Saturday, November 03, 2007

Meet the baby-maker

Lesley Regan is a leading world expert in obstetrics. She talks to Suzi Godson about love and loss, and her battle to save her miscarriage clinic

With her clipped Home Counties enunciation, twinkly eyes and stylish hairdo,Professor Lesley Regan looks like she would be more at home in Harvey Nicks than a science lab.

At 51, England’s first chair of obstetrics and gynaecology also looks enviably youthful and, despite causing a nationwide scramble when she announced on BBC’s Horizon programme that laboratory testing had shown the budget Boots No 7 Protect & Perfect Beauty serum to be more effective than Crรจme de la Mer, she has little interest in the science of beauty.

Her real focus is solving the problem of recurrent miscarriage and her pioneering research in this field has led to the development of treatments that are now standard. Her Recurrent Miscarriage Clinic (RMC) at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, West London, has an astonishing 80 per cent success rate and she credits much of this to on-site laboratories that allow a rapid feedback loop between diagnoses, tests, research, ideas and treatments.

However, last year, one of the labs, which was housed in a crumbling Victorian hospital outbuilding, was closed by Health and Safety officials. St Mary’s said it would not be able to provide new facilities for Professor Regan and her team for eight to ten years and she had to choose between watching the unit disintegrate or trying to find the £1 million required to refurbish the RMC unit by herself.

“I didn’t have the time to wait for a new hospital to be built and my patients (many of whom are in their thirties and forties) have even less time,” she says. “I just had to get on with it.”

So this month she is launching a “buy a brick” campaign, the latest in a series of charity events that have so far raised £650,000. “It’s been a rollercoaster for me. At one point, when I couldn’t get beyond a certain figure, I thought I should just give up, but there comes a critical point when you have invested so much and you have to see it through.”

Professor Regan’s life has had its share of heartbreak. Her only brother died eight months after she gave birth to premature twins, and despite wanting to be a doctor since she was a child, she almost didn’t make it into medicine at all. At school, she liked biology but found maths and physics incomprehensible. “I was told it would be impossible for me to get into medical school and that I should set my sights on becoming a secretary.”

This only strengthened her resolve. She was aware that sacrifices had been made to send her to a private school. Her mother was a secretary and her father, who started working at the age of 12, went on to become the distribution manager for IPC newspapers. His advice to his only daughter was that she could achieve anything if she was prepared to work hard enough. And she was.

When she duly failed her maths and physics A levels, she diligently enrolled at Kingston Polytechnic, resat her exams and became the first member of her family to get a place at university. She then trained at the Royal Free Hospital, North London, before becoming a research fellow at Cambridge University, where she wrote her thesis on miscarriage.

She felt guilty being pregnant

Academic success gave Professor Regan confidence, but it also proved to be a physical turning point. Although she is slim now, she says: “I was a very fat teenager and I have spent the rest of my life worrying about putting on weight.”

Although she eats masses of fruit and greens, after 40 she found that she put on weight easily.

She admits asking her husband at least once a week whether her bum looks big. At this point, on cue, the room fills with the sound of James Blunt singing “You’re beaudiifuulll...” She has it as her mobile phone ringtone.

There is something sad about a woman of Professor Regan’s calibre worrying about the size of her behind, but she has a touch of the Bridget Jones about her. Though she was focused on her career, she had always hoped that she might marry young and have children. However, by the time she met her husband-to-be John Summerfield, a liver specialist, she was 35 and he had four children from a previous marriage. They married in 1990 and when she became pregnant with twins at 38, she felt lucky and guilty. Lucky because she became pregnant so easily. Guilty because she spends every day with older women who are infertile or suffering recurrent miscarriages.

Her twins, Jenny and Clare, now 14, were born prematurely and spent their first month in the Winnicott special care baby unit at St Mary’s Hospital. Both girls thrived and, 12 weeks after their birth, Professor Regan returned to work. Five months later, tragedy struck when her younger brother Martin died in a swimming accident in Bali. He was 35. She had to organise getting his body back to Britain and to support her parents who were devastated.

“After we had the funeral I had a period where I was exhausted. When Jenny and Clare turned 1, instead of feeling thrilled, all I could think of was the fact that their zany, fabulous uncle was gone.” She threw herself into her work and, three years later, she was appointed to her current position as the chair of obstetrics and gynaecology and head of the department at St Mary’s.

Professor Regan worries that treatments such as IVF and fertility drugs have given older women unrealistic expectations about their ability to have children. “We seem to be educating people to believe that they can have a career and then buy IVF or egg donation. It makes having a baby seem like a commodity. And so many of the treatments don’t work. IVF is only effective in 17 to 20 per cent of women and most of those are under 36 or have had one child already, and the success rate for implantation in women over 40 is just over 5 per cent.

“Mothers are expected to be bionic”

Professor Regan says she feels rather “schizophrenic” about the number of older women making a last-ditch attempt to have a baby. On the one hand she wants to help, but she also recognises that the NHS is not a bottomless pit and it cannot treat everyone.

“In the past 20 years the number of babies born to women over 40 has doubled from 8 to 16 per cent and, although miscarriages are not registered, it is reasonable to assume that these have increased too. If we define recurrent miscarriage as three or more losses before the 12-week stage, it affects 1 or 2 per cent of the population, but if we investigate women after two miscarriages, it affects 5 per cent of the population. That’s the difference between 1 in 20 women and 1 in 1,000.”

She often thought that she would like to have more children but felt that she was too old and would be pushing her luck. With four step-children as well, surely she had enough on her plate? Professor Regan laughs. “When you are pregnant everyone smiles at you. After that women are expected to be bionic, working, dealing with kids and running the house.”

She says that she and her husband used to have arguments about domestic responsibilities but these have been largely resolved by online shopping and “the little man who pulls up in his van with veg for the fridge and fruit for the bowl”. It sounds incredibly healthy, but she claims that she is not particularly health conscious and admits that she finds exercise boring.

That’s not to say she doesn’t do any; she has a running machine in front of the TV in her bedroom, which she uses at the weekend. And while her cholesterol levels are normal, she and her husband both take statins daily. Her husband was the liver specialist on the committee that reviewed their safety and Professor Regan is convinced that taking them decreases her risk of heart attack by 25 per cent. “Let’s face it, having a massive stroke and ending up in a wheelchair is really not my style,” she says.

Who is she?

Professor Lesley Regan is a consultant obstetrician and the head of the Recurrent Miscarriage Clinic (RMC) at St Mary’s Hospital, in Paddington, West London.

She is also the first woman to hold a chair in obstetrics and gynaecology in the UK.

She has written several books on pregnancy and miscarriage including Your Pregnancy Week by Week, and Miscarriage: What Every Woman Needs to Know.

The RMC is the largest clinic of its kind in the world and it deals with more than 1,000 new cases each year, with a success rate of 80 per cent.

If you would like to help to save the Recurrent Miscarriage Clinic at St Mary’s Hospital, you can buy a brick in the entrance hall and have a chosen name inscribed on it for £250. Visit


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