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I told you I was ill
  1. John Kelly1,
  2. Martin Maurice O'Donnell1,
  3. Sarah Wrigley1,
  4. Áine Merwick1,2,
  5. Stela Lefter1,2
  1. 1 Neurology, Cork University Hospital, Cork, Ireland
  2. 2 Clinical Neuroscience, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland
  1. Correspondence to Dr Stela Lefter, Neurology, Cork University Hospital, Cork, Ireland; stela_lefter{at}

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In August 2017, after receiving a phone call from my sister that my father was expected to die within days, I made an unexpected journey from my home in Ireland to Melbourne, Australia, to be with him. A long and daunting trip, on arrival, given my jetlag, I was put on the nightshift for his vigil. Partly instructed by his palliative care doctors, and partly by my father as he tapped on his cannula, unable to speak, I administered the painkillers as needed to make his journey easier. Ultimately, he passed peacefully, surrounded by family, as anyone would hope to, cared for and loved (figure 1). I expected to return to my life somewhat changed after this experience at least emotionally. However, shortly after his death and funeral, I had what I thought was an innocuous influenza-like illness, and instead things appeared to change utterly.

Figure 1

‘The Lazarus Painting Conceived on My Death Bed’ (2021) (B), along with the sketch from my time at Cork University Hospital (2018) that inspired it (A).

Over the following year, various problems arose including fatigue, ‘brain fog’, anxiety, severe headaches and tremors, along with some abrupt deteriorations that required short hospitalisations which I was told were ‘silent migraines’ and ‘TIAs’. Having previously been a fit and active 53-year-old, exhibiting my works internationally, painting en plein air and publishing critical essays, as times passed, I eventually could no longer function, not just as an artist, but as a human. Various doctors of different creeds and training could not identify the cause of these symptoms, with a plethora of remedies and solutions suggested including amitriptyline (which only worsened matters), grief counselling, sea-swimming and seeing a psychologist. I was told more than once during this time that there was ‘nothing wrong’, and it was …

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  • Contributors JK, MMO'D, SW, ÁM and SL conceptualised the paper, with JK writing the initial patient contribution and MMO'D, SW, ÁM and SL writing the treating team contribution, with all authors contributing to editing and revisions. All are acknowledged as authors of this paper. All authors approved the final draft for submission.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally reviewed by Neil Scolding, Bristol, UK.

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