A Leading Scottish doctor took her own life after a two-year struggle with Covid 'devastated' her mental and physical health, leaving her unable to work.

Professor Fiona Denison, Honorary Consultant Obstetrician at NHS Lothian and a mother-of-two, died on Saturday at the age of 51, days after an operation that she hoped would improve her health was postponed due to her contracting Covid for the second time.

Paying tribute, health leaders said Professor Denison’s award-winning research into reproductive medicine had “changed health outcomes for mothers and babies here in Scotland and beyond” while she was described as a "charming, gentle and caring" doctor.

Her husband, Gordon Taylor, said that his wife would have wanted the full circumstances of her death to be known, so that others might learn from her experience.

He said: "If Fiona’s story is able to shine another light on the critical importance of mental health and, through this, help others, then she would feel that a fitting legacy alongside the huge contribution she made through her clinical and medical research roles, as well as in her private life."

His wife, who was also Professor of Translational Obstetrics at the University of Edinburgh, became seriously unwell after developing Covid in the first wave of the pandemic in March 2020, suffering respiratory complications and breathing difficulties. She was admitted to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and treated in isolation for several days.

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While her physical symptoms resolved and she was able to return to their home in Edinburgh her husband says the trauma of struggling to breathe in an isolation room led to ongoing flashbacks and anxiety.

She was diagnosed with acute stress disorder which then became severe depression, which she had not suffered from previously.

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Mr Taylor said: "Ultimately, she was diagnosed as a suicide risk and admitted to the Royal Edinburgh Hospital in summer 2020.

 

"It was during her treatment there that she discovered the therapeutic benefits of art which blossomed into the beautiful paintings with which she delighted friends and family.

"Her condition improved and she was able to return home but Covid took another toll on her health by exacerbating a pre-existing condition she had with her digestive system which was also impacted by the medication she was taking to help with her depression."

He said surgery to try to improve her digestive problems did not resolve her difficulties and she was unable to return to her clinical work, which had a devastating effect on her mental health.

"Being re-admitted to hospital was traumatic as it brought back all the memories of struggling to breathe while in isolation," said Mr Taylor.

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She suffered a further blow after developing Covid again over Christmas and then further surgery related to her digestive complaint was cancelled.

Mr Taylor said:  "She had been steeling herself for the operation given the traumatic memories a return to the hospital environment held for her but was also hopeful that this would be a positive step forwards."

"As Fiona expressed to friends and family: ‘it seems I never catch a break’.  "Although, outwardly, she appeared to be coping with this latest of many setbacks, Fiona took her own life on Saturday evening."

Mr Taylor said the reaction to his wife's death from family, friends and medics who had supported her had been "shocked disbelief" because she had appeared to be "in a better place" as 2021 drew to a close.

He said his wife had started to return to academic work and was appointed Chair of the NICE Medical Technologies Advisory Committee.

He said: "Ultimately, it seems the combined toll Covid took on both her mental and physical health proved too much to bear.  Fiona’s suicide is a stark reminder that mental health is a very fragile and fast changing thing and mental illness can be devastating even when well-supported by family, friends and professional services.”

Fiona leaves behind a loving husband, sons James and David and a "wonderfully supportive legion of wider family, friends and colleagues who are heartbroken by her loss and will love and miss her always." 

Her father, Richard and brother Alan are both doctors and mother, Jean, a dentist.

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Professor Denison’s work in her chosen field was wide-ranging.  She worked to prevent still and premature births across the UK and collaborated with her peers in Uganda, aiming to improve childbirth outcomes there and in other low and middle income countries.

HeraldScotland:

She developed a submersible mirror to support water-births helping midwives view the birthing process more easily which reduced risk for both mum and baby.  She won a number of awards for this innovation.

In the UK, an estimated 945 000 people (1·5% of the population) had self-reported long Covid on July 4, 2021. 

Prevalence was greatest in people aged 35–69 years, girls and women, people living in the most deprived areas, those working in health or social care, and those with another activity-limiting health condition or disability.

Experts say the effect of long Covid on mental health warrants further and longer-term investigation.

Mr Taylor said: "As a medical professional and clinical researcher, Fiona brought honesty and transparency to everything she did and she would have wanted us to honour her memory by ensuring the full circumstances are known about her tragic death such that others can learn from her experience."

Donations in memory of Professor Fiona Denison may be made to the Edinburgh and Lothians Health Foundation https://www.justgiving.com/lhbef      

The Samaritans can be contacted at any time, 365 days a year, by calling free on 116 123 or at samaritans.org