Why Great Ormond Street is life-changing television

Alison Graham can't imagine making the terrible decisions faced by doctors and parents in the BBC2 documentary series - but she feels privileged to watch

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Decisions. Life throws them up daily, hourly; should I cross the road at this set of traffic lights, though I swear they are slower than the ones further up the road? But then walking up there would take me past the fried-chicken shop and through its perfume of hot lard.

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Should I have ham sandwiches today? Or maybe cheese? With tomato? Endless, aimless little dilemmas that are comfortable in their inanity. They provide the bland carpet beneath the routine steps of everyday life.

But imagine your decisions involved whether or not to go ahead with a lung transplant on a two-year-old who might not survive the ordeal. Or to let your unborn baby go through a critical operation within hours of her birth, an opera- tion that carries huge risks and which may not work. Now, those are decisions.

This is what gets me about Great Ormond Street, BBC2’s excellent documentary series about the children’s hospital. People have to decide on things that no one would ever want to confront and during the years when children should be pillowed by good health, fun, play and energy rather than facing life-altering, possibly life-ending, surgery.

Their parents are made wise in ways no one would wish, and the children themselves are even more incredible as they must look into a future and see – what? Great Ormond Street’s doctors and specialists are so brilliant at explaining, with clarity and concision, what will happen and the chances of success.

For Professor Bobby Gaspar, consultant in paediatric immunology, the series “offers an insight into what it is like for us clinicians and researchers, as we weight up what is right for each child, and the amount of risk we are willing to take to give that child a chance, or a better quality of life.”

In today’s final episode we meet Jack, aged 16, who has suffered epileptic seizures since he had a stroke as a baby. Since puberty they have increased in frequency and intensity and cannot be held in check by medication. He’s such a lovely boy who won’t let his condition stop him from doing things he enjoys, notably karate. But to assess the extent of his condition and the part of the brain that’s affected, experts have to nudge Jack into having a seizure, so they can observe his brain patterns. He’s wired up before sleep, but he wakes and we watch as Jack becomes distant and confused before his body undergoes convulsions.

How admirable of Jack to want us to see all of this, and to want to talk to us about his condition and what he plans to do, after the various risks of surgery (which could, possibly, stop his seizures for good) are explained to him.

This is what the best documentaries are all about. Inviting us into lives that it’s a privilege to share, even just for an hour. I can’t forget any of the kids and parents I’ve seen in Great Ormond Street or any of the doctors and consultants. What expertise. This week a doctor injects a kind of glue into the blood vessels of a tiny baby’s brain to treat a potentially fatal condition.

I cannot get over, not just that this can be done, but also that there are people who are trained and ready to do it. I would know none of this without television and, oh, I am so grateful. 

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Great Ormond Street continues on BBC2 tonight (Tuesday 28th July) at 9pm

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