Friday, March 30, 2012
The Guardian's Scott Jordan Harris: How many more people have to die before 'chronic fatigue syndrome' merits properly funded biomedical research?
Scott Jordan Harris guardian.co.uk, Friday 30 March 2012: On Sunday 18 March, Emily Collingridge, a beautiful 30-year-old activist and author, died after she was apparently no longer able to struggle against the chronic illness that had afflicted her since she was six. Major news organisations have all but ignored her death – the death of a noteworthy campaigner while suffering from the very condition she tried to persuade the world actually existed – just as they continually ignore so many important stories about the illness she had.
That illness is a neurological condition called myalgic encephalomyelitis or ME. There are many who think it is not real and many others, even within the medical profession, who think it is a psychological condition best treated with enforced exercise, which only worsens its effects. Even those doctors and lay people who acknowledge the illness often refer to it by the ridiculous name "chronic fatigue syndrome", which is almost as damaging to ME sufferers as the symptoms we suffer.
Fatigue is what a person feels after a hard work day or an intense session at the gym. It is a gentle tiredness that makes the back ache slightly and the eyelids a little heavy. It is cured by a nap or a reviving espresso. Collingridge was beyond bedridden. She was crippled by incessant agony and dependent on morphine. She was fed through a tube and her body couldn't cope with noise, light or movement. She was doubly incontinent and experienced periods of both blindness and paralysis.
Around a year ago, she wrote, "I have come very close to dying on more than one occasion. If you met me you may well think I was about to die now." She is now dead. To call the illness that savaged her "chronic fatigue syndrome" is like calling stomach cancer "chronic upset tummy".
Remarkably, she was – in her healthier periods – able to write a book called Severe ME/CFS: A Guide to Living, which is an invaluable text for many ME sufferers. It is published by AYME, the Association for Young People with ME, of which Collingridge was a prominent member. Her most important work, though, was her appeal for adequate biomedical research into ME.
I recently wrote a piece for the website of the Chicago Sun-Times, discussing both my history of ME and my reactions to the new documentary Voices from the Shadows. For anyone who wishes to understand the agony ME can inflict, and the dangerous ignorance endured by many who have it, the film is a must-see. One of the ME sufferers it profiles is Sophia Mirza, the first person in Britain whose death was officially listed as being caused by chronic fatigue syndrome. Another is my late friend, Lynn Gilderdale, whose mother assisted in her suicide after Lynn's condition became unendurable.
Both Mirza and Gilderdale suffered – and perhaps died – because of the unforgivable actions, and also the unforgivable inaction, of members of the medical profession. Mirza was committed to a mental institution to treat an illness that was purely physical and never recovered from the damage that did. Gilderdale, too, was referred to a psychiatrist when she needed physicians working from the results of cutting-edge studies. The question we must ask is obvious: how many young people like them, and like Collingridge, have to die before their illness is taken seriously and huge, well-focused efforts are made to cure it through properly funded biomedical research?
Collingridge was a great light for thousands of victims of severe ME whose lives pass in almost total darkness. It is essential that her tragedy is not overlooked. We must all understand that the cause she championed in life – the urgent need for proper recognition of, and research into, ME – is made even more urgent by her death.