School’s out, scream and shout!

Sorry, I couldn’t resist a High School Musical mention…

All done. Never again will I be late to form, answer ‘Yes sir’ to the register or try and stay awake in assembly whilst Mr El-Sayed fails miserably at being inspirational. Though I haven’t forgotten his reminder that us year 13s are on the ‘home straight’ now!

You’ve guessed it. I’m no longer a ‘school girl’. I don’t think I am as sentimental about the occasion as some of my peers. In fact I relish the idea of a fresh start, assuming university is my next destination. Nevertheless, I considered it a good opportunity to reflect on the past 14 years and how I have come to feel ready to depart.

If ever there was toddler keen to start school, that toddler was me. I strutted through the gates on my first day of reception, beaming with pride. The big kids didn’t phase me and I had no intention of kissing Mummy goodbye. Nor did I wave.

My initial keenness curtailed but I remained resolute to be the perfect pupil throughout primary school. Fear of losing a minute of golden time was enough to give me nightmares and I daren’t imagine being sent to Miss Whincop’s office. Primary school would not be primary school without petty rows and my experience was no exception. Taking things too personally was a habit of mine, so when I was told by a fellow classmate that my dinosaur bone discovery was in fact a tree root, I was deeply offended.

My primary school happened to be the ‘breeding ground’ for my secondary school so I transitioned alongside the majority of my class. Despite the security of my solid friendships, the ‘big kids’ seemed more daunting now than when I started Walker. It probably didn’t help being called a ‘prick’ by a sassy year 11 within the first few weeks. I would have mistaken it for a compliment had it not been for Megan, who informed me of its vulgar meaning… My moment of shame was calling dear Abdirahman an idiot. Mr Glasbey reduced me to tears when he sent me out for a ‘talking to’. He didn’t even raise his voice; the stern look was enough to leave me inconsolable for the remainder of the day. After that such incidents were kept to a minimum. My only detentions were with Miss Sriraman and Miss Cho who -in my opinion- took remembering exercise books far too seriously…

I sometimes regret not being a tad more ‘wayward’. Had I actually voiced some of the my more scandalous thoughts, maybe I’d have more captivating tales to tell my future children, like the stories my parents have proudly confessed to me.  Then again, that’s not me, so I guess I’m pleased I stuck true to myself, even if that meant being a wee bit strait-laced at times.

So I survived my free education. And with my first exam in a week, only time will tell if it was taxes well spent. Fingers crossed!

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When swearing doesn’t work

I contemplated whether to write about a particular individual or not and decided for the idea when I realised he probably can’t read anyway. The subject is a little kid who knows my name and I shall call him M.Y. for the sake of his anonymity, not that I really care…

For four years, and for no obvious reason, he jeers ‘Ruth’ in a dodgy accent when he sees me, much to the delight of the pack of hyenas that surround him. Some may call it harassment. Bullying. A pitiful pastime. Whatever it’s called, being the victim of a blatant reject is shameful.

I first encountered M.Y. when, lo-and-behold, he had been kept behind by a teacher who, like the rest of us, was unimpressed with his behaviour. I went to collect some missed work from the same teacher and M.Y. overheard my name. He fabricated the idea that I was the teacher’s daughter…

“Are you Miss Connolly’s daughter?” he sneered at me. I ignored him.

“Oh my god. She actually is Miss Connolly’s daughter!!”

Simple things please simple minds, I thought.

Four years on, he hasn’t changed and continues to jeer my name. As sod’s law dictates, these run-ins are far too frequent for my liking; he seemingly spends his days at the park 30 seconds down the road from me doing God knows what. Forgive me for speculating, but I don’t think he goes for the swings…

I’ve tried ignoring him. I’ve tried retaliating. I tend to avoid aggression but once even confronted him and asked what the eff his problem was. He and his friends responded with laughter and jeering. You can’t say I didn’t try.

Last week I was walking home from the shops and guess what I saw ahead of me on the opposite side of the road? Yes, you guessed. It was M.Y., waddling towards the park with one of his ringleader pals. I’d had enough of his torment so I shouted…

“MEHMET!!”

No response.

“MEHMET!” I yelled again.

No longer anonymous… oh well.

This time he heard and turned in confusion. Who could this be, calling M.Y’s name? Tables have turned here…

He spotted me. I gave him an enthusiastic overhead wave and toothy grin. He stood still. Embarrassment shrouded his usual bullish facade. Out popped his hand from his trousers and he showed off his middle finger to me.

Yesssss, I thought to myself. I’d hit a nerve there. My smile didn’t fade the whole way home!

As it happened, our paths crossed again the next day. I swore at my own bad luck as we approached each other. But I persisted and gave a little friendly wave and sarcastic smile. He put his head down and his mate sniggered. At me or him, I’m unsure. But no jeering. No mocking of my name. No laughing.

I’m still awaiting our next meeting, so it remains unclear as to whether my ‘give him a taste of his own medicine’ technique has tackled his torment or not. Regardless, I must bear in mind that I have real friends. I have somewhere more pleasant to reside than the park. I have trousers that fit me. He has none of these things.

I’ve fallen in love…

I planned to open this blog post with ‘A sigh of relief’, but decided that connotes negativity. So I’ve settled with:

A sigh of satisfaction. After a fleeting visit to Oxford, I am home. In the space of 26 hours, I had four interviews; two with Worcester College and two with St Anne’s College. Despite its intensity, I can’t deny that I had an awesome time. Living the life of an Oxford student, with my own room, the quaint city at my doorstep and the opportunity to discuss what I love best with experts in their field, I probably enjoyed myself more than I ought!

After enduring the Piccadilly line with very ‘severe delays’, the Victoria line, Bakerloo Line and a national rail train all the time with a broken-handled suitcase trailing awkwardly behind me, my welcome was warm. I was promptly shown to my room by a student helper at Worcester. Throughout my stay friendliness oozed from every student helper and fellow interviewee I spoke to, debunking the myth that all those who go to Oxford are ‘toffs’. Yes, I’m sure there are some pompous kids amongst the cohort who need their shoe shoved up their bottom, but the majority were and are great people. Fellow candidates and I even set up a Facebook group!

I was slightly dreading the interviews, with peers’ horror stories at the forefront of my mind…

“They asked me why the sea is blue,” Vivien told me.

“They gave me a molecule and asked me what it was,” my own doctor told me.

Rumour had it they ask how you can measure the weight of your head… is it even possible?!!

Surprisingly my wonky expectations were set straight. The questions were tricky, yes, but not impossible. I wasn’t grilled by petrifying professors- they were all incredibly welcoming! And so were the plump, velvet armchairs! Forget the flimsy plastic seats you get in MMIs…

For those unfamiliar with medical school interviews, MMIs (multiple mini interviews) are the newer, more popular style of interviews. Think speed-dating, but rather than circulating through potential partners, you circulate through a series of interviewers, who ask different questions or propose tasks for you. Each station lasts about 7 minutes.

With traditional interviews you have roughly 20 minutes with a panel of one or more interviewers. This is the preferred style by Oxford (and me too!). 20 minutes gives you time to build a rapport with the interviewer; both parties can assess each other. Quite frankly, I feel MMIs are a bit rude; once your seven minutes are up, you are practically told to shut up and move on!! Speed-dating or speedy break-up?

Sorry, I digressed. Back to Oxford…

The city was beautiful. Dotted with ancient architecture, retro cinemas and playhouses, modern restaurants and funky pop-up shops, you can wander to one’s heart’s content. Carol singers entertained at the corner of the street to collect money for the homeless. Their christmas joy was contagious and so was passersby’s generosity.

Part of me hates the fact I got an interview. Rejection is highly likely, given the competition and my disastrous first interview. I fell in love with Oxford and was on cloud ninety-nine, but keep reminding myself that the higher I get, the further I have to fall. I suppose the experience was good enough in itself. I met inspiring people, tasted independence and ultimately had the best time ever! I might not get an offer, but no one can take away my interview experience!

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Beelieve in Miracles!

I almost collapsed with excitement.

Browsing Barnet’s programme on Saturday, my eyes stumbled across the manager’s kind offer for his players to make visits to birthday parties, schools and, to my delight, hospitals! Having been admitted to hospital myself 4 days previously, the offer was beyond a miraculous coincidence. Without hesitation, my mum immediately composed an email, explaining the situation and listing a few of my favourite players. Their speedy reply arrived on Bank Holiday Monday-only keeping us waiting for a matter of hours. It certainly didn’t disappoint: Jamie Stephens, Barnet’s No. 1 (literally) was coming to see me!

I would like to consider myself a true Barnet fan. The fact I cannot kick a football to save my life only resonates my dedication to the team, in my opinion. I have held a season ticket for years, accompanying them on the controversial journey from Underhill to the Hive; I have been a member of the supporters’ association since my mum went into labour (thanks Grandad); I have braved the sniggering glances when I have worn orange and black face paint to matches and dragged reluctant friends with me. Given my fan profile, excited doesn’t quite cut it. But when the day arrived, I was equally as nervous…

“What if it’s awkward?” I fretted at 8:00AM.

“What if we sit in silence?” 9:30AM

“Maybe I should get scrabble ready in case he gets bored of me…” 11:15AM

As noon passed, I made a list of 21 questions to ask so I was prepped to quiz Jamie about himself and his fellow footballers.

Before I could say Jamie Stephens, it was 1:15PM. Time to meet the infamous goalie.

Waiting for me in the reception was Jamie, my mum, and two Barnet media guys. Jamie was MUCH taller in real life. I was presented with a new Barnet scarf, with orange stripes more brightly coloured than my old one, and a pair of goalie gloves worn by Jamie himself! I was feeling incredibly lucky.

 

I led us all to the garden and we slumped down on the grass in the sun. Jamie chatted and chatted about his football career, education, injuries, fellow players, girlfriend, family… pretty much anything! Between himself and my mum, I could hardly get a word in! But that’s what I wanted. He was confident, warm and a truly humble person. There was no need for scrabble and no opportunity to ask my 21 questions! We ended the visit with a smiley picture in the sunshine. He signed the gloves and gave me well-wishes that seemed genuine and meaningful, not just obligatory words.

Acts of generosity like this are invaluable. Confined to hospital for a week, utterly bored and feeling a bit sorry for myself, it lifted my spirits more than I could have wished for.

A huge thank you to Barnet FC for facilitating this and to Jamie Stephens for giving up time to come and see me. I am truly grateful.

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So THAT’S what a skip is for!

 

What does ‘King’s Cross’ mean to you?

Harry Potter fans will squeal ‘PLATFORM 9 3/4!’.

Avid globetrotters will call it their door to Europe.

And for me, Kings Cross is where Skip Garden lies.

‘Skip Garden?’ I hear you ask. Well, it is exactly what the namIMG_0301e says: it is a garden with lots of skips! Offering respite to the office workers, builders, tourists and busybodies like me, it hides amongst building sites and looming architecture just a 10 minute walk from the infamous Kings Cross.

Rusty skips are brimming with petals of rich reds, valiant blues, dreamy violets and glowing yellows. Apple trees wind around fencing and hang languidly over the skips, shading them. Dotted between the skIMG_0277ips are sheds, small and large, lined exhaustively with potted plants. And two little sheds are converted into the most dazzling toilets; a handy addition for needy visitors. Skip Garden is also the home of two very lucky chickens. Probably the only live ones in Central London.

If the awe of the skips, sheds and chickens is not enough to distract you from a rumbly tummy, never fear. Skip Garden have their own café. This is no greasy spoon ‘caff’, though, hence my use of the accent above the ‘e’. You would have no luck ordering a bacon bap or even a can of cola. Instead they use fresh produce grown in their own garden. With chocolate and courgette cake on the menu, they definitely don’t cater for the fussy eater. That, I must say, is a shame; visiting families and their picky kids will probably snub the home-grown goodness in favour of a nearby fast-food eatery. Which is exactly what we did…

IMG_0282Global Generation are the charity behind the garden. The space is small but resourcefulness has grown it into something truly remarkable. Entirely built and maintained by the hands of volunteers, the goal is to connect people with each other and the natural world. Admittedly, the name ‘Global Generation’ slightly exaggerates the more localised nature of this charity. They won’t save the planet, but what they can do is inspire. Inspire people to care a bit more.

So if you do one thing this summer, pop in and say hi to the chickens and let your wild side explore the skips and sheds. It won’t take long but will germinate a seed of curiosity and appreciation within you.

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Part 2: How I was nearly kidnapped. Twice

RECAP: If you haven’t read Part 1 and would like to, click here

If you’re 11 or above, I’m sure you’ll remember your transition to big school. No longer homed by your protective primary school, you were plunged prematurely into the depths of an alien planet. Bemused, you faced the inevitable task of making new friends. So it was almost convenient for Mini Me when my classmate, Lily, fell victim of a nosebleed just as the school day ended.

“What an opportunity!” I thought. Still new and relatively low on the popularity scale, I played Good Samaritan and stayed a while to offer moral support to my new friend, Lily.

Twenty minutes later I was ready to head home. But twenty minutes was long enough for dusk to start drawing the covers. The mad rush had ended. No cars. No people. The birds seemed to have retreated to their nests, too. The only sound was the eerie scratching of leaves against the pavement. But being alone didn’t bother me. Strapped to a humungous rucksack, I marched down the road towards the High Street.

It wasn’t long, however, until I noticed two young lads a short distance behind me. Surely it was nothing sinister though, just two young lads. After all I was at the High Street now with cars and people and street lamps. But to err on the side of caution, I crossed the road. And as I did so, one of the lads ran ahead of me, leaving his mate on the other side. Weird.

I was now walking behind one and parallel with the other. Why would two guys who were 30 seconds ago laughing together now be walking in the same direction on opposite sides of the street? With a quickening pulse, I decided to cross back and take refuge in the library.

Pretending to be confused I awkwardly entered the library, waited a few seconds, turned around and exited. But they were still there. Lingering. Both of them. Together. Waiting against the wall on the other side of the road. That was it. I returned to the library and started to ball my eyes out.

“P-p-please can I… use the phone… to call my m-mum” I sniffled to the librarian. Taken aback, she looked at me and nodded, pushing the phone towards me. I dialled home and was greeted by my mum’s cheery voice. Crying , I demanded that she come to pick me up from the library.

“What? The school library?” I could hear the confusion in her voice.

“No, Southgate Library.”

“Why are you there? Start walking towards the station and I’ll drive up to meet you, okay?”

“NO! Come in and get me!” There was no way I was leaving this library alone. But I could hardly explain the situation over the phone; I could barely comprehend it myself…

Mum sighed, telling me she would have to pay for a parking ticket and that it would come out of my pocket money. Still crying, I hung up the phone and hid amongst the bookshelves until my mum’s arrival. I dared a peak out of the window and, to my terror, the two men had crept nearer. Now at the gates of the library, their presence made me feel faint. It was like a scene from the Weeping Angels episode of Doctor Who; turning away had only made them come ever-closer.

Two minutes passed. Three, four, five minutes. That agonising wait in the library felt like one hundred life times but eventually my mum swooped in. Upon seeing my hysterical crying, Mum’s face turned pitiful and she embraced me in one of those curative hugs only a mother can give. I was even treated to a Waggon Wheel (the marshmallowy, chocolatey, biscuity delicacy).  I still got my £5 pocket money that week, so I assume the threat to deduct the car park toll was forgotten.

Joking aside, this experience really hurt me. Maybe they were mucking around and thought it would be funny to terrify a twelve year old. Maybe they really were planning to kidnap me, murder me and chuck my body in a skip. Or maybe they weren’t targeting me at all. But I doubt it: all my instincts told me I was a victim of whatever game they were playing. In the following months, I fretted about it everyday. It took at least a year, I would say, for the return of my confidence to walk alone. 

Year 7 should have been care free but for me it was filled with anxiety. I hated school and struggled profoundly to leave the house every morning. I wonder if my scary ordeal was the cause… I don’t know and I never will. I just hope that one day the perpetrators have families and settle down. And when they look at their kids, maybe they will remember me.

Part 1: How I was nearly kidnapped. Twice.

If any of you’ve had an inordinate amount of time and found yourselves mindlessly scrolling through my ‘About Me’ page of the blog, you may be a bit confused that I was apparently ‘nearly kidnapped twice’. Yup, it’s true. But I endeavour to both apprise you and make light of my misfortune!

If you were to predict my family’s whereabouts on a sticky-hot summer Sunday afternoon back in 2004, you’d be correct to say at Grovelands, the local park. It was a ritualistic trip two minutes down the road to ‘walk off the Sunday roast’ Mum had spent the morning preparing. And upon such a Sunday was when my first encounter with a kidnapper took place.

Imaginary reins kept me and my little sister Amy within range of the supposedly watchful eyes of my parents, but being speedy little girls whizzing ahead on our pink Barbie bikes, we enjoyed to maximise our distance. So when my parents bumped into Caroline and Tim and obviously stopped to immerse in deep conversation, youthful oblivion powered our pedalling anyway. And that’s when he stopped us.

“Hello,” he greeted, grinning gaudily to show off his yellow teeth. “Would you like to come and feed the ducks with me? I have plenty of bread”. He nodded towards the white carrier bag in his hand.

“No.” My firm rejection cued him to turn back to the gates and exit. Before I could scream ‘KIDNAPPER’, I steered myself and three-year old Amy back around and we cycled back to my parents who were still at a halt with Caroline and Tim.

“Oh! Haven’t the kids grown!” I had not grown since you saw me last week, Caroline.

“Isn’t it such beautiful weather!” I was starting to grow impatient.

“I heard it’s going to rain tomorrow though. How awful.” I was about to climb past my impatience threshold.

It was an agonising wait for the convo to cease. Eventually I commenced to confide in Mummy, detailing the slimy black hair stuck to his head and those nightmarish gnashers. But her response didn’t seem to resonate my avid fear, suggesting Mummy’s attention was planted elsewhere (probably on the parakeets that she hasn’t bored of to this day!). It wasn’t until bath time three hours later that I managed – with hair covered in shampoo – to successfully explain.

Maybe he genuinely did want to feed the ducks with Amy and I. And he would subsequently let us return home when the mallard and moorhens’ tummies were full. Regardless, I am still happy – very happy – with my hasty decision of no. I hope the lonely man someone else of his own size to accompany him to feed the ducks. And only to feed the ducks.

Evidently since this incident I have continued to dodge the lurking clutches of child catchers and their enticing sweeties or, in my case, bread. But only just about.

To be continued…

Camp Dad

The time of the year has arrived again. The coolest dads and their eager kids loaded the boots with an excessive number of clothes-filled bags; cool boxes brimming with sugary treats and neatly-cut sarnies lovingly prepped my mum; DVD players, PSPs and iPads to tide over the wearily dull journey and, if there’s any room, a tent. You’ve guessed it. ‘Camp Dad’ has begun again.

Except, this year, and similarly for the last two years, I have out-grown this ritualistic trip. I watched in vain as Dad and Conor rolled down the road, disappearing as they head for the North Circular and onwards to Kent.

As far as I know, Camp Dad was founded by some genius belonging to the Roberts family, who revolutionised camping by dispelling the mothers -much to their delight- and sending the fathers to an isolated indentation of the UK for the weekend. With 10/20 families packed tent-by-tent in a field, we sure made a lot of noise, although it is still unclear to this day who made the most noise; the screaming kids or the drinking dads. In the early days, there was a failed attempt to rename Camp Dad to ‘Dad’s Camp’ to emphasise that ‘camp’ was a noun and not an adjective to describe the dads. But ‘Camp Dad’ had stuck. I partook in the rave every year, bar uno, so have been left to reminisce on 10 year of sweet, absurd memories…

Since 2003, only two children have been lost to Camp Dad.

Just kidding, no one’s died… yet.

But we do have stories of dead animals: on one occasion, our tents were conveniently pitched beside a pigeon shooting forest and, like the rebels we were, we entered the restricted area, a bit like the forbidden forest from Harry Potter. And what greeted us was the skull of a deer, which Sam brought back on a stick and planted outside his tent. I think it was a status sign. We also came across its legs hanging from the pelvis, but those were too heavy for us to carry back.

That was not the only terror event. Undoubtedly, Imogen’s brief moment of imminent death will never be forgotten. Running through a forest, a sharp scream caused the group to halt and revolve to see the poor girl slowly descending into the depths of swamp. But luckily our heroic Sam came to the rescue, but not before my little sister Amy was balling her eyes out in fear of her best buddy’s life. Sam kindly put a comforting arm round her shoulder after he diffused the situation but this caused Amy to cry even more hysterically.

But Camp Dad was not all doom and gloom. Romance was much closer than on the horizon for Naomi and Lorcan. At the unblemished age of 8, they both dispelled such innocence by embracing in an intimate smooch. If you don’t believe me, picture evidence can be provided. And there was never a dull moment when Josh was around to keep us entertained. With his ukulele en garde, that was enough to occupy the 20 plus kids for the whole weekend.

Bickering was definitely the inevitable result, however, of a weekend cooped up in a camp site together. For the kids, I mean, although I highly expect some bickering took place between the dads too. When Marnie’s guest (who will remain nameless as I am a kind person) had a hissy fit and threatened to abscond, I recall consoling Marnie whilst she fretted her Dad would go to prison as he was guardian to the nameless guest. Of course nameless guest did not run off and subsequently Marnie’s dad avoided prison… And there were always ‘heated discussions’ over who would sleep in who’s tent. It would have been much simpler to have just stuck to our own tents, but the novelty of being with friends for 48 hours never ran dry, so we were always determined to wangle a sleepover, much to the Dad’s reluctance.

The dads, including my own, really were (and still are!) good sports to spend the weekend camping every year, but I haven’t always shown such appreciation. Being the highly-strung six year old I was, my dad’s snoring seriously embarrassed me…

‘What if the other kids hear Daddy’s snoring?’ I fretted beforehand. ‘What if I am associated with Daddy’s monstrous roaring?’ At least that was my biggest fear of Camp Dad…

The final memory is in fact is a contribution from my dad. His most memorable moments seem to be when the kids had supposedly been tucked up in their sleeping bags for the night. All the dads would unload the remaining beers from the cool boxes, although the majority had been consumed during the day. Finally they can flop into the camping chairs -as if they hadn’t been their all day- without being disturbed by their screeching kids or shot at with nerf guns. But then…

“Daaddddyyyyyyyy!” And they all respond.

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Om Shanti to you too!

Once again, my trusty Time Out Magazine succeeded in occupying my tube journey with content far more funny than the repetitive signage around me telling me about Heathrow or something. And this week’s article ‘Top Five Yoga Types’ had me reminiscing on my treasured yoga class memories, so much so that I sought to record these valuable memories in a little blog post…!

IMG_1178Yes, I was once the first ‘yoga type’: the Beginner. Upon entering the studio, I casually copied the ladies, who seemed to know the routine, collect their mats, bolsters and little blocks, found a small space on the floor, reclined in the corner of the room and stuffed the bolster awkwardly under my back. Closed my eyes and pretended to be relaxed. I was not. I sneakily opened my eyes to check the others were still there (if the excessively loud breathing didn’t give it away) and saw the instructor entering to start the class. Phew! Some instructions rather than desperately peering at the person on an adjacent mat and copying their everymovement!!

IMG_1175Yes, I also remember the second yoga type: the Farter (I hasten to add that wasn’t me!). It was all silent and calm in the studio on one Saturday session I attended, but obviously too much so for one lady, who broke the silence with a loud rasp of wind.

And how could I have forgotten the ‘Headstander’, the really keen middle-aged woman who was obviously jealous of my ability to do the splits. It would have given me great pleasure to pat her on the back and say, “Soz, Clem. Ruthie’s evidently more stretchy than you”, but I chose to be mindful of her feelings.

I still recall the powerful stench of the penultimate IMG_1179yoga type: the Sweater. To describe his red face as a beetroot would be an offensive understatement. Regardless, I admire his sheer effort and endurance, but doubt I’ll ever forgive him for forcing the rest of us to endure that awful smell

In all honesty I cannot think of the Yogi, the ‘Lazybones’. The bulk of the ladies (and the one man aka the Sweater) were pretty competitive and daren’t drop out of downward dog into child pose. Therefore I’ll add a couple of my own yoga types…

I must start with my absolute favourite lady, called Bridget, a lady in her late 60s (?), but my God could she yoga*!! She is what I miss the most about the yoga classes. Such a sweet lady, she could slide at ease into the splits and those arms of hers had no problem with the killer sun salutation. Despite being the oldest, she was also the envy of the group!

Secondly I would like to mention the rather two ladies who I will call the Misfortunate Yogis. After a restorative 90 minute session, I was in the lobby, lacing up my trainers when I was disturbed by scream and screeching of tyres. Stunned, we all ran to see what was going on and lying in the road was one of the other yoga ladies, Janet. And inside the looming car was another Yogi looking slightly gobsmacked. Thank God, the victim was okay and escaped lightly with a rather feisty bruise on her face and stiff back. But the driver was not so lucky and her damaged conscience didn’t let her return again. Understandably.

And finally there was the Young one. She was about 30 years younger than the mean age of the class attendees and looked completely out of place. She was nearly always late and sat quietly whilst the other ladies chatted about adult issues and their lazy hubbies. She tried to make conversation and sometimes succeeded when the others started to feel sorry for her and asked her about school. The yoga trousers she wore were amateur and definitely too baggy so she’s spend half the session holding them up. And it was super awks on one occasion when she left WITHOUT paying, only phoning up in a panic an hour later in a bid to apologise for the mistake. She no longer attends the classes because apparently she got a Saturday job at Waitrose… I think her name was ‘Ruth’…?

Your body, your consent?

The word ‘pathology’ tends to be associated with macabre images of a sociopathic professor hunched over a decomposing cadaver in a windowless dingy basement of a research institute. But today my view of pathology was totally transformed and it was revealed to me the effervescent and constantly evolving nature of the deeply intriguing branch of medicine.

With the aspirations to study medicine, a group of school friends and myself were lucky enough to attain places at a two-hour course that encapsulated some of the many ethical issues that surround organ donations, research and consent. It took place at the Hunterian Museum in Holborn, a fascinating venue that showcases historic specimens and preparations from surgeon John Hunter’s original collections, as well as other specimens acquired after his death. According to the curator, Hunter managed to obtain the majority of his specimens illegally from ‘corpse thieves’ who exhumed bodies and sold them to people with an enthusiasm for that sort of gift…

Apart from the morbid opening that only confirmed my preconceived ideas of pathology, I soon discovered the other, less gruesome aspects. Facilitated by pathologists, we were able to meet ‘real-life’ pathologists rather than the fictional characters depicted in BBC crime dramas. The presenter of the talk told us about the four major disciplines of pathology: chemical pathology, haematology, histopathology and microbiology. The majority of pathologists’ time is not spent hunched over a decomposing cadaver in a windowless dingy basement of a research institute. Most of work is related to diagnosing disease of people. Did you know 70% of diagnoses made involve pathology? I didn’t. Pathologic diagnosis involves not only post-mortems, but also any examination of human tissue including from blood tests, urine samples and biopsies. So virtually everyone has to some extent been examined by a pathologists… and we haven’t even died yet…

So we had an ice breaker of true and false questions and the winner got Malteasers. We were introduced to the Human Trust Authority which was established in 1961. They initially assumed consent of human tissue unless explicit objection was given from the patient or family. However this was revised in 2004. This revision was prompted after court cases were brought against pathologists when it was unveiled that thousands of human tissues were being stored and ultimately forgotten about. This seemed disrespectful to the deceased and their families, although not illegal. The new legislation states that human tissue can only be used with informed consent from patients or families.

We then split into seven small groups along with pathologists or another professional with experience in the sector. Presented with a fictitious scenario of ‘John and Jane’ whose baby may or may not have a the gene for Huntington’s disease, we discussed within our groups whether anyone in the family should be tested and, if so, who. Also we considered the implications on other family member, such as the grandmother who didn’t want to know if she had inherited Huntington’s. The possible scenarios and questions that arose were never-ending, but extremely thought-provoking. Without concluding, we moved onto the next questions that were broader rather than make-believe situations.

What is human tissue?

At first glance it seems like a straightforward question; consult Google and you’ve found your answer. But what the question was really prompting was discussion as to whether all human tissue was ‘equal’. Does urine have same value as the heart? Or the face? And should human tissue be donated or tested with anonymity so the person is untraceable? But what if a disease or faulty gene is identified? Do you notify the individual or respect their possible wish of ignorance? Once again our group came to no formal conclusion because of the prolific questions that caused our conversation to diverge immensely from the initial question, ‘What is human tissue?’

What are your views on organ donation?

Possibly more widely debated, this was an equally thought-provoking question. The general consensus was that consent should be solely the donor’s, not the family’s. We did contemplate exceptional circumstances, such as if your family member’s face was being donated for a face transplant. Would that be a bit weird for the family to have their loved one’s face ‘reused’? A little insensitive? But on the other hand a face is fundamentally the same as a kidney, liver or lung, right? It is only an intangible emotional attachment to a face that makes it supposedly different, so should it be treated as an exceptional circumstance?

And then we came to the opt-in or opt-out dispute. Wales have recently adopted the opt-out system whereby organ donations are taken unless you specify otherwise. On the whole we agreed this was a smart method to make organ donation more accepted and normal. If an individual hasn’t really thought about organ donation or is unsure, we thought it is more likely they will eventually donate their organs with an opt-out system in place. Also the system still respects individuals’ right to consent.

Since 2011, those applying for a drivers license are obliged to answer a question about joining the organ donation register. It is part of attempts to increase opportunities to sign up. Once again we agreed that this is a great way to make people think as soon as possible. It also offers the option to state specific body parts you wish to donate, increasing the flexibility of organ donation and thus the number of people willing to sign up.

After an hour in small groups, we reassembled as a whole and summarised our opinions. Like our group, most questions proved to be inconclusive, with too many ethical questions arising to offer solutions to everything. Personally I think we get transfixed on finding solutions and ideal responses to dilemmas that will never we resolved. Maybe my response is pessimistic, but I feel it is impossible to make all parties happy and every ‘solution’ will have flaws. Making exceptions is tricky and subjective so would it be better to agree to disagree sometimes? I genuinely don’t know…

We proved to be a rather harsh audience as a unanimous vote at the end of the talk voted that those who refuse to donate their organs should be exempt from the replacement list. Well, that’s a whole other minefield… I’m going to bed.