A Chance Encounter - The Power of Awareness

23 Feb 2021 | By Jill

Hugh - a conversation about Ectopic Pregnancy on Hadrian’s Wall: a chance encounter and its implications

I was on the Alston-Bellingham leg of the Montane Spine Race 2020 when I met Ellie (a documentary-maker following the Spine Race) as I made my way along Hadrian’s Wall. It was the 5th leg of the race (Friday, I think?!), and for some background the weather had been everything that had been promised, including Storm Brendan, and a blizzard over Cross Fell. I had spent a couple of fitful hours sleep in a bivy bag outside the toilets at Greenhead, and was going at my own pace along the wall (an amazing structure, even by today’s standards) alone when I was buzzed by a drone overhead, and made a note not to do anything too embarrassing in case I was being filmed! I met the drone operator and said “Hi!”, and shortly after met Ellie, who asked if she could video me for a bit and talk to me about why I was doing the Spine Race, and I agreed. I was glad of some human (rather than sheep) company. I had made my own EPT flag and attached it to my rucksack below my race number, and much like me, it was a bit bedraggled by this stage, but hanging in there! I told her about how Helen (my wife) had had what we initially thought was a miscarriage in July 2019, and then we found out that it was actually an ectopic pregnancy, and how we (both doctors) had been astonished that it was such a common condition affecting 1/80 pregnancies. We had both had it hammered into us at medical school to “never overlook it in a woman of child-bearing age with abdominal pain”, but had been given the impression that it was a very rare problem. I talked a bit about the treatment, but mainly about how once you mentioned it to people, a really high proportion seemed to have been affected by one, or knew someone who had. I remember Ellie being really involved in the conversation, and also managing not to take a slide in the mud (unlike me!) during the interview. We parted company before the end of the Wall, and I carried on to Bellingham, and ultimately the finish in Kirk Yetholm. After the race I watched the video clips of me from the Spine Race that the event shared on Facebook and I was really touched by the fact that the video of this interview was included in one of the clips. A few months later I received a message through Instagram from Ellie saying that she had interviewed me along Hadrian’s Wall, and that she had herself suffered an ectopic pregnancy a little while later, and that our conversation had made her more aware of the condition, and thanking me for sharing our experience. It made me think about the importance of sharing experiences as a way of making conditions more relatable and increasing public awareness, and was quite an emotional moment for Helen and me.


My first job of 2020 was filming an endurance race called The Montane Spine Race which runs the entire length of the 268 mile Pennine Way and is renowned as Britain’s most brutal race.  My husband and I work together as a team filming endurance events, and this is always a highlight of the calendar. I didn’t meet Hugh until towards the end of the 7 day race. We were looking for a story and some anecdotes to cover and record for the day’s short film which was to be published that evening and then I saw his tracker on the map moving along close to our location and knew we hadn’t yet spoken to Hugh on camera – target found! At this point on the race the runners are so spread out, there are normally many miles, hours and possibly days between their nearest companion so it can be at times quite a lonely race or peaceful – depending on which you prefer!  Either way, for us working on it and for the runners running it, more often than not it’s a welcome break to chat to someone. I caught up with Hugh, first noticing a white (or rather by this point – more muddy grey!), hand drawn flag on the back of his pack flapping up and down.  We started chatting and I was asking about his progress and how he was feeling, we walked on for a while in this manner and then I asked him about the flag on the back of his pack which had caught my eye. Hugh then explained to me how he was running the Spine Race to raise money for the Ectopic Pregnancy Trust after his wife Helen had had an ectopic pregnancy after it first being thought it was a miscarriage in July 2019 – at this point I checked in with Hugh to see if he minded me carrying on with my filming. He was happy to tell their story on camera and explained to me how shocked they were to discover that so many women (1 in 80), suffer an ectopic pregnancy yet it is so unheard of, and both Helen and Hugh are doctors! I certainly hadn’t heard of it before- and after listening to Hugh I remember thinking how on earth can something like this, this potentially life threatening situation, not be talked about more if 1 in 80 women go through it?  Hugh explained that along with raising money for the trust, himself and Helen were also spreading the word and trying to raise awareness so that women can be more prepared, just in case. I carried on chatting and filming Hugh for the next little stretch until he left the wall and I plodded back to the car to start editing the film of our conversation together so that the film could go out that evening via social media. Fast forward a few months, and my husband and I found out that we were expecting a baby, due in January 2021.  I was four weeks when I found out I was pregnant, but very quickly became worried by bleeding and stomach pains.  I spoke to my GP but thanks to Covid I wasn’t able to go in to see them face to face.  I remember it being a bit of an odd conversation as my GP was trying to ascertain the amount of pain I was in, but this being my first pregnancy I had nothing to compare it to, and I didn’t think the pain was that bad, certainly no worse than period pains I’ve had. My doctor did book me in for a scan for about 10 days later, warning me that it could be regular pains or it could potentially be a miscarriage. On the one hand I was beginning to think it was a miscarriage, but then at the back of my mind was my conversation I had had with Hugh which made me Google the symptoms of an ectopic.  My symptoms didn’t really seem to have anything in common with those I read about online, but the nagging thought stayed with me.  I must admit I was a bit too nervous of going to A&E in case I was purely a case of overreacting especially during the pandemic when we were warned away from all but essential visits to the hospital, plus the bleeding did slowly dissipate. A few days later the pain came back and my stomach swelled up to the size of a balloon – I very strange sensation, I looked like I was about four months pregnant!  I called my GP again, now quite worried that something other than a miscarriage was going on.  They were much more concerned and my scan in hospital the following day confirmed that it was an ectopic, and with signs of internal bleeding I was into emergency surgery that day. I felt much more pre-armed having had that conversation with Hugh and whilst the newly accompanying  knowledge of what an ectopic pregnancy was didn’t diminish the emotions and confusion, it made us feel a little more in control of the situation in the hospital whirlwind that followed the scan,  and it gave us a feeling of not being quite as alone in the situation as you might immediately feel. I was thinking about Helen and Hugh a fair bit in the weeks after the surgery, and mentally returned frequently to our conversation on Hadrian’s Wall, a little bemused and reassured by this chance encounter. I dropped Hugh and Helen a message on Instagram to thank them both for the awareness they are raising and explained that we had gone through the same thing.  By them sharing their experience they had given us confidence and comfort which made the whole situation feel immediately much more manageable and less lonely. They sent a lovely message back full of support and we really hope to see them on whatever mad, and utterly bonkers extreme challenge they are on next.

If you feel inspired by Hugh and Ellie’s incredible challenges and fundraising, please take a look at ways to get involved or email our Fundraising Co-ordinator who is happy to help: jill@ectopic.org.uk.

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