Belfast doctor who earned global reputation for treating epilepsy found he had condition himself

Epilepsy

Stoical Jim Morrow flags up the irony early on in the conversation. For the twist in the tale of this hugely respected 62-year-old consultant neurologist is that he had to take early retirement because of a neurological condition.

The medic who has been honoured worldwide for his work on research into epilepsy fell victim to the very same disorder and quit his job at the Royal Group of hospitals in Belfast because he didn’t want to be a risk to his patients.

But the ever-resourceful doctor hasn’t exactly been twiddling his thumbs since retirement.

Instead he’s become an author, which isn’t bad for someone who failed his English language O-level.

He laughs: “I’ve got two honours degrees and two doctorates but my friends take delight in mocking me about my one failure. So much so that they keep asking me if I can spell such and such a word. And their nickname for me is ‘Docker’, because they think that’s how I spell doctor.”

Jim, however, had the last laugh by embarking on an English literature degree through the Open University and then took up writing.

His new book is called Stiffed and is a fictional reflection of a real-life medical crisis that is close to his heart – counterfeit drugs.

The World Health Organisation says the problem is increasingly difficult to control, and in some countries up to 30% of medicines may be fake.

Jim explains: “These are drugs that you should only have prescribed by a doctor but there are loads of counterfeit medicines that you can buy on the internet. Everything from painkillers to antidepressants.

“A lot of them are potentially very dangerous.

“The most commonly purchased counterfeit drugs are ones for erectile dysfunction and in one nine-month period alone they accounted for £11m of £12.2m worth of illegal drugs seized.”

Stiffed stays on the theme. It’s a thriller about a pharmaceutical firm that produces a fully licensed competitor to Viagra, and fears people’s deaths and heart attacks could be linked to its drug, called Erexat.

But it transpires that fake drugs are to blame, and the book follows the trail of the counterfeiters to India, which in the real world is where most of the illegal medicines are manufactured.

One of the characters in Stiffed is a Glaswegian gangster called Slab McBride.

“He swears vengeance on the producers of the fake drugs when his son dies after taking them,” says Jim, whose own medical problems started after he had minor seizures as he was driving. However, he wasn’t alarmed. With the benefit of hindsight, he admits he had probably been unwell for weeks. He says: “One evening we were at a concert and I had become acutely confused. My wife Sue became worried when I had not returned after a comfort break.

“She had to send an attendant to look for me. When he located me, he clearly thought I was intoxicated and we made a hasty retreat back home.”

The same alarm bells rang on a weekend break to London when Jim couldn’t find the hotel breakfast buffet, even though he had used it the previous two mornings.

Sue eventually succeeded in persuading him to seek help from his neurological colleagues, one of whom came out to their home and quickly realised something was wrong.

After an urgent MRI the Morrows got the dreaded phone call to turn the car around and get back to the hospital, where a bed was waiting for Jim.

To avoid him coming into contact with his own patients, he was admitted to the neurosurgical unit at the Royal.

He was diagnosed with autoimmune encephalitis. But further extensive testing did not reveal any underlying tumour.

He says: “I was very ill and I was in the Royal for quite a long time.

“It was something I had in common with the athlete Roger Bannister, who died recently. He was a neurologist who got a neurological disease – Parkinson’s. I’m not completely unique.”

Jim has recovered well but he says he has been left with a few memory problems, especially over locations.

He explains: “I sometimes get confused about where I’m going. But the sat nav usually comes to my rescue.”

As a leading authority on neurology Jim knows exactly where his difficulty lies.

He says: “It’s my right temporal lobe that has been hit by the condition.

“The memory loss in relation to some locations is not nearly as bad as it was. But there’s still an issue there. That’s why I took early retirement because I didn’t want to injure anyone. I couldn’t have lived with that.”

Jim says his wife has kept his nose to the writing grindstone ever since his retirement, adding: “She married me for better or for worse but not for lunch, and she insisted that I do something else to occupy myself.

“So she got me a shed – my man cave – for writing and puts me out into it every day.

“I just head out in the morning and start putting my thoughts down on paper.”

He is already writing another book but he’s keeping his cards close to his chest, though he admits the theme is a medical one.

He made a low-key sortie into the publishing world 16 years ago with a book called Slainte, which was inspired by an unusual golfing trip he undertook around Ireland with close friends including Ulster Unionist MLA and former UTV presenter Mike Nesbitt (above right).

Another golfing pal, Leonard Granville, had drowned in Spain and his friends decided to hold a charity event in his memory.

“The idea was to play 32 holes of golf in one day,” Jim says.

“But what made it tough was that we set out to play one hole in all 32 counties of Ireland inside 24 hours.

“Afterwards I decided to write the book Slainte around our exploits and the money raised went to a girl who had developed multiple sclerosis.”

Jim, who was an honorary clinical lecturer with Queen’s University, still maintains a hands-on interest in epilepsy research.

He was a pioneer in the field of epilepsy and in 2016 he received the special recognition honour at the Northern Ireland Healthcare Awards.

The citation said the award recognised his outstanding contribution to the treatment of people with epilepsy in Northern Ireland and globally.

At the time he said: “Epilepsy has always been – or at least it was – a bit of a Cinderella subject. It’s only really in latter years that people have raised the ante for it.

“People have become interested and that has improved the care that people receive all throughout the UK and beyond.”

He also received a national award for his efforts to improve health and social care for people with epilepsy across the UK.

He’s a modest man, but it’s clear that he is proud of having helped to set up the epilepsy service in Northern Ireland with a team of specialists and nurses.

A register was also established to examine the impact of drugs on pregnant women and the subsequent effects on their children.

Jim says retirement wasn’t a word in his vocabulary.

He adds: “I probably would never have retired because I loved my job. My father, who was a dentist, was looking forward to a new life on a farm he’d bought but he was dead within a month of retiring at the age of 65.

“So, after the decision was forced on me at the age of 58, I resolved that I would enjoy my retirement and that’s what I have been doing over the last four years.

“I play golf regularly with my friends like Mike Nesbitt and I’m off soon to Japan, which was on my bucket list.

“I’ve just taken up sailing even though I live beside Strangford Lough.

“I cycle a lot and go to the gym.

“My body is like a god – it’s a pity it’s Buddha!”

Stiffed is published independently and can be bought online at Amazon in paperback £8.99, and ebook, £1.99

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