Sue wrote this talk to give to the girls of Bromley High School in June 2013, when she was invited to their graduation as guest speaker.  Better than anything else it gives an outline of her career and part outline of her wider life and her words are far better than anyone else’s on this subject.  Alastair


How way leads on to way


GDST roots

 I am delighted to be here as a GDST old girl having spent the years 5-18 at Bromley High School.

 I remember at the stage you are that Edna Healy (wife of Dennis Healy – Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer) came to prize giving and gave a talk that I’ve always remembered. In it she said that we should not expect life to be straightforward and that there would be things to factor in like looking after elderly parents.  At the time I was rather bemused by this as we really felt we had the world at our fingertips and there was nothing that we couldn’t do and no one was going to stop us, but as I have gone through life it has made more sense.  I think that what she was talking about was the unpredictability of life and the need to adapt ones plans and ones aspirations.

Some of you may have a very clear idea of who and what you want to be, and exactly what path you’ll have to take in order to achieve that. Others won’t have a clue.  But I’d like to suggest that even those who think they know exactly what path they are on, may well have to take a very roundabout route to get to the destination they think they want to get to.  Also some of you will find that that destination is actually not a destination, but just a stop on the way, somewhere quite different, but equally interesting.

Some of you may know the Robert Frost poem – The Road Not Taken.  In it he talks about “How way leads on to way.” What I’m going to do today is use myself as a case study and  talk to you about the very roundabout route I took to several of the key destinations I reached.  Destinations I didn’t even know I wanted to reach until I got there.

I don’t think I could have planned out my life and career or predicted half the things I have done,  though, looking back, the ways that led on to other ways have had a kind of strange logic.



I came from 4 generations of doctors and surgeons and remember at some point in my childhood when not wanting to be a vet, own a kennel, or marry Donny Osmond  that  I might like to do that too.  The fact that I had absolutely no aptitude for science and managed in my very academic school to get a U for maths O level soon put paid to that.


English Literature and Drama

My great love at school was for English and –outside school– was for drama.  I applied to study English Literature at Durham but then, on a whim, decided to have a gap year and  I applied for an English Speaking Union scholarship to the USA and, because of my interest in drama, was sent to a school of performing arts just outside Boston. This had a down side as it was full of dancers with issues about food and being at boarding school was restrictive but it did have two really good things about it, doing drama and suddenly being seen as incredibly academic!


Working abroad

At Durham I did a lot of drama  and  in many ways would have loved to have gone on with that and done something in the theatre but I was drawn to living and working abroad and doing some kind of voluntary work.  I was not sure where that came from though both my parents were immigrants and both had “socially useful” jobs.  I had been born in Turkey because my father was invited back to work in the children’s hospital that his own father had set up after having fled from Nazi Germany in 1936.  My own planning was a bit haphazard.  A friend’s brother had worked for a Buddhist organisation in Sri Lanka in his gap year so I did a TEFL course and just went there.  When I arrived I discovered that I needed a visa and more money. One day I passed a language school which had just opened  and ended up  working  there for a year. 

After that year I wanted to stay and the Colombo International School wanted a pantomime so I got a job and they got my version of Cinderella (I was the wicked stepmother), Aladdin and Dick Whittington.  For the rest of the time I involved myself with the women’s movement and got to know people in the aid and development business.  I wrote for Voice of Women and did some editing.  This led me, on return, to do an MA in Women’s Studies at Kent University one day a week.  I never finished it but I made, as I have in all parts of my life, some lifelong friends.



Also on return to England I wrote to an NGO,  ITDG, and was asked to come in and see them.  They gave me a voluntary job as editorial assistant on a book and, after a year, they found me bits of paid work.  During this I went on a CND march and someone mentioned they’d heard a job at VSO coming up as technical development officer.  I persuaded them that I had enough experience from Sri Lanka to recruit technical volunteers, such as plumbers and electricians, and train them to go and work overseas.  This gave me the opportunity for trips to various countries including Indonesia, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Nepal. 

 After 3 years I applied for a temporary post in Bhutan for 3 months where I had to have the  ability to hit the floor running  being left in Calcutta with the instructions drive until you see the Coca Cola sign,  turn left and leave India.  On return I applied to work more permanently overseas and was, for three and a half years the VSO Programme Manager in The Gambia even though I hadn’t known where it was on the map. I arrived 2 weeks before a new batch of volunteers and had to be ready to receive and train them before posting them to various locations in a country which I did not yet know.   It was a wonderful job in which I could spend the day with subsistence farmers and the evening at some British High Commission event.  During this time I picked up a husband, who came to join me for my final six months.


Overseas Training Programme

When I came back to England again part of the resettlement package was a few months work and I was asked to do research for a new programme to send university undergraduates out to be trainees on development projects.  I presented this a week before my daughter was born.  I then went on maternity leave with no plans but was offered opportunity to set the scheme and to do this, part time, from home in Brighton.  I did a 4 day week in 3 and my husband a 5 day week in 4 and we muddled along balancing childcare.  As the scheme grew, and so did my daughter who no longer wanted to share her bedroom with the desk and filing cabinet, I found an office down the road.  I did this for 7 years and loved working with young people in their early twenties.


During this time I had my second child, a son.


Bad choice

40 seemed a time to make a change after 14 years with VSO so I just stopped work with nothing set up to go to.  It was at this point that I made my one bad career choice and worked for a charity recruitment business the only benefit of which was realising that if one doesn’t enjoy going to work it really is not worth going to.  I resigned.


Medical Ethics

I heard of a job in the law school at King’s College London in the Centre of Medical Law and Ethics.  They wanted someone to organise training in research ethics and edit a text book. There were 2 weeks before the interview and I had never heard of research ethics but it is remarkable what one can learn in a short time.  I worked there for 7 years and  sat in on all the training that I organised.  This gave me enough knowledge and confidence to apply for a job as a lecturer in Clinical and Biomedical Ethics at Brighton and Sussex Medical School. I have been there for nearly 6 years.



At the time I left VSO , having always thought I wanted to write, I did a creative writing course and loved it.  This was followed by a post graduate diploma in dramatic writing and an MA in creative writing. While on the course I decided to see if I could write enough words to make a novel.  I wrote an opening chapter for an assignment and then just carried on.  The novel is based in a country not unlike The Gambia and some of it is based on my time there.  I didn’t think of publishing it.


Play writing

While at King’s a colleague commissioned a play based on reports of a user group in a hospice.  This was performed by a high profile cast including Gina McKee , Phyllida Law and Amanda Mealing of Holby City.  One of the actors asked if I’d consider doing it for radio and had a contact at BBC Scotland,  Bruce Young.  He gave excellent advice about turning it into radio but it didn’t get commissioned.  He asked if I had anything else in a drawer and I actually did – Kaffir Lilies based in Colonial Nigeria.  I improved this with his advice and it got through the commissioning round and was performed on Radio 4.  That first recording was the nearest I’ve come to heaven. It was followed by Laura and Old School Ties.



My novel continued to languish in a desk drawer but then I met the boss of an independent publisher at a birthday party and she asked to see it as she was looking for fiction to publish.  It was published in April 2009 with a book launch at the medical school.  I derived huge pleasure from this and it included doing talks, going to book groups and judging writing competitions.  The editor and publisher were both GDST girls!

 I gave a copy to my radio producer and he suggested adapting it for the Woman’s Hour drama.  I did this and it was broadcast in March 2010.

 I then went on to write a second novel, Interpreters, and it was published in September 2011.



This second novel formed an important part of a part-time PhD in creative writing which I finished in late 2011 and was awarded in early 2012 making me end up as the doctor I once thought I’d wanted to be.



No one’s life is straightforward.  I had had years of problems with my left foot starting with an operation in 1986 and several more in 1993 and from 2005.  During the recording of Cloths of Heaven a bone scan showed a tumour higher up the leg and, at the same time, my husband was sacked.


In April 2010 I had the leg amputated below the knee.  This was not great but at least Alastair was at home. The tumour was found to have recurred in 2011 and in June of that year I had an above-knee amputation.


I had never known what a blog was before this point but I started writing one and ended up with quite a following.  I was also commissioned to write a piece for The Guardian.  Sales of my books went up a bit and then there was a new commission on health blogs.


I have almost come full circle.  I use love of literature and story telling in my teaching of ethics.  I also use film, poetry and literature in modules on mental health in Bedlam and Beyond and heart, lungs and blood in Bleeding Hearts and Fevered Lungs.


So I wish you all the very best on your paths through life-  I urge you to be creative, take career risks, not be afraid to do things that you are not sure you can do.  Above all, do whatever you can to earn your living doing so

Dear friends,

Some people may not have heard that Sue died on the 10th of November. Her funeral will be at St George’s Church  (St. George’s Road) in Kemptown at 3pm on Thursday 21st November followed by a celebration at the Hilton Metropole Brighton for food and drinks to which you are warmly invited and strongly encouraged to attend.

Dress however you feel comfortable, we will not be wearing black.

No flowers or wreaths please, donations to the Martlets Hospice and Sussex Rehabilitation Centre in Sue’s name.

We kindly urge you to bring a photo/s of Sue and memories, handwritten or typed, which will be stuck into a memorial book for Alastair, Seb and Anna to keep. The book is 7 x 5 inches and will be available for people to contribute to at the wake.

Parking will be very difficult in Kemptown, so we encourage you to use public transport. There is a car park in the Hilton with about 150 spaces and you can park there all day for £5, just validate your ticket at the hotel reception.

For people who are unable to walk to the Hilton (about 25 mins walk along seafront) there will be a shuttle bus service from the church to the Hilton.

Thank you,

Alastair, Anna and Sebastian Burtt

Maps and Information

St George’s Church:

The Hilton Metropole:

Martlets Hospice:

Sussex Rehabilitation Centre:

If you have a problem of any sort on the day, a few friends will have their mobiles on them.


There has been yet a third adventure following a night in East Grinstead with Anna in August and the (not The Train Spotting) trip. Anna and I had fun, but it was definitely a pecuniary rip off demanding massive strength and determination in the face of appalling disabled access. I was hugely fortunate to have been allocated a bed at the Martlets Hospice in Hove the day I returned from Scotland—without which I don’t think I would have had the courage or energy to do that or the third adventure, which was to fly to NYC and take the Queen Mary 2 to Southampton with Anna, Seb and Nurse J. The timing wasn’t perfect but hey, what’s a bit of half term between teachers?Image

As a reasonably broad-minded person, there are few things I can categorically say I would never do. One of them is going bungee jumping, another is getting my tongue pierced and the third is going on a cruise. Yet there I was, feeling the wind whistle through the hole in my tongue as I leant from the gunwale of the Queen Mary 2 dressed in a golden Dior evening gown, safe in the arms of Leonardo and to cap it all, I had one of the most fantastic trips of my life. OK the first two parts are lies but this really was the most poignant, meaningful and joyous holiday that I can remember.



On my return to the hospice, I have realized more and more that there is something very bizarre in becoming a character in your own play. Nearly ten years ago I was commissioned to write a play called The Tuesday Group, based on the words of a group of people with life limiting illnesses at a hospice day centre. At the time there felt something slightly wrong in writing words such as these. But as each amputation followed on each amputation and the pain gradually increased, I couldn’t help feeling that life was beginning to imitate art in ways that were just a little too spooky.  My hands appear to have lost connection with my brain and I can’t help but wish I could reverse the update on my iPhone as it has suddenly become too complicated to navigate. Now, I can only actually write anything at all if Matron Anna puts aside her dissertation and scribes for me.


In my mind, my brothers and trains are inextricably linked. As very small children, our favourite game was Night Train which consisted of bundling Mike into a laundry box while Phil and I would push it up and down the landing from London to Scotland. I reckon I was a pretty accomplished guard. I am less proud of myself as an appallingly sulky, foul-mouthed  twelve-year-old, traipsing round Crewe Works a few yards behind them, muttering that their interest in trains and train-spotting was completely and utterly moronic.

So when we started planning a siblings break, trains had to feature. The problem with planning now is that the speed of deterioration in mobility and increase in pain is difficult to predict. Undeterred, we took the first class day train to Inverness which gave us the luxury of spending time with each other. But by the time we arrived, neither of my legs could really remember how to move. The three steps up into the Cullodden House Hotel annexe, which I had assured the manager would be no problem, were very definitely a problem. But instead of whistling throughImage his teeth and shaking his head sadly, the manager summoned a colleague and together they carried me in my wheelchair into my room and later up another eight stairs to the dining room without even breaking into a sweat. What could have been a disaster turned into a hugely pleasant break. The sun shone the whole time.  As a surprise,  Phil had brought a box of ancient slides and a viewer and there, amongst the 200 slides, was tiny Mike curled up in the box. Now, half a century  later, very definitely promoted to tour leader. As we toasted our successful trip in the bar of the sleeper I felt  hugely blessed to have such wonderful brothers.  I’ve seen Anna and Seb grow to value each other over recent weeks and it makes me happier than almost anything else.

The truth behind morphine

Photo courtesy Sian James

Morphine is taking me all over the place. If I shut my eyes, particularly after a long day, I disappear into parallel universe.  Recently I spent what seemed like hours and hours trying to persuade Seb that, really, the best way to transport a group of baby raccoons out of the woods was to get a washing machine and put them in the drum.  Only to open my eyes and wail to a bemused Matron A that there was no way raccoons would like to be transported in a washing machine.  And she thought we were watching The Great British Bake Off.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us …”

Dickens says it all here: In many ways, this is very definitely the best of times. I have had extraordinary conversations with friends and family. I have had the opportunity to tell people how much I love them and have had the honour of being told, or shown by actions and generosity, how much I am loved. I have spent hours with Matron A, telling her things about my life that she may never have heard had we not made the time to just be together. I spend my days doing things that have meaning or bring me pleasure. But in many ways this really is the worst of times. The word incredulity resonates with me. I just can’t believe that my life is to be cut short at the very time I am happiest at work and at home – when there is so much left to do. I can’t believe that I won’t be around to see Sebastian continue to develop into the loveliest and funniest young man I know. I can’t believe I’ll never know what Anna decides to do with her life; if she’ll ever have a child. My darkest moments are brief but intense. I am enraged by the knowledge that all the amputations and months of wound care and rehabilitation have essentially been for nothing. Mostly, I rail against the knowledge that Nurse J and I won’t spend our retirement as we’d imagined, pootling about the country with Alfie or his successor, sitting in cafes or bars, just chattering and watching the world go by.