Filmmaker’s baby trouble has a funny side

Wayne Thallon. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Wayne Thallon. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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AUTHOR and filmmaker Wayne Thallon managed to see the humour in a mistaken diagnosis of his unborn daughter and after turning to stand-up has found that laughter really is the best medicine when it comes to coping with Emily’s ‘complicated heart’

DAD-to-be Wayne Thallon braced himself for the hardest moment in his life, the hospital appointment which would almost certainly set the wheels in motion for his longed for baby to be aborted.

Wayne Thallon with Emily at nine months old. Picture: contributed

Wayne Thallon with Emily at nine months old. Picture: contributed

He and wife Anna had already been told their unborn child had serious medical complications that meant the baby might not survive.

Now results from a scan to assess just what was wrong revealed terrible news, that the baby’s internal organs were horribly out of position.

Desperate to be parents, the couple had come to the distressing decision that the only sensible thing to do was to avoid unnecessary suffering and seriously consider terminating the yearned for pregnancy.

“The MRI scan results said ‘situs inversus’ which meant the internal organs were back to front,” explains Wayne, an award-winning filmmaker who was busy making a new movie when things started to go wrong. “The baby’s heart was on the wrong side, everything was switched around and out of place.

“We already knew the baby would need heart surgery within hours of being born. There was too much wrong. It was with a very heavy heart that we made the decision to take the next step.”

A hellish situation indeed for a couple at what should have been a time of pure joy. But today Wayne can’t stop laughing as he reveals what happened next.

“We got to the foetal medicine unit all set to go in and get things going when we got a phone call,” he explains. “They’d read the scan back to front.”

Looking back he can see the comic absurdity of a situation that could have so easily ended in disaster. And even now, with baby Emily hours from her first birthday but requiring constant vigilance – with the prospect of more surgery and constant sleep deprivation as Wayne takes the “night shift” caring for her – it seems incredible that the nightmare of raising a sick child could have any light moments.

But in spite of being in the grip of perhaps the worst time imaginable, Wayne looked on the bright side and managed to pen an hour-long Fringe stand-up comedy show which draws on some of his most bizarre real life experiences.

Finding his funny bone in a desperately difficult time was, he admits, not always easy but served as a release valve for the horrendous pressure. “I’ve had a lot of long dark nights watching her,” explains Wayne, whose 2011 Edinburgh-based movie based on his own childhood spent visiting a family member’s sauna-brothel, A Spanking in Paradise, scooped various awards.

“So I figured I’d make the most of months of alone in the dark to write comedy for a show and do it in aid of the British Heart Foundation.”

The week-long run at The Caves kicks off by explaining the background to Emily’s remarkable fight for life but then draws on his true experiences – from posing as a God fearing missionary to persuade a girl of his boyfriend credentials, to the cringe moment he found himself undergoing fertility checks, waiting to provide a sperm sample alongside other, equally uncomfortable men.

Making light of life when the chips are down might seem strange, but Wayne’s not alone – author Iain Banks, below, gave a quirky take on his terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year by declaring he was “officially very ill”.

However Wayne admits there wasn’t much to smile about when the antenatal ten-week scan on Emily revealed fluid around her neck – a possible sign of heart failure. A further test revealed she had a congenital heart defect called coarctation of the aorta, in which the vital artery which feeds oxygenated blood through the body is narrow. Left undetected, babies fall ill within days and often don’t survive.

“Sadly babies that at first seem healthy, die horribly as a result of it,” explains Wayne, whose father Rab was well known as a bass guitarist in various Edinburgh bands and ran a string of designer jeans shops. “The blood doesn’t get to the lower organs and by the time it becomes clear there’s a problem it’s too late.

“We were very lucky it was picked up, even though we were told it would mean Emily would need surgery almost straight after birth.”

Further tests showed Emily had just one fully functioning kidney and an additional problem – holes in the heart. “The consultant described it as a ‘complicated heart’, it was a case of ‘oh we’ll give it a bash when she’s born’ but he pretty much implied it could be curtains,” adds Wayne, 38.

Heart surgery at two days old solved one of Emily’s problems, however she was so small and the work on her aorta so delicate that the surgeon accidentally severed a vocal chord. And when she struggled to handle being removed from the ventilator used during surgery, a decision was taken to give her a tracheostomy – a breathing tube straight into the neck.

It meant 24-hour observation to monitor her oxygen levels. And the tube is likely to remain for two years, by which time Emily will need 
surgery to tackle holes in her heart.

There have been other nightmare moments – from a collapsed lung to a potentially fatal infection. But Wayne, who left school at Fettes to pursue a career as an author and filmmaker, insists smiling has been the best of medicine.

“It might seem strange to be thinking about doing comedy when this is going on,” he admits. “But I haven’t got the time right now to write a book or carry on making my next film.

“And stand-up comedy is the final medium for me to conquer, or at least attempt to exploit. I certainly can’t sing or dance or act, I might as well do this and try to help the British Heart Foundation.

“You have to keep on just reminding yourself that things could be much worse.”

Procreation, 9pm, August 6-25, Just the Tonic at The Caves, Niddry Street South, www.edfest.com.

‘Either that wallpaper goes, or I do’

YOU’VE got to laugh... because the alternative is just too depressing. Dark humour helped terrified First World War troops through the hell of the trenches. And in the Second World War, the most difficult of times were often dealt with using gallows humour – a means of turning a bad situation into a positive one with the impact of showing the enemy that the spirit was not yet broken.

Indeed, British soldiers came up with a particularly ghoulish nickname for the M4 Sherman tank which had the unfortunate habit of bursting into flames if hit – Ronson, after the cigarette lighter with the slogan “Lights up every time!”

Individuals have often drawn on the darkest of moments and found comedy gold. When author Ian Rankin told Iain Banks he wasn’t sure what wedding gift to buy him, terminally ill Banks instantly quipped: “A cure”. And Oscar Wilde, on his deathbed in a cheap boarding house is said to have uttered the poignant line: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”

American murderer James French must have gained at least some last-gasp amusement from his final line while he waited for the electric chair. “How’s this for a headline?” he mused, “French fries.”

But few could beat William Palmer, known as the Rugeley Poisoner and who was sentenced to be hanged for the murder of his friend and suspected of killing his brother, mother-in-law and four children. Stepping up to the gallows at Stafford Prison, he looked down at the trapdoor beneath his feet, and declared: “Do you think it’s safe?”