Quigley-John-Mr-Jun11“I remember sitting in Fremantle Hospital with a gown on, and two by two, dermatologists and registrars would come in and examine me.”

John Quigley’s battle with T-cell lymphoma has been very public in one sense. Most of us remember him appearing on TV with visible skin blemishes, talking to the media over the Mallard case. He is now in remission, but his story is testament to him and the medicos he enlisted. “The scientists are really starting to deliver to the medicos some silver bullets. Like some of the stem cell research going on at the moment, it’s fantastic; treatment regimes that weren’t on the horizon in the 90s,” he said.

Being diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma visible in a third of his skin was a shock, especially as “it was burning very fast”. After talk of thalidomide and risky UV light treatment, it was a fortuitous invitation from Dr Phil Swarbrick that swung things in his favour. He became the thought-provoker at the monthly dermatology clinical meeting at Fremantle Hospital.

“I remember going down there with my wife at 7pm and sitting with a hospital gown on, and two by two, dermatologists and registrars would come in and examine me. It was the next day that Swarbrick rang and said, ‘One of the doctors here says there’s a dermatologist in Melbourne doing something with T-cell lymphoma, and you should give him a ring.’”

John did just that and agreed to meet him the next morning. A trip on the red eye with his wife and taxi ride to St Vincent’s Hospital connected him with dermatologist A/Prof Chris McCormack and haematologist Prof Miles Prince.

“They explained they were doing a trial of a new drug for an American drug company that the FDA had approved for trial in 100 humans, having been tested in the lab. As luck would have it, Prof Prince had just returned from America, and obviously impressed with his capabilities, they had given him a cohort of 10 of the 100 people.”

John would be his tenth patient. Travelling from WA was going to be a problem, but because John was a treatment ‘virgin’, this made him attractive for the trial. John was prepared to sell his home to fund the weekly flights to Melbourne for his 8-10 hour infusions. A friend told him of PATS, he qualified for assistance, and for nearly 12 months, he flew to Melbourne each week, returning to Perth to be in Parliament the following day.

“So I’d fly out of Perth at about 4pm on Sunday, getting into Melbourne about 8pm. I stayed at the Peter MacCallum apartments next door to the hospital and right next door to the Park Hyatt where I would have what I called ‘the last supper’ – grilled chicken breast and steamed vegies that was easy to puke up. I’d always start chundering during the last two hours of the infusion.”

Having experienced first hand Perth’s medical isolation, John worked with Prof Prince to establish an Australia-wide network for T-cell lymphoma treatment. Haematologists around Australia were linked up with the Prof, and his head nurse travelled to other states. He also worked with SCGH’s Dr David Joske to get approval to use the drug in WA.

“What I found the most uncomfortable part of the whole experience was that my diagnosis was nine months after I married. At this time, my wife was 24 and I was 57. We were told treatment wouldn’t be a good idea for pregnancy and it would not be a good idea to have kids after. We only had hours to discuss all this by the way, because I had to catch the plane.”

“So I rang up Hollywood Fertility Clinic, and I had less than an hour to get down there and put the sperm away. That was a bit of pressure! I’ve got all this other stuff running through my head. Lance Armstrong wrote that this was perhaps the most uncomfortable part of his treatment, too.”

“When I hit remission, we went down to see Dr Simon Turner and did the IVF. We had baby Ruby, now 4. Then we thought from what we’d been told there was little prospect of ever having another. We had a warm cuddle on New Year’s Eve 2008 and my wife got the flu, or so she thought – she was pregnant with our second.”

We wanted John to reflect more on the profession. He obliged by relating how a year into his treatment he “hit a brick wall” and found himself needle shy. He booked to see psychiatrist Dr Dennis Tannenbaum, who convinced him it was a normal reaction to his illness and diagnosed him with depression.

“Generally, I’m not a depressed person, and I had to put my hand up. It was more than just a steel needle, it was a whole trip inside my head because I’m a fighter and I’d just given up and the whole thing between my ears had just collapsed. But I got back on the bike and saw it through.”

John agrees with many doctors who say access to mental health care could be improved.

“That is perhaps the only area where private health cover and a little bit of money may give the patient a bit of an edge because you can access psychiatric services privately that are just not available in the public health system.”

“Mental health is such a big driver of crime and the criminal justice system. We still haven’t got anywhere near adequate funding into the mental health services. The GPs are so over-worked, you go into waiting rooms and they’re all snuffling and sniffling, so people with depression don’t get the long interviews that you need to deal with depression other than by taking drugs.”

 

Ed. In case you missed it, the first Spotlight interview with John (concerning his battles as a lawyer and pollie) was published in July.