biography

Then Satan sent in his bill, and it was a heavy one.

He sent his Big Black Crab to collect. In 1993 Danielle suffered a grand mal seizure. We rushed her to hospital but the diagnosis was a malignant brain cancer, the Big Black Crab. It was a case of “operate or die”.

“Who is the best brain surgeon in the world?” I asked.

“Professor Mitch Berger, head of the neurosurgery unit of the University Hospital of Denver,” they told me. I contacted Mitch. He was on the point of leaving for two weeks holiday. He cancelled the family holiday, packed a bag of his instruments and boarded the next available aircraft to Cape Town.

He had Danielle on the operating table the day after he arrived. It took seven hours but he removed a tumour the size of a goose egg from the centre of her brain. He stayed two days to make sure she had recovered. Then I took him to the airport. On the way there I asked: “How much do I owe you, Mitch?”

He replied, “I am paid by Denver University Hospital. I did not come here for money. I came to try to save Danielle’s life.”

Later I was able to persuade that saintly man to bring his wife and two lovely children to Africa on safari, as my guest.

But despite Mitch’s skill and dedication, the nightmare had begun. Danielle had gone under the knife as a robust, well-balanced, intelligent and loving woman. She came out of the operating theatre a frightened and confused child.

Mitch had been forced to leave a tiny piece of the tumour in place. Any attempt to remove it would have rendered Danielle blind and dumb. She had to undergo cobalt radiation. She lost all her hair.

To soothe the terrible injuries to her brain, and prevent the seizures which would surely have followed, she was placed on powerful medication. This was taken three times day. One of the side effects was massive weight gain. She became obese. I told her: “Now there is more of you for me to love.”

Every three months her brain had to be scanned to detect any morbid changes. These scans became the focal point of our lives.

In the end the Big Black Crab always wins. The vestige of the tumour resuscitated itself. I flew with her to the United States. Mitch operated again, but this was the beginning of the end. Her condition began to deteriorate rapidly.

In early 1999 she sank into coma. When she died in December of that year I was sitting at her bedside and holding her hand. In death she looked like a sleeping child, utterly serene and peaceful. I had done all my mourning over the previous six years. I was left numb and empty.

This biography, with a bibliography, is available for download as a PDF

Wilbur Smith

The land I know and love

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