Ollie* was an exuberant, wild, wilful child who charmed and exasperated all the staff at the cystic fibrosis clinic and on the paediatric ward. His effervescent personality, mischievous eyes and dazzling smile were used to devastating effect as he tumbled his way through a childhood punctuated by CF-related problems.
His compliance was terrible. He lied, he dissembled, he told the truth, all with equally difficult consequences. He hurtled through our lives with irresistible energy. It seemed the force of his optimism would carry him many years into the future.
Adolescence came and threw its careless storms over Ollie. Illness and death started to cast their shadows. He still joked and smiled, but his bright and perceptive mind started to ask questions we couldn’t answer. Years passed in a whir of charity football matches, cajoling, persuading, laughing and caring, until Ollie reached 16, and we handed him on to adult services. I was certain he would make new friends and entertain and challenge them as he had done us. For more than a year, I always hoped to see Ollie out in the town with his friends, maybe benefitting from new treatments and getting to enjoy some happy years as a young man in reasonable health, but I never glimpsed him.
Then COVID-19 came, and the kaleidoscope turned. Everything was fragmented, and when the picture reassembled, the news was bad. Ollie was in the palliative care unit. His treatment for mycobacterium abscessus had failed. At the age of 20, he had only weeks to live.
And what he gave back, this young man who would not live to see 21, was acceptance, forgiveness, and a greater humanity than most people who live for another sixty years achieve.
I took my sadness and trepidation and trailed down the long corridor to see him, feeling small, useless and surpassed – a young man’s old paediatrician coming to say goodbye. But Ollie greeted me with his usual smile of warmth and acceptance. We talked. He was at peace with what was to come. He said that he had no regrets. He spoke about the visitors he had had and how much they meant to him. He valued each person, each relationship.
He saw with a startling level of maturity and perceptiveness that different people reacted to his illness in different ways. His granddad had not been able to bear to visit because it was too painful and he was afraid of not being able to say what he felt. Ollie arranged for him to come up when the football was on television so they could have a beer and watch it together while all the emotions nestled between them, and eventually his granddad found the words he would have forever regretted not saying.
Ollie showed no bitterness or anger about the unfairness of his situation. His compassion was all for others. How could he make things better for his mother, his little sisters, his friends? “When your time comes, hopefully many years from now,” he assured me, “don’t be afraid. There is nothing to fear. It is just peace.” He sent his words across the gap between us in years and in health to offer my future self some solace. His generosity of spirit was humbling.
Ollie didn’t judge or criticise. He saw all our fears, our weakness, how sadness made us awkward, impotent. And what he gave back, this young man who would not live to see 21, was acceptance, forgiveness, and a greater humanity than most people who live for another sixty years achieve.
It is easy when you are a busy doctor to allow yourself to become swamped by pressures, irritations, the imperfections of working in the NHS... What Ollie showed was that the important things of life are really simple.
What is left then among this rubble of sadness, wrongness, loss? Life is sometimes ugly. It is unjust, brutal, aching. And yet, no matter what our circumstances, we can choose to live well. We can choose to accept, understand, forgive. We can take whatever little we have, and keep on giving until our last breath. We can love, with words or without them. We can be fully human and accept the humanity and vulnerability in ourselves and in others.
If a fading, golden young man with a turbulent past and a stolen future can find such grace, shouldn’t those of us who have had the gift of many more years also try? It is easy when you are a busy doctor to allow yourself to become swamped by pressures, irritations, the imperfections of working in the NHS. It is much more difficult, I imagine, to avoid thoughts of mortality, meaning, the big ideas of life, when you are dying at 20. What Ollie showed was that the important things of life are really simple. When he put love and acceptance at the centre of his world, there was no room for resentment or regret. Love was enough. That will stay with me.
Lisa Finlay is a general paediatrician with an interest in respiratory conditions and child protection. She works and lives in beautiful, rural Dumfries and Galloway where she enjoys reading, running and walking her dog.
- *. Names and other information that could identify someone have been changed.