Irene Scheimberg - Transcript Summary

Irene Scheimberg

Consultant Paediatric and Perinatal Pathologist,
London Hospital

Interview location: Her home and her office, London
Interview date: 28th July and 2nd August, 2007

Key Themes: Alder Hey, Autopsy, Children, Mentors and Influences, Legislation and Regulation


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Section 1

  • Describes how her Jewish family arrived in Argentina from Russia in the early 1900s.  
  • She and her parents lived with her grandparents, and it was an intellectual household:  “We discussed everything at home: politics, philosophy, history, everything. We all talked...  and there were books everywhere.”  They were active in left-wing politics.  
  • Talks briefly about why she chose medicine, as opposed to history, her other great passion.  Both her parents were doctors, with a strong social conscience, and she too “wanted to do something that I liked and that would allow me to... give something back to society”.
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Section 2

  • Describes in some detail what life was like as a teenager living under a military dictatorship, and how she became involved briefly in youth politics.  “I think we were really very politically naïve, because in a way we just... provided an excuse for the oppression that came afterwards.... We did not realise that our dreams were bound to become nightmares.”
  • Tells of the coup d'état in 1976, her second year of medical school, and how her boyfriend was kidnapped and then killed. “They tied their hands with wire and dropped them from a helicopter into the river to drown.”
  • Talks of other friends being detained, and how she realised her own life was in danger and she needed to leave the country.  “I ended up in Spain, where there were a lot of exiles at the time.”
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Section 3

  • Describes her experience as an exile in Spain, and her struggles to earn a living.
  • Discusses how her experiences in Argentina have affected her outlook and her work as a paediatric pathologist.  “On one hand my experience makes me understand what loss is.  On the other hand it makes me very intolerant of people who complain about minor things.”
  • Talks of her struggle to get back into medical school. 
  • Relates an anecdote about her moment of flight from Argentina and how the authorities tried, unsuccessfully, to remove her and some others from the plane while it was on the tarmac. “It was a Spanish plane and the crew told them they had no jurisdiction.  If I had been travelling on an Argentinian plane I don't know what would have happened to me.”
  • Tells of her marriage in Spain and how her Spanish husband’s job took them to London for a short period where she worked for six months in the laboratory of Julia Polak, who had been her father’s pupil in Argentina.  “It was an opportunity.  I was given the job of a research assistant, and I remember I learnt to do in situ hybridisation.  I met really nice people, some of whom are still friends.”
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Section 4

  • Describes how, after a short period back in Spain, she returns to London, where her Spanish medical qualifications are among the first to be recognised in UK after Spain joined the European Union.
  • Describes how and why she decided to specialise in pathology, after being given the chance to study the subject under Fernando Paradinas at Charing Cross Hospital.  “Fernando was a fantastic teacher.  He knew everything, but he was incredibly modest.  Everybody that went through Charing Cross will tell you about Fernando Paradinas... He was really wonderful.” 
  • Relates an amusing anecdote about her first experience with the “black box”, a teaching tool used in many pathology departments. 
  • Describes how she came to specialise in paediatric and perinatal pathology, and talks in some detail of the importance of such specialist skills.  “Children are... not little adults.  They've got different sorts of diseases.  And for an adult pathologist, it sometimes takes a long time to get your mind around to thinking about children's diseases, rather than conditions that are common in adults.”
  • Her hospital serves a multicultural community and she discusses different attitudes to death and perceptions of postmortem.
  • Discusses in some detail the various reasons for performing a postmortem.  “The main reason to do a postmortem is for the family.  And that's something you should never lose sight of: you want to tell a family what happened.”  Gives some examples, and says:  “The postmortem is the first and only time that that child – particularly if it's a very young baby – will be examined by a doctor... We have a duty to them and to their families.” 
  • Cites the advances that have been made in treating congenital heart disease as a result of research performed on organs retained from autopsy.   “As a consequence of those investigations the mortality in congenital heart disease has decreased dramatically.”
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Section 5

  • Discusses in detail the controversy surrounding shaken baby syndrome. 
  • Describes her own observations and hypotheses about the mechanisms of subdural haemorrhage.
  • Discusses at length the sensitive issue of retained organs, and the origins and effects of the Bristol and Alder Hey controversies.  Describes her personal feelings about rights and responsibilities regarding medical procedures.
  • Discusses issues of consent for autopsy.  Then describes the rewards of her job. “Each baby is somebody's child, and it is always emotionally engaging...  You know you are doing something that's going to help somebody through their grief.”
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Section 6

  • Tells of a period when she came close to a nervous breakdown.  In the struggle to survive as an exile, she had never allowed herself to grieve for her lost friends and family.  “Alder Hey had started to move a lot of things in me, and then the Twin Towers collapsed and I was obsessed, I was really obsessed.  It was as if all my dead people came shouting back at me.”  A small incident at work in 2003 was a final straw, and she had to take three months off. “Sooner or later you have to grieve.”
  • Describes a meeting with the Alder Hey parents, and making a video to help explain the pathologist’s role to families.
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Section 7

  • Returns to issue of how her personal experiences have given her empathy with distressed families.  Relates the story of a child who had an eye removed, and whose Jewish parents agonised about consenting to the eye being kept for further research which could have benefited other members of the family: “For orthodox Jews, everything has to be buried with the person.”
  • Ultimately, orthodoxy  prevailed.  “I will remember this child's eye until I die, because I think I failed.  I failed to pass on the message of what was important.”
  • Ends on a more positive note about the many rewards of her job.


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