Call The Midwife's Heidi Thomas recalls how ‘brush with death' changed life

The screenwriter had to have emergency surgery in the late 1990s, when her son was only one.

Call The Midwife creator Heidi Thomas has said she did not do her best work until a “brush with death” changed her life and perspective.

The playwright and screenwriter also said the thought of dying while her son was still an infant made her “shudder” for years afterwards, because it would have meant leaving husband actor Stephen McGann with a baby by himself, while she would also have died before releasing her best work.

Thomas, 57, told BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs that in the late 1990s, around a year after her son Dominic was born, she developed an obstructed intestine which led to life-threatening health complications.

She said: “Not realising what the symptoms were I sort of soldiered on at home thinking I had a touch of food poisoning, and in actual fact I developed gangrene of the bowel and sepsis.

“I had to have emergency surgery and a very large piece of my bowel was removed, and then of course I had to deal with the sepsis, so I was very, very poorly.

“It was a brush with death that I do think changes your perspective.

“It gave me a sense of how much there was to lose. My son was 14 months old at the time and for years and years afterwards I would have this sort of shudder at the idea of Steve being left alone with a baby, and the idea that certainly Dominic would never have remembered me at all.

“Not that that’s the most important thing, that’s an egocentric thing to say, but I look at what I’ve done since.

“I didn’t even really begin my best work as a writer until I was recovering from that illness.”

Thomas, who started her career as a writer in theatre with plays such as Shamrocks And Crocodiles and Indigo, said her first work after being ill was on the screenplay for the BBC’s version of Madame Bovary, which “certainly began my career in adaptions”.

Lauren Laverne and Heidi Thomas on Desert Island Discs
Lauren Laverne and Heidi Thomas on Desert Island Discs (Amanda Benson/BBC)

It paved the way for her work on Call The Midwife, an adaptation of the memoirs of British nurse Jennifer Worth.

Thomas said: “But I think as a woman, as a person, I think of all the growing I’ve done since I recovered from that illness, and all that may never have happened.

“If I had died then, if they hadn’t been able to save me, what would I have accomplished, what would I have left behind?

“I was just like a little, an unflourished bulb, there was so much not done.”

After working on Madame Bovary, Thomas went on to write the screenplays for the BBC’s version of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, which she said inspired her work on Call The Midwife.

The BBC One period drama about nurse midwives working in the east end of London in the late 1950s and early 1960s has been a huge success since it debuted in 2012, and Thomas said she lives “in dread of disappointing people” with the series.

BFI and Radio Times Television Festival
Thomas, left, with Call The Midwife stars Helen George, Jennifer Kirby and Leonie Elliott (Isabel Infantes/PA)

She added: “I think during difficult times in my own life I’ve often looked forward to a television programme.

“Last winter I was nursing my mum through her final illness and I have never looked forward to Strictly so much in my life.”

Call The Midwife will return for a special episode on Christmas Day, with the ninth series starting in 2020.

Heidi Thomas on Desert Island Discs airs on BBC Sounds and BBC Radio 4 on Sunday at 11.15am.

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