The deathbed candidate: The cancer-sufferer standing against Jeremy Corbyn in his own backyard
- Cancer sufferer Susanne Cameron-Blackie is standing in the General Election
- The 68-year-old political blogger wants to use her dying days to fight Labour
- Ms Cameron-Blackie will challenge Jeremy Corbyn for his seat in Islington
Jeremy Corbyn claims the NHS isn’t safe in Tory hands. But the truth is, it’s not safe under Labour, either. The crisis that is threatening to destroy it gets deeper every day for reasons Corbyn hasn’t started to think about – and that’s why I’m running against him.’
Susanne Cameron-Blackie, better known as the political blogger Anna Raccoon, is speaking in her cottage kitchen, blessed with a stunning view across the Norfolk Broads. She is in a hospital bed, propped up by pillows. It is likely to be her death bed, her last resting place before the cancer that has ravaged her body finally claims her.
Yet it is from here that she will register this week as an independent candidate to fight Corbyn for his parliamentary seat in Islington North.
Defiant: Susanne does not know whether she will survive until Election Day on June 8. But she is determined to use every moment she has left to fight Corbyn
On a bedside table are some of the drugs keeping at bay the agony caused by the cancer which has spread through much of her body: Fentanyl, a clinical form of heroin, and the animal tranquilliser ketamine. A team of nurses visits every day.
Susanne does not know whether she will survive until Election Day on June 8. But she is determined to use every moment she has left to fight Corbyn.
‘I may be the first parliamentary candidate forced to lie down, rather than stand, for office. But I’m determined to do something useful with what’s left of my life.
‘I’m taking on Corbyn in his political comfort zone. He talks about shaping the future. As things stand, the future for the NHS is to vanish up its own backside because of the money going on lawyers and damages.’
Her campaign is based on the urgent need for sweeping reform of the personal injury legal system, to safeguard the NHS from the crippling and ever-increasing burden of medical negligence lawsuits.
Last year, NHS Resolution, the body which handles such claims, revealed that cases arising from incidents up to the middle of 2016 are set to soak up a staggering £56 billion in lawyers’ fees and damages by the time they are settled – half NHS England’s annual budget.
Susanne, 68, has battled her illness, leiomyosarcoma, a rare soft tissue cancer, for six years. After almost killing her several times, it has now attacked her spine, rendering her immobile.
Crushed: Susanne, pictured above in her 20s, was a victim of medical negligence in 1973 when she was given a hysterectomy at the Westminster Hospital when she was admitted for a ‘dilation and curettage’, a minor operation used to deal with heavy periods
But she shows no sign of giving up. ‘No politician has ever tackled this issue, least of all Corbyn,’ she says. ‘All Labour talks about is the amount of money going in through the NHS’s front door – ignoring the haemorrhaging out the back.’
Just how pressing the issue is was brought home to Susanne last month. After spending days in the cancer high-dependency unit at the Norwich and Norfolk Hospital, she had been prescribed the Fentanyl and ketamine, but an error by a nurse meant she was given a tiny dose of a much weaker drug – a prescription meant for another patient.
She shudders at the memory. ‘I can’t even begin to describe the pain I was in,’ she says. ‘It was a descent into hell.’ No wonder: a scan revealed that the erosion of one of her vertebrae had left her spinal cord exposed.
But for Susanne, worse was to come. ‘Excruciating as it was, the mistake was recognised and put right. But afterwards, I had a visit from someone in the hospital’s legal department. She wanted to know if had I engaged a lawyer, and was I planning to sue?
‘I was flabbergasted. Why? What would be the point? I know why the mistake was made: because the nurses in that unit are rushed off their feet. If I were to sue, the only thing that would change would be my husband’s bank account in several years, long after I’m gone.
Susanne will be challenging Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in next month’s General Election
‘If I sued, I would be taking away yet more money from the NHS, so making it more likely that a future patient would endure a similar ordeal. This is the point Corbyn and Labour don’t get. They say they are socialists, yet they’re doing nothing about a system which treats the NHS as if it were a manufacturer making faulty products, instead of a provider of a vital social good.’
It wasn’t the first time Susanne had become a victim of medical negligence. In 1973, for reasons never explained, she was given a hysterectomy at the Westminster Hospital when she was admitted for a ‘dilation and curettage’, a minor operation used to deal with heavy periods.
‘I was only 23 – it left me psychologically crushed. Yet 45 years ago, people didn’t think of suing the NHS. One thing I do know is money would have made no difference. I picked myself up and moved on.’
It was not until she was in her 50s that she went to Aberystwyth University and obtained a double first in law. But by this time, she had spent years working for the Lord Chancellor’s department as an investigator for the Court of Protection, the tribunal which decides when people cannot administer their affairs through physical or mental incapacity.
‘As I thought about what had happened at the Norwich and Norfolk, I realised that through my work, I had witnessed some of the system’s worst abuses – in cases where incapacitated people were suing for medical negligence and getting enormous settlements. Then Mrs May announced the Election. I knew this was my chance.’
Among the most crucial reforms, she says, is the repeal of a 1948 law which means, bizarrely, that when patients sue the NHS, their damages are calculated on the basis they will pay for private healthcare for the rest of their lives – even though many will continue to be treated in the public sector, at public cost.
‘I saw this time and again,’ Susanne says. ‘Someone would get a huge settlement, but not fork out a penny on care. Meanwhile big awards, running into millions, are assessed on the basis that the beneficiary will live for several decades. But if they die a few years later, nothing goes back to the NHS. They can leave it to their relatives or a dogs’ home. This has to change.’
However, the biggest change she wants is more fundamental: an end to the legal lottery that means two patients with identical needs will be treated differently – one receiving millions, and the other nothing. ‘Take, for example, a cerebral palsy patient. The case will probably come down to something in the medical notes that a lawyer can argue means the midwife was absent for 19 minutes. These claims aren’t based on need, but on a narrow, legal definition of fault.
‘So they drag on for years. And it means a doctor or a hospital can never say sorry, which is all many patients want – because to do so will mean admitting liability.’
The last time the Government appointed a commission to examine this situation in 1978, it recommended a ‘no fault’ system be investigated.
Tomorrow, armed with the necessary ten local resident signatures and a campaign address in Mr Corbyn’s constituency, Susanne’s candidacy will be registered with the returning officer.
‘Just imagine: if some of the billions going to law firms and left legacies could be put into patient care, what a difference that would make. I will fight to my dying breath to make people – including Jeremy Corbyn – recognise this fact.’