How would you feel if .... ?
You have a five-year-old child with an incurable brain tumour. The required medical treatment is invasive and painful. Between you, your partner and you have managed to be with him every minute of every day: nonetheless he seldom smiles, has lost the ability to speak and, even though you’ve accepted that his is a terminal condition, it is unbearable to watch.
What would you think if ...?
In desperation you trawl the internet for alternative treatments. You discover one in the Czech Republic, a new therapy which consists of firing photons at the tumour. It claims success in some cases: but it’s expensive and not available in the UK and certainly not on the National Health.
How would you react if ...?
The doctors at your child’s hospital are discouraging about the idea of an alternative. They clearly dislike patients or their parents Googling medical conditions, pointing out that the radical Czech therapy doesn’t work in every case and that, besides, it’s not available here. You suggest that you could sell some overseas property you own in order to fund the treatment if you took him to the Czech Republic.
What would you do if ...?
At that stage doctors get a little defensive, and strongly refute your suggestions. In fact, so discouraging are they that they forbid you to take your child out of hospital. In fact, there’s a threat (not entirely specific, not entirely clear) that, if you try to remove your child, they will obtain a court order to prevent you from doing so.
How would you cope if ...?
You’re so desperate to find a treatment that has an effect on your child’s tumour, and so bewildered by the refusal of the medical team currently treating him to consider an alternative, that you and your partner take him out of hospital and transport him abroad where you start trying to sell the property whose sale will fund the alternative treatment.
What would you say if ...?
You then find that the authorities back home have involved the Crown Prosecution Service and Interpol, issued and international arrest warrant and arranged for the police in the country in which you find yourself to carry it out. The accusation is that you are doing real harm to your child.
How would you feel if ...?
You find yourself banged up in jail, your partner also. Your child is alone in a hospital where people speak a foreign language and no one he knows is near him, although he’s used (at the age of five) to having family support around him 24/7. It’s more than a day before even his brother is permitted to see him: and you still aren’t allowed to.
Would you laugh or cry if ...?
Forty-eight hours later, you’re finally released from jail. Back in the UK the CPS isn’t even quite sure if any offence has been committed – but you’d been held in custody while extradition proceedings dragged on, legal arguments raging around the nature of your alleged criminal offence – until they decided it wasn’t one.
Meanwhile your child is still in that foreign hospital with only limited visits from family members, and even now you have a 300-mile journey to reach him.
Frankly, none of us would want to be there. It’s a tale of desperation and despair almost unimaginable to any parent and almost unbearable to read. Fortunately, “it couldn’t happen here”.
Only it has happened. This is an extraordinary tale of human misery, institutional insensitivity and heavy-handed bungling by international law-enforcement agencies.
Earlier in the week the Prime Minister called for common sense to prevail in what he called a tragic case (and he knows about terminal illness in a child).
I can’t help feeling that, given even a scrap of common sense, the whole mess, apart from the illness itself, could have been avoided.
Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal