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The YouTube video that saved Ruth's life: Diagnosed with terminal cancer, her internet plea helped find her a surgeon for risky operation
00:20 GMT, 26 June 2012
The YouTube video is short — just three minutes — but the message is compelling.
A single mother, her face gaunt and pale after months of fighting inoperable bowel cancer, talks to the camera in a frail but determined voice.
‘I have a young son and I need to see him grow up,’ she says.
'I knew the symptoms of bowel cancer so I went back again and again, but I couldn't get anyone to take it seriously,' said Ruth McDonagh, with son Brandon
‘The only operation that can keep me alive is a radical sacrectomy, the complete removal of my sacrum.
'It’s an extremely difficult, rare and dangerous operation and I can’t find anyone to do it here in the UK.
'If anyone out there can help to save my life, please, please get in touch.’
Ruth McDonagh, from Enfield, in Middlesex, made the video last October when she was in the depths of despair.
Her situation was all the more heartbreaking because it was so needless.
If her cancer had been spotted in December 2008, when she first visited her GP with rectal bleeding, she wouldn’t have been at this dreadful point.
Instead, despite being seen by her doctors 13 times over the next two years, her condition was misdiagnosed — even though she suffered a litany of classic symptoms, including bloating, severe abdominal pain and weight loss.
‘I knew the symptoms of bowel cancer so I went back again and again, but I couldn’t get anyone to take it seriously,’ says Ruth, 46, a mother to Brandon, 11.
‘I was fobbed off.’
She became so ill she couldn’t eat, yet extraordinarily a doctor’s note at the time shows she was prescribed a herbal remedy, with the GP noting of her: ‘Admits is neurotic.’
When finally diagnosed in January 2011, the tumour had spread to her spine and she faced a battle to find someone to save her life.
Three months before she was driven to making her video, Ruth had undergone what she thought would be straightforward surgery to remove her tumour.
'All I wanted was to be able to see Brandon grow up and get a job, be settled and prepared for life,' said Ruth
‘I woke up from the operation expecting to hear I was in with a good chance of a cure,’ she says.
‘Instead my surgeon told me that the 7cm tumour was completely wrapped around the sacrum.’
This is the small triangular piece of bone at the base of the spine.
Many of the vital blood and nerve supplies to the lower body travel through it and, as Ruth’s surgeon explained, to remove it would mean a high risk of death or paralysis from the waist down.
‘He didn’t want to risk it, so he left the cancer intact and sewed me back up again so that we could at least try to find another surgical option,’ says Ruth.
‘In the meantime, even with chemotherapy, he told me I had at most 18 months.
'To say I was devastated is an understatement. I was in pieces.’
‘There is only Brandon and me,’ she explains.
‘I separated from his father when Brandon was two, and he doesn’t live nearby, although they are in touch.
'All I wanted was to be able to see Brandon grow up and get a job, be settled and prepared for life.
'The thought of leaving him while he was so young was almost too much to bear.’
That fear spurred on Ruth to find a way to extend her survival. Her surgeon said her best hope was a rare, complicated operation to remove part or all of the sacrum.
‘My problem was that the cancer was wrapped all the way up the sacrum to the bottom of the spine, so all of it had to be removed.
‘This is known as a radical or high sacrectomy, an operation developed in the U.S. Most bowel surgeons here simply won’t do it.’
Professor Paris Tekkis, a colorectal consultant at The London Clinic, explains: ‘There are only around 30 sacrectomies carried out each year in the UK.
'High sacrectomies are particularly dangerous, probably the most risky a surgeon can carry out today.
‘You need up to six specialists during the operation, including a plastic surgeon to close up what is a huge wound. It can take 12 or more hours.
'Many surgeons will not take on the job.’
'I created a website called HelpRuthie.co.uk and contacted more than a dozen bowel cancer centres in the UK,' said Ruth
A London hospital said no immediately. Leeds Royal Infirmary was doubtful but said its surgeons might consider it. So Ruth decided to take matters into her own hands.
‘I created a website called HelpRuthie.co.uk and contacted more than a dozen bowel cancer centres in the UK.
'I looked overseas. I was prepared to go anywhere, do anything, to get this operation.
‘/06/25/article-2164588-13C8A21B000005DC-159_468x390.jpg” width=”468″ height=”390″ alt=”'Getting home to Brandon was amazing. He was just the happiest boy in the world,' said Ruth” class=”blkBorder” />
'Getting home to Brandon was amazing. He was just the happiest boy in the world,' said Ruth
She says: ‘I’m not sure what finally convinced them — I didn’t ask — I was just so grateful.’
Ruth’s health continued to decline. ‘I started to panic,’ she says.
‘I could feel my strength ebbing away; my weight was dropping dangerously. I felt I was dying and I knew I had to keep my strength up for the surgery.’
Finally, a date was confirmed.
‘It was a huge moment. I had literally been given a lifeline. I couldn’t stop saying thank you.’
First, Ruth had to say goodbye to her son, who was being cared for by a friend.
‘I simply told him I would fight my hardest and do my best to come back to him safely,’ she says.
She arranged with his father that if she didn’t survive, he would take over Brandon’s care.
The night before the operation, all three lead surgeons sat on Ruth’s hospital bed.
‘They promised me they’d stay in the operating theatre for however long it took to remove the tumour and do their absolute best to minimise any complications.’
Her operation would involve removing her entire bowel, sacrum and womb — to reach a spot of cancer at the back.
She’d need a colostomy and bladder bag for life.
‘I really wanted this operation,’ says Ruth. ‘But I was utterly petrified.’
After a 13-hour operation, she woke in intensive care, covered with drips and drains and had an epidural to help with the excruciating pain.
The next day her surgeons came to see her.
‘Fortunately the tumour had not gone right up as far as my spine as they had believed from scans, so they were able to save the top bit of the sacrum, meaning I should regain about 75 per cent of feeling in my legs,’ she says.
‘When I managed to wiggle my toes there and then, their smiles were so broad. I was as thrilled for them as they were for me.’
A few days later her friend brought Brandon to see her.
‘It was wonderful, but when he went to go we both got very distressed,’ says Ruth.
After such a huge operation, patients can be hospitalised for weeks but Ruth asked to be discharged after a fortnight, under the care of her local hospital.
‘Leeds was a long way from my friends and family and I needed their love and support,’ she explains.
‘Getting home to Brandon was amazing. He was just the happiest boy in the world.’
Nigel Scott, a colorectal surgeon at The Royal Preston Hospital and president of the Association of Coloproctology, says: ‘This operation is a huge assault on the body but our hope is that as technology and techniques improve, and surgeons pool their resources, more operations will take place, with ever-improving outcomes,’ he says.
It will be a long battle back to anything like good health for Ruth. She can walk only a few metres with sticks, and spends most of the time resting.
She’ll probably never regain full mobility — but she’s happy.
‘My body is already stronger because the tumour has gone. I no longer have that dreadful exhaustion and my appetite has returned.
‘When I am strong enough, I will have one more session of chemotherapy to mop up any stray cancer cells.
'Then, with any luck, I could be in remission for a long time.’
She remains very grateful for the care from the NHS since her misdiagnoses.
‘The team at Leeds were brilliant and my oncologist here at Chase Farm Hospital in Enfield has been fantastic.
'He and his team raised money for Brandon and me to visit Disneyland Paris. The NHS failed me but they’ve more than made up for it.
‘I know the long-term outlook is probably not good but I am in a much better position than I was. I just want to live long enough to see my son settled.
'A few months ago I was staring death in the face. I am a pretty lucky girl.’
Most people would agree that Ruth has made — and deserves — every bit of her own good luck.