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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 June 2; 334(7604): 1168.
PMCID: PMC1885328
From the Frontline

Madeleine McCann

Des Spence, general practitioner, Glasgow

At the time of writing Madeleine McCann is still missing.

I became vaguely aware of the story of the 4 year old girl who went missing while on holiday in Portugal from a crackling radio bulletin. I had an odd sense of unease, but it wasn't until the phone rang—“That's Gerry's daughter”—that the penny dropped. I was at university with Madeleine's father. As the media story took off, my children bombarded me with questions, but I just didn't know what to say. The next day I pulled into a local garage. After sifting through all the banal birthday cards I eventually found a card I felt I could send. Half an hour later the card was still blank: what possible words of comfort could I offer to Gerry and his wife in such plight? I wrote four words.

Since then I have stayed silent, partly out of respect and partly through a desire not to intrude on the family's grief. Last week an old friend emailed me and asked if I would write for Madeleine, but I am a hack and do not feel worthy.

The vision of Madeleine's mother, Kate McCann, holding her daughter's soft toy is my abiding memory. Little is made of Gerry and Kate being doctors, because above all else they are simply parents. Despite all the generous offers of support, the pain etched on their faces says it all: there is nothing that they would not sacrifice to have her back.

They have been criticised for leaving their children unattended, but I too have taken my family on a Mark Warner holiday. We did exactly what Gerry and Kate did: left the kids and checked them regularly while we ate. This was a type of holiday promoted as brief respite from the constant onslaught of caring for preschoolers and, above all, considered “safe.” The McCanns merely did as countless thousands of other parents have done. Any blame or guilt is grossly misplaced and unkind, for they are victims of a random act of utter malevolence. No one has the right to question the McCanns' parental commitment.

Our profession can relate directly to Madeleine's disappearance, and many doctors have personalised the tragedy. Yellow ribbons have been widely worn; beautiful Madeleine innocently gazes from posters on every surgery waiting room in Glasgow; and church services have been overflowing. Medicine can seem a disparate profession, as we scurry along pursuing our careers, but Madeleine's abduction reminds us that the professional veneer of coping with anything is just that—a veneer. We are just ordinary people too, and this story pointedly reminds us that without family and friends life has little meaning. Importantly, religious faith has been recognised for what it is, an affirming source of hope and comfort for the McCanns and millions of others.

Kate and Gerry have been dignified and resolute. They should know that they carry the best wishes and thoughts of the whole profession. We hope they find Madeleine soon. They rightly seek to maintain Madeleine's media profile (

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