20 June 2012

My wife Pat had a hand in my involvement with Severn Hospice in Telford: it was not because of her encouragement to me to get involved, but because of something which happened just before she died.

Pat was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991, and underwent a mastectomy. This seemed to go well; she progressed for some years having regular checks with her only real problem being lymphodema in her arm. This was treated by another hospice out of the area for many years, but later on she did start having treatment at Telford after we moved to Shropshire. However her cancer was to return along the scar tissue of her mastectomy. Although the obvious signs were removed with a small operation, scans showed that secondary bone cancer had developed in her sacrum.

So from 2002, Pat was treated with medication, radiotherapy and courses of chemotherapy despite which the bone cancer gradually spread to her spine, thigh and skull. Naturally life became quite tough, and it was fortunate that I had retired early and was able to look after her. Friends and family were very supportive, and so we did not call upon palliative care support. Indeed, I suppose we didn’t know very much about what help might be available.

However, just a few days before her death, it became clear that I could no longer cope and I sought help. The most immediate response was from the district nurse team, who were wonderful. Not only were they able to provide care directly, they organised visits from occupational therapists and arranged for a night-sitting nurse to come for what proved to be the last few days of Pat’s life. More help was due on the day following Pat’s death, when we were to have been visited by a hospice doctor and nurse.

Well, I learned so much about just how much help was out there in those few days, and that I suppose was effectively Pat’s final legacy to me. It made me determined that when my time came I would not hesitate to obtain assistance and support, especially as I was now on my own. I knew that my time would be coming because eight months before Pat died I was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer with secondary bone cancer.

I thought I did pretty well for just over a year, and continued with my regular activities: attending church, playing my flute (on my own, with friends and at a weekly meeting of a small orchestra), my voluntary work and so on. But I gradually realised that I was not coping, my cancer was progressing and I was quite depressed. So the time came to press the ‘help’ button. I tried some bereavement counselling again, although I had tried it before, but the counsellor and I agreed at our second meeting that it was not really what I wanted.

Much more important were my chats to the MacMillan helpline and subsequent referral to the hospice’s clinical nurse specialists, formerly the MacMillan nurses in Shropshire. When a hospice nurse visited me it was wonderful to be able to talk to someone who understood my problems and who was empathic without being sloppy and platitudinous. The nurse suggested that I consider having some complementary therapy; I attended Severn Hospice in Shrewsbury a few times for reflexology which I found beneficial. Then she suggested that I think about attending the day hospice in Telford where I could continue complementary therapy as well as having access to nurses and doctors, and meeting up with other folks with life-limiting illnesses.

Well, apart from my sessions of reflexology, my only experience of hospices had been gained by visiting friends who were in-patients and were shortly to die. What had impressed me had been the calm, caring atmosphere and the way in which the hospice brought so much peace and relief from pain to my friends. Although I was still fairly vague about the full remit of the day hospice I was determined to try anything. So I duly arrived one day but not without a certain nervousness.

I was greeted by a nurse with a huge smile of welcome, and as she showed me around the calm and airy unit, that welcome was repeated by other members of staff and volunteers. Then we reached the day room where other patients (called service users I was to discover) were gathered and this for me was a key moment. Would it be filled with people sitting around the room in a state of apathy, perhaps with a TV being ignored by everybody? Would anyone be at all interested in me? What on earth would I do for five hours?

Well, the answers turned out to be emphatically NO, YES and FIVE HOURS IS SOMETIMES NOT ENOUGH! But I shall enlarge upon this in my next episode!


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