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Features > Is there a Doctor in the House?

Neighbours is often criticised for its lack of realism and yet, during its 28 year run, the show has highlighted a range of different illnesses and conditions through its range of characters. This article looks at who was suffering, what they were suffering from, and how the show tackled the illness, as well as providing useful links for those wishing to learn more.

Neighbours has touched upon the issue of cancer several times, with varying degrees of impact. The first portrayal involved Dorothy Burke (Maggie Dence), who learnt that she was suffering from breast cancer. The issue, though resolved fairly quickly, was handled well and often brought up in Dorothy’s stories when she felt, after having a mastectomy, that she couldn’t enter into a relationship again. In the mid-nineties, Annalise Hartman (Kimberley Davies) was diagnosed with skin cancer, after visiting Dr. Karl Kennedy (Alan Fletcher) with an irritating mole on her arm. The melanoma was removed quickly in hospital and rarely mentioned again, which felt like a missed opportunity, given the emotional ramifications it could have had. The next storyline involving cancer was a far more realistic and gruelling affair. After applying to join the police force, Luke Handley (Bernard Curry) was required to complete a medical. When the results came back – Luke was suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – he found it difficult to adjust. In a moving scene, Luke shaved his hair off, something Bernard agreed to do himself to help add to the realism of his portrayal. The storyline lasted many months, following Luke through his treatment and looking at every aspect of his life, even the fact that he couldn’t find work afterwards due to his health problems. A couple of years later, Ruth Wilkinson (Ailsa Piper) had a brush with cancer when she found a suspect lump in her breast. Fortunately, it turned out to be benign. Neighbours’ saddest portrayal of cancer came next, when it claimed its first life in Ramsay Street. After feeling unwell for a while, Madge Bishop (Anne Charleston) found herself in agony one day in the Coffee Shop. After a series of tests, she was told that she had pancreatic cancer and that there was nothing more that could be done for her. She was given six months to live, but after developing an infection, she died after only six weeks. Her final moments provided one of Neighbours’ most moving death scenes. The most recent Ramsay Street resident to be touched by cancer is Steph Scully (Carla Bonner). In a similar way to Luke’s storyline, this has shown every aspect of the disease, its treatment and the effects on everyone’s lives. However, this has possibly been more successful as Steph has a lot more close friends and family in the show and they’ve all been allowed to react. After receiving chemotherapy, Steph went into remission, but the condition returned in 2005 when Steph was pregnant. This time, she opted to wait for treatment, not wanting to harm her unborn child, and had intensive radiotherapy after baby Charlie was born. Arguably, the writers didn't want to repeat Steph's cancer story in exactly the same fashion as before, but it was still disappointing to see it rushed through so quickly the second time. In 2011, guest character Jim Dolan was diagnosed with skin cancer and shown getting treatment before passing away from the disease.

For more information about the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, you can visit www.cancervic.org.au (Australia) or www.cancerbacup.org.uk (UK).

Long QT Syndrome
The life of the Hoyland family was turned upside down when mother Claire died suddenly from a heart condition. Several years later, Summer Hoyland (Marisa Siketa) began to display unusual symptoms, as she started to faint for no apparent reason. Though she began to milk the sympathy she received, things became serious when Summer was diagnosed with Long QT Syndrome, the condition which was likely to be the reason for her mother’s death. Summer was probably the bravest member of the family after the diagnosis, as Max and Rosie began to worry about her. The condition wasn’t explained in a great deal of detail on the show and, after an operation which would cut down on Summer’s need for hospital visits, it is rarely mentioned these days. When the recast character of Summer returned in 2010, her Long QT Syndrome was still referenced, as she often mentioned that she didn't drink coffee and was also hospitalised after drinking too many caffeinated energy drinks.

The Sensitive Hearts foundation informs us that someone in Summer’s condition, regardless of the fact that she had a pace maker fitted in the storyline, would still require regular check ups and the fact that she is taking boxing lessons would also be a serious health issue. For more information about Long QT Syndrome, visit the Sensitive Hearts website at www.sads.org.au

In a typical soap opera storyline, Danni Stark (Eliza Szonert) was immediately mistaken for a drug addict when people saw her injecting herself soon after her arrival in Ramsay Street. Danni was fairly well adjusted to her condition when we first met her, though preferred that as few people as possible knew that she was diabetic. Neighbours handled their portrayal of it well, never forgetting her condition when it mattered. Storylines included Danni going out and forgetting her diabetes bracelet, meaning that when she collapsed outside a club, the police believed she was just drunk. In an effort to learn more about her condition and meet new people, Danni went along to a society for young diabetic people, though she convinced herself that she didn’t fit in. Unfortunately, once Danni left high school and began a career as a designer, the diabetes was rarely mentioned.

For more information on the diagnosis, treatment and management of diabetes, you can visit www.diabetesaustralia.com.au (Australia) or www.diabetes.org.uk (UK)

Melissa Jarrett (Jade Amenta) is the only major character to have suffered from epilepsy during Neighbours’ run. Similarly to Danni, the condition was never an issue for her, only really brought up when it needed to be. To begin with, her friends found it slightly difficult to accept her epileptic fits, but they soon got used to it. In one storyline, Melissa was upset to have to miss the school dance, as the strobe lights might have brought on a fit, so her boyfriend Josh arranged a private school dance in the lounge room, just for the two of them. Neighbours handled this plot well, never being too preachy about it, but constantly highlighting the problems that someone in Melissa’s position could face. A Neighbours youngster faced epilepsy again in 2012, when Andrew Robinson was diagnosed, following a head injury in a car accident. Andrew was seen to try and ignore the problem, not wanting his dad to find out and view it as a weakness, and his fits were shown on screen, though usually just his legs convulsing. After finally receiving a proper diagnosis, Andrew appeared to have his epilepsy under control with medication, though it was still mentioned by other characters, and in a story in which he was unable to drive due to his diagnosis.

For more information on how to cope with epilepsy in your life, you can visit www.epinet.org.au (Australia) or www.epilepsy.org.uk (UK).

Teenage Pregnancy
As a very hot issue of the nineties, it was only a matter of time before one of the teenage girls in Neighbours fell pregnant. However, the last person anyone really expected it to be was Phoebe Bright (Simone Robertson). After having sex with Todd Landers only once, Phoebe fell pregnant, quickly dispelling a lot of myths. Deciding to have an abortion, Phoebe was at the clinic when Todd raced over to stop her, but was run over and killed. The show didn’t really show Phoebe’s struggles as a single, teenage mother though, as she was quickly paired off with older man, Stephen Gottlieb and, after the birth of baby Hope, they were married. A similar storyline occurred in 2003, when Lori Lee (Michelle Ang) fell pregnant after a one-night stand with Connor O’Neill. However, this time Lori made the decision herself not to abort her child and disappeared back home to New Zealand. In the years that followed, Lori returned and introduced Connor to his daughter, Maddy, and the pair both ended up settling in Lorne. Further teen pregnancies occurred in 2006, when Sky Mangel gave birth to daughter Kerry, not knowing at first which of the Timmins brothers, Dylan or Stingray, was the father. And popular teen couple Declan and Bridget also brought a new life into the world, baby India was born in 2009, thought Bridget died a few months later.

Multiple Sclerosis
Popular Neighbours character Susan Kennedy found her life changed dramatically when she was diagnosed with M.S. in 2007. After blacking out at the wheel of her car, Susan hit neighbour Bridget Parker, but it was still a while before Susan's diagnosis came, and she had to suffer through other symptoms, including temporary blindness, before her M.S. was discovered. Seeing a much-loved character facing such a difficult health crisis made for a powerful story, and the issue continues to crop up from time to time, as Susan agreed to act as a surrogate for daughter Libby, and later when the stress of being the Erinsborough News' new editor became too much for her.

Visit MS Australia for further information.

Postnatal depression
Neighbours has handled this issue twice. The first time, involving Daphne Clarke (Elaine Smith), was fairly typical of Neighbours, showing Daphne falling to pieces very quickly and picking herself up again at a similar speed. When the show once again tackled the problem, with Lyn Scully (Janet Andrewartha) almost 15 years later, things seemed to be a little more considered. Lyn’s problems appeared slowly and gradually and her problem was justified with a difficult birth and many other factors. Lyn’s shame over her feelings was extremely well portrayed, though, as with many of the other storylines, and most probably to keep storylines fresh, little of her recovery or counselling sessions was shown.

Lyn and Daphne’s cases were not uncommon, as one in eight new mothers suffers from postnatal depression. For more information and advice on how to get help, you can visit www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au in Australia and www.mama.org.uk in the UK.

When Billy Kennedy (Jesse Spencer) was caught smoking by his parents, they thought the best way to teach him about the downside would be to let him continue smoking. Unfortunately, forcing the cigarettes on their son only led to him almost choking to death and the discovery that Billy was infact asthmatic. Neighbours handled the problem well, with Billy taking up swimming as a means to reduce his suffering from asthma attacks. Sadly, the problem seemed to suddenly be forgotten about when Billy began his career as a carpenter, since surely being in a dusty workshop would do more harm than good…

For more information about coping with asthma, visit www.nationalasthma.org.au in Australia or www.asthma.org.uk in the UK.

Eating Disorders
Debbie Martin (Marnie Reece-Wilmore) seemed to be remarkably well adjusted for a teenager with her family history. However, things began to change as her friends noticed her behaviour becoming secretive and a sudden loss in weight also caused alarm bells to ring in her family. Debbie justified it by saying she wanted to look good for the Debutante Ball, but when Cody discovered a huge stash of chocolate under Debbie’s bed, she realised her friend was suffering from bulimia. This was certainly one of Neighbours’ better attempts to handle such an issue, with Debbie’s behaviour spot on and with the reactions of those around her particularly well observed by writers. Marnie even seemed to look a little more gaunt when the scenes were being shot. After a spell in a retreat for people suffering from eating disorders, which was shown on screen and certainly added a lot to the plot, Debbie gradually went back to normal, eventually deciding to change her life completely by going to live with Rosemary in New York. In 2007, the issue was shown from a male perspective when Ringo Brown became obsessed with his weight and started taking appetite suppressants. The issue came to a head when he almost drowned during a swimming trial at school, and as the truth came out, his family convinced him to get help. The issue was revisited the following year as Ringo suffered through the death of girlfriend Jess Wallace.

For more information, help and advice about eating disorders, you can visit www.eatingdisorders.org.au in Australia and eating-disorders.org.uk/ in the UK.