Nancy Tait: a fighter for justice

Heard an obituary today on BBC Radio 4 for Nancy Tait who died at the age of 89. She was a fierce campaigner to have the victims of asbestosis and other industrial diseases compensated, and the conditions themselves recognised. Her husband had died prematurely of asbestosis, and this sparked an indefatigable campaign which dominated the rest of her life. It was strange to hear a recording of her voice, which I’d not heard for over 20 years.

I worked with Nancy Tait for about four months in the eighties as a researcher for the Society for the prevention of asbestosis and industrial diseases in a tiny cramped office in Cuffley Hertfordshire. In some ways Mrs Tait was a formidable woman, and her expectations for her few underlings were rather Dickensian. I worked for next to nothing, and when I asked, Oliver style,  for a pay rise to bring me up to poverty levels, she replied rather witheringly “I never realised you were ambitious.” In my twenties this seemed to me to be an example of telescopic philanthropy. From Mrs Tait’s perspective the fight was everything.

This aside I had absolute admiration for her achievements. I told her this at the time, and discovered that such flattery, however sincere, made her uncomfortable.

She was already over retirement age when I worked with her, and she was tall and strong with her grey hair tucked back in a businesslike bun. She crackled with tireless energy, taking on major corporations almost single-handedly. She lobbied and cajoled Unions, MPs, Business people, lawyers and many others. She also taught herself the minutae of complex medical conditions such as pneumoconiosis and mesothelioma, and somehow managed to acquire an electron microscope… Among her honours, she was rightly awarded the MBE a few years ago.

A driven fighter for people who were in extremis, Nancy Tait campaigned for justice, and the prevention of future deaths in the face of stiff opposition and even ridicule. Many owe an enormous amount to her without realising it.

She is someone I will never forget. And hearing the news of her death reminds me that it is often the people who spark contrasting emotions in you are those who teach you most about yourself.  Even after all these years I have enormous respect for Nancy Tait and her achievements.

On drugs again

I’m in the middle of lots of healthcare work right now. One project has been to create a patient support programme for diabetes patients for a healthcare agency in London. The other is working directly with a pharmaceutical client to revamp a large patient website. My twitchiness about client confidentiality prevents me from naming names at this stage however.

I fancy myself an authority on copy tone – especially when it comes to writing to people who have medical conditions. Not only have I had years of experience in this field, but I am a terrrible hypochondriac. This unhealthy ability to empathise with people who are in dire health straits is something that’s paid off for me since working for an asbestosis charity many years ago. Talking to people dying of mesothelioma every day makes it hard to stay objective and removed.

Here are two golden rules for writing to patients.

  • Don’t talk to people as if they were walking medical conditions. It sounds obvious, but there are frequent offences against this. You have to talk to the whole person, who just happens to have condition X. People are much more interested in their own lives than they are – say – in the finer points of cholesterol production in their liver.
  • Show people how they can succeed. The advice you give them must be practical. If you can point to some quick wins, or things that they are already doing well, living more healthily will not be seen as an impossible aspiration, but rather something they are already beginning to do.