The Sean BW Parker Interviews: Leyla Sanai
Leyla Sanai is an ex-NME writer, anaesthetist (not related) and currently arts and culture reviewer for The Independent. She has scleroderma, a tissue-destroying and skin-thickening condition, and recently had to have her left leg amputated due to its progress. Sanai spoke to Sean Bw Parker about vinyl, Scottish independence, life with prosthetics, and the power of atheism
You appear to have written for every UK publication under the sun. Here in the internet age, what keeps you writing?
I guess I still get a thrill from the whole process – being commissioned articles, researching, writing and submitting them, and seeing my name in print. I think if you have the urge to write, it never leaves you. For many years I wrote while working full time as a doctor, first as a physician and then as an anaesthetist, and my articles then were largely to do with the NHS. Now that I’ve had to give up work as a doctor, it’s good to be able to write about the arts again. I mostly review books for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday nowadays.
Do you ever still read the NME? If so, what do you think of it nowadays?
I pretty much gave up on reading the NME when I stopped writing for it.
My most active time there was 1981 – 1983, while I was in the sixth form at school and during a year off before uni, and I read it avidly during that period and in the couple of years before I started writing for them. I saw a copy recently and it was just bland – glossy in every sense of the word. I liked it when it was gritty and stained you with ink, both physically and metaphorically, with strong, opinionated voices.
When was the last time you bought a vinyl record? Do you miss vinyl, or cassette tapes?
I haven’t bought vinyl for years but I still have most of my vinyl collection. My record player died a couple of years ago and I haven’t got round to replacing it, but I don’t ever want to get rid of my records. They have a covetable, physical quality that was diminished in CDs and then eliminated completely in the digital age. I still have my cassettes too, though most have probably perished by now.
What is your explicit view on Scottish independence?
I’ll be voting no. I think an independent Scotland would be a disaster.
I like living here but I’m already irritated by the parochial elements – Scottish national newspapers, Newsnight Scotland, Gaellic TV. The Scottish Parliament was hugely over-budget and unnecessary in my opinion, and an independent Scotland would be a similar waste of money. I don’t know how they think they’re going to institute it either unless they plan on opening Scottish versions of everything. As a consultant anesthetist, I belonged to the Royal College of Anesthetists, which is based in London. Would the Scottish Parliament plan to open a new Scottish college for the anesthetists who practice in Scotland?
Some years ago you were diagnosed with scleroderma. How has this condition affected your life?
It’s dramatically changed my life in many ways. I had to give up work as a doctor after I had lost fingertips, thumb, toe tip and large bowel to gangrene. I’m on more than twenty daily medicines and I have to spend three days every second week in hospital receiving an infusion that makes me very ill. I’ve had something like twenty -five operations, and recently had my left leg amputated. The difficulty with daily tasks is frustrating – I need help showering and buttoning my clothes, and my husband has to cut and cook my food for me. In terms of beneficial effects, being a patient is always a worthwhile experience for doctors – I think it helps them develop empathy for their patients, and it really shows you what’s important: as a doctor, you concentrate on the life-saving aspects of care, but when a patient is sick, kindness is also very therapeutic.
You are an acknowledged atheist. Did your stance experience any challenge after hearing about your medical condition?
No, I’m still an atheist. It would be comforting to believe in an existence beyond this one, but I can’t do it. I do, however, respect people’s right to believe in religion privately. Most of what is bad about religion arises not from personal spiritual belief but from people trying to impose their views on others.
You have noted that your husband has been fully supportive through your medical processes. How has this affected your personal life?
It’s brought us closer. It is a little frightening to be so reliant on someone, not just in terms of love but also in terms of physical survival. But then, being in love makes everyone vulnerable.
How do you feel about the NHS these days?
Well, it’s saved my life on so many occasions that my primary emotion about it is gratitude. I think the vast majority of people working in the NHS are dedicated, kind and competent. It’s a shame we only hear about the NHS in the news when it’s failing. I do think government cuts have placed a lot of pressure on those working in the NHS, with many wards running below full staff capacity. The UK also has fewer doctors per thousand heads of population than many other developed countries.
Tory plans for the NHS are appalling – contracting out services to private companies started under Thatcher and was woeful even then, so increasing it is going to just line the pockets of private business. A few of my articles about the NHS were concerned with the deleterious effects of contracting public services out to the cheapest private provider: contracting of cleaning services was a factor in the huge rise of hospital acquired infections about fourteen years ago, while doing the same to catering resulted in malnourished patients. It is just so myopic, because patients with hospital acquired infections or malnourishment have to spend far longer in hospital and suffer more complications such as wound breakdown, and end up costing far more than has been saved in cheaper catering costs, etc.
Tory plans to make GPs responsible for the community budget are also disastrous – GPs are not accountants, they have had no training in managing budgets, and the new responsibilities will decrease their already limited time with each patient.
To what extent would you agree that physical problems are connected to psychological ones?
I think there’s a great degree of overlap. My own auto immune disease came on just after a time of great personal stress. There’s no doubt that conditions like angina or asthma or high blood pressure can be exacerbated by stress and anxiety. That’s why it’s always been important to treat the patient as a person and not just as an organ that is not working correctly.
How is the mobility coming along? Any news?
Thanks for asking. I am hobbling very short distances with my prosthesis and a pair of crutches, mostly around my flat. My scleroderma is worsened by the cold, and being exposed to low temperatures puts me at risk of losing more digits or my mother leg, so I can’t really try and hobble about outside until the weather gets warmer. The prosthesis is very heavy and pretty uncomfortable, but I’m hoping I get used to it.
Fancy a tipple?
Yes please, mine’s a warm lager, and I’m buying!