MP resigns from front bench to care for dying girlfriend

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A senior MP who gave up a career in medicine to enter politics has quit his frontbench job to nurse his terminally ill girlfriend.

Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon since 1997, said that he wanted to "make the most of the time we have left" with his partner, Liz O'Hara, 29.

The former interior designer from Co Mayo in Ireland was given 18 months to live when she was diagnosed with a serious brain tumour last year. The couple hope they will have longer together.

"It's very upsetting to have a person who you are with suffer like this, particularly when they are so young," Dr Harris, 37, said yesterday.

"It's a race against time. We don't know how long we have got. She knows that three years would be lucky because many people with this condition don't make it. She's completely well at the moment but it's this lurking thing."

The former health spokesman added: "I am full of admiration for the way she presses on with things." Ms O'Hara was diagnosed in June last year in Ireland. Repeated visits to her GP and local hospital in Britain had failed to spot the tumour, which is the most virulent of its kind. She was sent away by her GP "with headache pills" but collapsed after going to Ireland to pay a visit to her parents.

She had a brain scan in an Irish hospital and soon afterwards a tumour "the size of a fist" was removed from her right frontal lobe. Since then she has undergone radiotherapy and faces the prospect of the tumour growing back. She would possibly have to have further surgery and chemotherapy to treat it.

Dr Harris, who worked in Oxford as a junior hospital doctor before becoming an MP, is angry that her symptoms were not taken seriously in Britain. He even asked former colleagues to ensure that Ms O'Hara had a brain scan, saying he had a feeling that her headaches could be a symptom of a tumour.

But she never had a scan in the UK. "This is the worst kind of tumour and the one that is the likeliest to recur," he said. Since Ms O'Hara was diagnosed, the couple have tried to travel as much as possible and have been on trips to South Africa and California. They have been together for four years and live in Oxford. Ms O'Hara travels to Ireland for medical treatment.

Dr Harris said that he decided to give up his frontbench position when he realised that he would, sooner or later, have to take on a caring role when Ms O'Hara's condition worsened.

Dr Harris, who is divorced, has been liaising with doctors about his girlfriend's care and admitted that he was initially gloomy about her prospects.

"It was looking very bleak at one point because of the late diagnosis. She nearly died from the pressure of the tumour. But she is young and otherwise fit." The MP flew to Ireland when she was first diagnosed so he could offer her support and was with her when she went into surgery.

Ms O'Hara did not want to discuss her illness publicly and Dr Harris hadtold a few people including his staff, who have been very supportive. But the MP told Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, last year about the situation and explained that he had been missing votes in the House of Commons to be with his girlfriend while she had been in hospital. Last year, he told Mr Kennedy that he might have to take a sabbatical to be with her. Dr Harris was offered other frontbench jobs in yesterday's Liberal Democrat reshuffle. But he said that he wanted to return to the back benches so that he could be with his girlfriend instead. "It's not possible to have quality time when you are on call all the time to respond to whatever Labour is getting up to. I want to be with Liz," he said. "We are not really looking very far ahead because what happens at the end isn't clear. It's not usually a long drawn-out thing."