Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

'Fighter' Michael Schumacher lucky to have a world class medical team

Coma: Michael Schumacher

Until last week, I knew almost nothing about Michael Schumacher. Then he had a bad skiing accident and I discovered that he is, apparently, the most important person in the world. Dozens of unknown Russians killed in terrorist bombings simply could not compete.

I know lots of people are genuinely interested in motor racing and its stars. And they don't come much bigger than Schumacher, who was world champion seven times.

Towards the end of his career, 'Schu' seems to have been regarded as reckless by some of his rivals, but there's nothing like a bad accident to shave the rough edges off someone's reputation.

People who work in the media understand the power of human interest stories. But the arrival of 24-hour rolling news has multiplied the craving many times over.

Stories where someone's life hangs in the balance create a particularly uncomfortable guessing game. Seasoned reporters are usually reluctant to say publicly that death is a likely outcome, but among themselves they refer to these assignments as the "death watch".

I know that sounds callous, especially if you're a friend or relative of the person who's critically ill, but it's one of the ways journalists cope with a story which drags on for days, or weeks, with nothing to report.

The most protracted example I can think of is the final illness of Nelson Mandela, which lasted the best part of a year; some reporters were despatched to South Africa several months before he finally expired. That, I suspect, is one of the reasons for the exhaustive coverage of his death; journalists finally got to use the material they'd been collecting while they waited for it to happen.

In the meantime, given that it would be in bad taste to speculate about someone's demise, private cynicism is balanced by public sentimentality. The waiting period is filled by interviewing friends or, in the last resort, reading out tweets from total strangers.

Inevitably, these tend to be uninformed, dashed off by people who are responding without much thought to headlines.

It's understandable that anxious acquaintances and colleagues don't know what to say to journalists, but they often fall back on the irritating habit of describing anyone who's going through a medical crisis as "a fighter".

It is true that the fitter someone is, the more likely they are to survive, but much of what the human body does in these circumstances is automatic.

If the patient is in a coma, as Schumacher has been after two operations to relieve pressure on his brain, it's sheer nonsense to talk about him "fighting" to stay alive.

He's lucky to have survived, but strength of character and divine intervention count for a great deal less than a swift transfer to hospital and a bloody good medical team.

As it happens, Schumacher wasn't the only well-known man whose condition attracted media attention last week. In Israel, where Ariel Sharon has been in a coma since 2006, the former prime minister's family gathered at his bedside after his condition deteriorated.

Doctors acknowledged that Sharon's situation was critical, which was hardly surprising in the case of an 85-year-old man with multiple organ failure, but refused to speculate further. "I am no prophet", one of them reminded reporters.

It was the unvarnished truth – and I felt like applauding.

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