'Only Maeve could speak of illness in such a warm way'


Maeve Binchy embraced life while coping with arthritis and heart disease, writes SYLVIA THOMPSON

AS LIBRARIES and bookshops throughout Ireland fed the huge demand for Maeve Binchy novels since her death last week, there were many sufferers of arthritis and heart disease who held special memories of her valiant and generous support of organisations such as Arthritis Ireland and the Irish Heart Foundation.

John Church, chief executive of Arthritis Ireland, said she was a great advocate for the organisation. “She suffered with osteoarthritis for a long time and she personified the message we are trying to promote – which is to live well with arthritis because you’ve got it for life,” he said.

“She had a fantastic approach and outlook. Arthritis is not the most interesting subject, yet when she did radio interviews or when she wrote or spoke about it, she always made it light-hearted and fun,” said Mr Church.

Distraction is considered to be one of the best techniques for coping with pain and Maeve Binchy certainly used this technique to help herself and others. “Given her weight, I can only imagine that she had a lot of physical pain from the condition, but she took the Irish stoic approach and put up with it and had great happiness in her life,” he said.

Following a hip-replacement operation more than 12 years ago, Binchy wrote Aches Pains (Poolbeg, 1999), a humorous account of coping with illness. The popular paperback was illustrated by her friend Wendy Shea, who had also undergone a hip-replacement operation. The author royalties were donated to Arthritis Ireland.

In the introductory remarks of Aches Pains, Binchy described the book as a survival manual. “We wanted to pass on the advice that the cheerful survive somehow better and help themselves as well as everyone else along the way,” she wrote.

Binchy also suffered from heart failure and willingly lent her support to the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF) on numerous occasions. Michael O’Shea, chief executive of the IHF, said the organisation enjoyed a long and meaningful relationship with the author. “She was truly inspirational. No one could tell a story quite like Maeve and in 2010, she captured the audience when she spoke openly of her own heart failure experience as part of our Go Red for Women campaign,” he said.

The 2010 IHF awareness campaign alerted women to the fact that heart disease was not just a men’s disease. Dr Angie Brown, IHF’s medical director, spoke alongside Binchy at the public talk in the Royal College of Physicians.

“Despite her pain and discomfort, she came along and spoke about how scary it was to be a patient, how helpful it was to discuss her experiences with the nurses and how accepting support makes it so much easier.”

Remembering the event, Mr O’Shea added: “Only Maeve could speak of illness in such a warm and funny way to leave every face smiling. Everyone in that room felt uplifted, motivated and [felt] like they could conquer anything.

“Today, we remember Maeve for her joyous nature, embracing heart and fighting spirit.”

In ‘The Irish Times’, in January 2009, Arthritis Ireland launched a new helpline with the backing of arthritis sufferer Maeve Binchy. She wrote about the things you should never say to someone with the condition.

1 “Cheer up, nobody ever died of arthritis.” This statement is, oddly, not cheering at all. We have dark, broody feelings that if people did die of arthritis, there might have been huge, well-funded research projects over the last few decades, which could have come up with a cure.

2 “It’s just a sign of old age, it will come to us all.” No, it’s not a sign of old age. Even toddlers can get arthritis and some old people never get a twinge of it. The very worst phrase you can use is “Haven’t you had a good innings?”

3 Remember that marvellous radio series about disabilities called Does He Take Sugar? The message of that title means you should never ask, in the hearing of someone with arthritis: “Do you think she’ll be able to manage the stairs?” Arthritis can make us many things but it certainly doesn’t make us deaf.

4 Avoid mentioning magic cures, as anyone with arthritis will already have heard of vinegars, honey, mussels, berry teas, and so on. We will probably have tried them too. It is dispiriting to be told of someone else who was once bent double but now climbs mountains before breakfast.

5 Don’t ever say: “The walking stick is very ageing – I wouldn’t use it if I were you.” Did you think we thought of the stick as a fashion accessory? Of course we know it’s hardly rejuvenating to be seen bent over a stick, but when the alternative is a knee or a hip that could let us down, or pitch us into the traffic, then the stick is a great help. It is sad when people give us the impression that it makes us look 100 years old. At least we are getting out there, and that should be praised or encouraged.

6 Never let the phrase “a touch of arthritis” pass your lips. You don’t say someone has a touch of asthma. It is denying sympathy and concern for people who have a painful and ever-present condition to minimise it to just “a touch”.

7 Don’t suggest a healthy walk to blow away the cobwebs. People whose joints are unreliable don’t want to get further proof of this when they are halfway down the pier. Unless you are a physiotherapist, don’t impose exercise on others.

8 Don’t tell arthritis sufferers to go and live in a hot, dry climate like Arizona. We know it might be easier on the joints, but some of us are very happy here with family and friends, and we don’t want to be packed off like remittance men.

9 One time you shouldn’t stay silent is when your favourite restaurants, theatres or galleries are difficult to access for a friend with arthritis. Before you turn your back on them, be sure to tell the owners or proprietors exactly why you will not be making a booking. You can be polite and praising (“I hear such good things about your place”), but after the flattery should come the reason for regret (“Can I just confirm that there isn’t a lift and that the cloakrooms are up or down a flight of stairs?”). If enough people were to do this, it would not take long to improve facilities. If we don’t tell the offenders, how will they know there’s a problem?

10 Don’t ever say, sadly, how tragic it is that nothing has been done for poor arthritis sufferers. Plenty is being done. Just contact Arthritis Ireland, or phone its helpline (1890 252 846). Then you will have an idea of how much is happening and you can be a true and informed friend rather than a false and frightening one.