‘Second opinion changed my life’

Older people need not take their health problems for granted and can find doctors prepared to listen afresh

Kitty English: ‘What I really feel now at 86 is that once you’re up and out and have your senses about you, that’s the main thing.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Kitty English: ‘What I really feel now at 86 is that once you’re up and out and have your senses about you, that’s the main thing.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne


I grew up in the countryside in Cork and later in Tipperary. I married a Tipperary farmer at 26 and we had six children but one of my sons died at the age of 13 in a farm accident.

When I was a young mother I played badminton in the winter and tennis in the summer months. I didn’t like housework, so I had someone in to do that. I helped on the farm and bred dogs – Yorkshire terriers, pugs and Shih Tzus.

I got bowel cancer in my 50s and had part of my bowel and gall bladder removed. My husband became ill around the same time and we never told him about my illness. I had check-ups every six months for five years but then got the all-clear.

My husband suffered from heart problems but then he got prostate cancer which spread to his bones. He died 20 years ago. I have lived in the family home ever since and was reasonably healthy over the following 10 years or so.

Every Christmas all the family with their spouses and children come to stay with me and we celebrate Christmas together.

My health really started to go into a decline when I was in my 70s. I was in and out of the Bon Secours Hospital in Cork city in the 1990s. I suffered from breathlessness and low blood pressure and had a pacemaker put in eight years ago.

I was also put on different medications for blood pressure, blood thinning, fluid retention and underactive thyroid. I also started using inhalers to curb the breathlessness I felt. I was on 13 different drugs a day. I felt I was worn out and there was no more to be done for me.

I was told that my health problems were to do with my age. Then my eldest son became ill with cancer and died five years ago. That was the hardest blow of all. It is so difficult to watch someone die who doesn’t want to die.

Over the next while I began to worry a lot about all the health problems I had, which got me down. I became very careful with myself, thinking that as you get older you slow up and that’s the way it was going to be for me. I suppose deep down I felt I was going to die soon, so why bother other people with my feelings?

Two years ago, when visiting my son and his family in Dublin, I found I could barely walk around the shops. I love shopping so this was very frustrating. My son and his wife decided to take me into the emergency department at the Blackrock Clinic.

Battery of tests
They kept me in for a battery of tests, changed some of my medicines and reduced the number of drugs I was taking from 13 to five.

I think what really counted was that Dr Alex Deegan, the young consultant I saw, didn’t know me. He was completely thorough and didn’t make any assumptions about my health.

I also had surgery on both hands for carpel tunnel syndrome which had been painful for years. To be honest, I was afraid of having the surgery but I can’t believe how much better I feel now. I couldn’t lift a cup – not to mention a grandchild – when I had it and now I have lots of fun holding and playing with my younger grandchildren.

I spend time visiting my adult children and their families in their homes and on holidays abroad. But I am always glad to get back home. I’ve a Bichon Frisé who needs walking and I play bridge a few nights a week.

I still drive, which means I can go in and out to the town when I need anything. I even swam in the sea in Kerry this summer. Overall I’ve more confidence now than I had five years ago. And I’ve also lost a good deal of weight because I don’t eat as much as I used to. I’ve a great family who support me and that keeps me going too.

I suppose what I really feel now at 86 is that once you’re up and out and have your senses about you, that’s the main thing. I feel better now than I did 10 years ago and I take life as it comes.

But I would advise anyone my age not to take their health problems for granted and if your GP or other medical specialists tell you not to expect anything better, then go elsewhere before you accept that you can’t feel any better.