MS. Phew. So that’ll save the props department the cost of a wheelchair.

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