How I used my treatment to save old works of art

The worst day

I had an appointment to get some results. Finally the doctors had taken me seriously enough to run a CT scan and perform an open-lung biopsy. So seriously in fact, that I was worried about what they were going to tell me and couldn’t think of anything else. Unusually, my husband came to the hospital with me; he had tried to ignore my poor health up to that point. But he had an ulterior motive.  In the waiting room he told me he was leaving me and he did just that – walked out and never came back. He was scared of illness.

I was no longer worried about the results. I was falling apart. I don’t really remember what the doctor told me, he wrote down the name of this rare lung disease he was rather proud to have diagnosed – lymphangioleiomyomatosis – having only seen one case before, and said he thought I had about five years left and that there was no cure, as far as he knew. He was honest.

How it changed my life

I had worked with my husband, so I had no job and no money to pay the mortgage. I had a young son at school – what was I to do? I couldn’t fall apart. So first of all I signed on at the labour exchange and applied for sickness benefit. I had never done so in my life before, but it was a great relief.  My son explained the situation to a friend’s mum and she came to see me. I didn’t know her well, but she was great. She was a singer, so she took me to concerts she was performing in and persuaded me to join a local choir. I hadn’t sung since school, but it was just what I needed. Meeting so many new people and singing Mozart badly had a hugely cathartic effect as well as improving my breathing.

She also gently nagged me, “You should go to college, do something to concentrate your mind and make a new career”.

Luckily for me there was still a grant system in place and the following autumn I started a three-year course in art conservation. But this was just the beginning; once I had finished the BA, I received a year’s paid fellowship at a museum in New York. By that time my son had started at university himself, so I was free to travel. His college even gave him a grant to come out to America to visit me, which I thought was rather generous. While still in New York I was contacted by the Royal College of Art in London, offering research for a PhD in the Victoria & Albert Museum. With help from the Royal College I was also given several bursaries and awards, which helped me survive the course and somehow, four years later, I became Dr G.

Two for the price of one

My lung condition was monitored by the Royal Brompton Hospital, just around the corner from work. From time to time I got ill and had to stay in the hospital. This was where I came across nebulisers, which were a fairly new treatment innovation. But what fascinated me was not what they could do for my lungs, although that was useful, but what I felt sure they could do for the delicate, flaking paintings I was trying to conserve. The hospital lent me an air-compressor and gave me some disposable nebulisers and air tubes. After much trial and error I devised a way to get a consolidant, or glue, into a painting by misting it with a nebuliser, which held the crumbling paint and stopped further loss without changing the colours. Part of my research centred on this treatment, which is still used around the world by conservators today.

This all took place in the 1990s and I’m still here, if somewhat more breathless. I was so busy I forgot to notice when my time was up, according to my first diagnosis.  By concentrating my mind on something far removed from my physical state I was able to divorce myself from it, and my husband, and do something useful in life. Eventually, I had to stop work as I no longer had enough energy or breath to continue, but I am very happy to be Dr G. and still get asked by conservators for advice.


Dr Sandra Grantham has lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM). It is a rare lung disease, with only three to five in a million affected, almost exclusively women. Before retiring, Dr Grantham pursued an extensive academic career in art conservation, working at the Victoria & Albert Museum as a paper conservator.

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