The Story Behind the Story – Part One – Death By Appointment
Updated: Feb 7, 2022
I’ve spoken openly about why I write generally and for those who don’t already know, it began following the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I had previously been working as a general practitioner, a profession I loved and like to think wasn’t too bad at. After my diagnosis, I tried to return to work but due to recurrent relapses, my medical ambitions came to an abrupt end. It actually felt very much like an end to everything. I had spent my life dreaming of being a doctor and then studying and training hard to become one. When I stopped, I thought I was left with nothing. But everything happens for a reason. I was advised by a kindly psychiatrist to have a try at creative therapy and with that, I found a second vocation.
My writing is still heavily based on my ‘previous life.’ The Dr Cathy Moreland Mystery series allows me to explore my clinical thoughts and dreams safely from a distance. In the writing, I have thankfully found some stability. Each book in the series has a very specific reason for being written, as I believe, all good books should. I’d like to take you through the first, Death By Appointment, a book that means such a great deal to me.
Death By Appointment was not the first book I wrote, in fact, I wrote parts of it in between other novels. For some reason, I couldn’t seem to get the thing right in my head. For those of you who have read it, you will know that it has a strong central character besides Dr Cathy, in the form of Jeanie Scott. Jean was trickier than I expected to get right and I tried writing from various viewpoints until I was happy with her.
Probably the reason I battled with Death By Appointment, in particular, was because it was a story that meant a great deal to me. In it, a young mother leaps from the fictional clifftops known as Devil’s Leap clutching her newborn child. It is an unimaginably sad event but one that I have some experience of in real life as a young doctor…
I was working as a GP trainee and was reasonably far enough into my training to be seeing patients without supervision. I had my own caseload and had developed enough rapport with some that they returned to see me with chronic illnesses. It was actually a joyous time in my life. I was doing a worthwhile and fulfilling job but was protected enough from the sharp end of things by my trainer so that if I did come across something I hadn’t seen before, I could knock on his door for advice.
I will never forget the day one patient walked in. It had been a fairly uneventful morning as I remember and I was quite unprepared for what he said to me. He was a police officer and had come in to request a sick line. I had dealt with such appeals from patients on multiple occasions but his reason for needing time off work was like no other I had heard. He asked if I had seen it on the news. I shook my head. I had been out the previous night with some of the other junior doctors. A mother, he told me. She had jumped from the motorway bridge just outside town with a pushchair. I felt sick just hearing the words, but his manner made the situation far worse as he repeatedly ran his hands through his hair and looked skywards. He had been one of the police officers tasked to collect them. The bodies of a woman and, what turned out to be, her little boy.
I wrote out his sick line of course and referred him for counselling. I saw him many times over the next few months, during which, he became clinically depressed with post-traumatic stress disorder despite our best efforts to help him.
The story stayed with me. I think all doctors have a handful of cases that do. They scar them for life and this was one of mine. Writing about it, even in a veiled way, changing the circumstances and characters and so on, felt like a necessity but it was still painfully hard. The book became an epitaph almost. My tribute to the woman who became so confused and hopeless that she did what she did. It became an obsession to get it right as a fitting tribute to the people she left behind also when she jumped. A tragedy like that doesn’t end with the event. The aftershocks radiate far and wide, changing many lives around. People who perhaps weren’t even closely connected to the heartbreak still feel it keenly and continue to do so even twenty years on. I hope I got it right and did the subject matter justice.