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AFTER Kirsty Ettrick’s husband Neil was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in June 2014, she experienced first-hand just how complex and baffling it could be to navigate the medical world in the search for the best treatments.
“Neil told me he didn’t want to know what the prognosis was. He just wanted me to do everything I could possibly do to help him get better,” says Kirsty, who had three children aged two, four and six at the time, as well as a 19-year-old from her first marriage.
“So I spent hours and hours every night researching, calling and emailing experts all around the world to try to find more options and time for us and our young family.”
Sadly, despite Kirsty’s efforts, Neil died that November, just 100 days after getting his initial diagnosis.
But Kirsty, 42, has used her heartbreaking experience to launch London Medical Concierge (LMC), a business offering help and advice to people in the UK going through medical and surgical treatments.
For a fee, the company gives patients access to a range of services including priority consultations, fast-track second opinions and dedicated cancer care.
While most of the consultants are based in the capital, the company can make referrals all over the country.
“It’s the personalised service that I would have wanted,” explains Kirsty, who used to be a flight services manager for Virgin Atlantic.
I can relate to nearly every circumstance
“It’s a very worrying time and many people simply don’t have the hours to explore their options – this only adds to the anxiety.
“I was very torn between wanting to spend as much time as possible with my husband and children and wanting to find him the best possible care.”
LMC currently has an expanding database of more than 100 consultants in around 25 clinical specialities including cancer, fertility and mental health.
“When we have a query, we put it to our network of consultants and they will recommend the best doctors for that specific case,” explains Kirsty, who set up the business using her savings.
“That really benefits the patients and we don’t charge until we’ve found them an option.
“The consultations have to be privately funded but can also be covered by their health insurance.
“We can chase results, forward notes and ask questions on their behalf.
“This is really helpful for patients who are unfamiliar with the system. We are happy to do as much or as little as people want.”
Kirsty and Neil, a company director, had been together for 10 years and enjoyed an idyllic family life in Cambridgeshire before their world was suddenly turned upside down.
“We had a birthday party for our four-year-old son Cameron, and our GP, who is a friend of ours, came along and noticed that Neil was jaundiced.
“She told us that he needed to be examined right away and we ended up leaving the party and going straight to the hospital.”
Just two weeks later, the couple received the shocking news that 42-year-old Neil had bile duct cancer.
Cancer of the bile duct (cholangiocarcinoma) is a rare type of the disease that mainly affects over-65s.
About 1,600 in the UK are diagnosed with it each year and in most cases the cause is unknown.
The outlook depends on which part of the bile duct is affected and how far the cancer has grown but, overall, 20-50 per cent of patients will survive if it is caught early.
Jaundice, which causes the skin and the whites of the eyes to turn yellow, is a common symptom.
“We were devastated,” says Kirsty. “We were just beginning to find our feet again as a couple after having three children in quick succession.
“It was four weeks after my 40th birthday and we had just returned from a wonderful holiday in Santorini. I could not believe what was happening.”
From the outset Neil made it clear that he wanted Kirsty to be the one to take decisions about his treatment.
“He just wanted me to tell him what he needed to do and where he needed to be and to speak to the doctors directly on his behalf.
“Some patients want to know everything and some want to know nothing. Neil didn’t want to know anything. I never wanted him to see me worry so when he went to bed, I would do research and make calls to work out what steps to take next.”
In August, Neil underwent an 11-hour Whipple procedure which involves the removal of the wide part of the pancreas next to the first part of the small intestine.
It also involves removal of a portion of the bile duct, gallbladder and sometimes part of the stomach.
The operation can sometimes be the only effective treatment for particular cancers involving the pancreas, liver and bile duct.
“When he came out of surgery, the consultant said that they had managed to get out all the cancer and Neil was going to be fine,” Kirsty says.
However her gut instinct told her differently and she contacted Leaders in Oncology Care, a specialist cancer treatment centre, to get a second opinion.
“They did a scan and found the cancer had spread into the liver. It was then classified as terminal.
“This is why I now feel it is important patients have the opportunity to get a second or even third opinion if they want it.
“Neil never asked if he was going to die. I don’t think he wanted the answer. From then on, it just became about how to prolong his life as much as possible.”
Just over two years since Neil’s death, Kirsty is determined to give other patients and their families answers and reassurances about their various treatments.
“When I set up LMC, I thought it was something I could do at my kitchen table while the children were at school. But it just grew, so there is clearly a need for the service.
“I can relate in some way to nearly every circumstance that comes through my door and I think that makes a big difference to the service we give.”
Now Kirsty hopes LMC will go from strength to strength.
“It was a year of planning and working really hard and not knowing if it was going to work. But since it launched we’ve been so busy and have helped so many people.
“I never knew I was capable of building something like this but I know Neil would be so proud of what I’ve achieved.”