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George had been living with prostate cancer for a few years, and after a second cancer in his brain was diagnosed shortly before Christmas, Hazel knew her husband wanted to be cared for at home. He was discharged from hospital during Christmas week and into the care of the SinglePoint Virtual Ward team from St Helena Hospice.
George died at home on New Year’s Eve where he wanted to be, surrounded by his loved ones.
It was love at first sight for the couple when they met while serving in the Royal Navy in 1973.
Hazel, who was a naval nurse, was introduced to her future husband, Graham, as George, a nickname referring to his ‘Geordie’ Newcastle accent. They were married in August 1974.
After George came out of the Navy, he worked as a prison officer for more than 20 years, and then at Essex Police as a maintenance engineer before his post was made redundant.
“He was never bored and always had interests. He built a train set which lowers down from the ceiling in the spare room, and he made all the props for it by hand; he loved it. But his main passion was playing the guitar and he ended up playing up at the church.
“He was a stereotypical ‘northern man’ when we first met. I remember when I had my son, he was embarrassed by bringing me a bunch of flowers and he held them behind his back. And when I had my daughter, instead of flowers, he bought me a donner kebab! I couldn’t eat it, so he had that!”
Three years ago, the couple found out George had prostate cancer on the day of his mother’s funeral in Newcastle, hundreds of miles from home.
Several treatments were tried but the cancer was aggressive and eventually spread to his bones. The couple was determined to enjoy the time they had left together, and went on holiday to New England in the US last year in September. Hazel recalls:
“Just before we went away, he started getting a tingling in his hand and he kept dropping things. But we really didn't take too much notice because it was such a small amount at the time. We were in America when things started to get worse. He would drag his leg and he couldn't walk very far. He was steadily getting worse.”
On their return, George’s oncologist referred him to a neurologist who arranged an MRI scan. After the scan they were asked to stay for a second scan immediately as something had been spotted on the image. Hazel continues:
“The next thing we knew, we were in the medical assessment unit being told ‘you've got a brain tumour’. At that point he went into shock; it was all a bit traumatic.”
He was referred to a hospital in Romford for a biopsy, but the surgery was cancelled twice before he was admitted.
The couple still managed to spend quality time together despite the anxious wait, even travelling to London the weekend before his rescheduled biopsy to see George’s favourite comedian, Count Arthur Strong.
The biopsy was inconclusive and the couple returned to the hospital for a larger one. The results came back that it was a glioblastoma and nothing could be done because of its position in George’s brain.
“So that was that,” says Hazel in resignation.
“We came home and his oncologist referred us to a neuro-oncologist who arranged for him to have radiotherapy. It was coming up for Christmas when we went to have the mask fitted and by this time he was hardly walking. I could support him. Getting him up the stairs was very difficult and getting him down the stairs… well he used to just come down on his backside because he would fall on me.
“I couldn't leave him, but I had good family support so if I was to go out for a bit of shopping or anything like that, somebody would come round and sit with him.”
On Christmas Eve the couple enjoyed an evening out at a restaurant with their daughter and grandchildren. Hazel remembers:
“That evening he was talking, he was fine. And then Christmas morning I got him up, showered him, and got him dressed as I usually did, but I couldn't get him standing up. I called my daughter and son-in-law and they helped me get him up and bring him downstairs where we put him straight into a wheelchair and we went into the conservatory.
“He just looked dazed. He wasn't with it, as such, he was talking but it was just small amounts. We could see he was just getting worse. I had my family round for Christmas Day and they brought down a bed from upstairs and a little spare bed. That night my daughter stayed on the sofa and I stayed on the put-you-up. George was in the bed but he wasn't comfortable; he wanted to go up to upstairs and he sounded agitated.
“I knew things weren’t good and this went on all night. Fortunately, I'd put cushions by the side of the bed and at 4 o'clock in the morning, he fell out the bed, and wrapped himself up in a blanket. He actually seemed quite a bit better and seemed settled, but I rang an ambulance at that point.”
The paramedics were concerned George may have had a stroke and was taken to hospital where he had another MRI. The cancer had quickly spread within his brain. He was transferred to the oncology unit in the early hours of Boxing Day and after a couple of nights, Hazel said she would like to take him home.
Support from SinglePoint Virtual Ward was put in place and a hospital bed was arranged, and George went home:
“When he came home he said he was hungry so we made him some Ready Brek, but he wanted chocolate! My granddaughter melted some Christmas chocolate and added it, and he had a couple of spoonfuls. He didn’t eat anymore after that; that was it”.
Senior staff nurse, Debbie Vincent, visited later that day to introduce herself and the team.
“We couldn’t have done it without them,” Hazel recalls. “These nurses are so calm and caring, unbelievable really.
“When they came, they took their time; they weren’t in a hurry, you could see that. They weren’t desperate to get in and get out. They did what they had to do and took their time about it, and had a chat with us and all that. They kept things moving along.
“Debbie encouraged the interaction of my daughter’s dog Simba with George. She got him to lay on the bed which pleased the whole family as George was very fond of the family’s dogs. Simba is a golden retriever so as you can imagine, not much room!
“They weren't involved for a long length of time but I felt supported and safe. I could ring up SinglePoint at any time; I had the number, I was given all the information I needed.”
Prior to SinglePoint’s involvement, the physical demands had taken toll on Hazel, and she collapsed from exhaustion at the hospital where she had taken George for an MRI. Once she had support from Virtual Ward, Hazel could now spend the time she had left with George without constantly worrying about getting him up or putting him to bed.
“It was essential,” she says. “I did the daytime care with my daughter or my son, which was no problem. I'd been used to it so it wasn't new to me. Had it been new to me, it might have been a bit different, but it wasn't, so I could cope. I knew what to do and I could manage, but actually having Virtual Ward there to do the morning care and the evening care, and actually just there for support if I had any questions or anything like that, was invaluable, it really was.
“The caring side never ever phased me whatsoever. I suppose it’s because I felt useful. And because I used to be a nurse, my husband trusted me to do it and that made it a little bit easier.
“I didn't know anything about SinglePoint or the Virtual Ward. Being a district nurse, I knew that you could get involved with The Hospice but I was coping at the time and it was something that didn’t cross my mind. Had I have known about it and perhaps if they had they known about me, they could have come round and looked at what we needed, or so I had a point of call for support.”
SinglePoint is staffed 24/7 but sometimes people are afraid to phone because they feel they are disturbing someone, even though that is not the case – the team works on a shift rota so there is always a friendly voice on the end of the phone and a nurse ready to support.
“I had to phone SinglePoint in the middle of the night but I didn't like doing it, I hated doing it, but it got to a point when I had to. As a nurse, I used to say to patients you’ve got these numbers day or night. ‘oh, I don't like to ring’ they would say; and then I was doing the same thing not wanting to ring in the middle of the night! I can give all the advice but not take it myself!”
On the morning of New Year’s Eve, Debbie and the healthcare assistants visited as they had done since George left hospital.
Hazel had sent her daughter home for some rest and was sitting in the conservatory chatting with her son and her sister-in-law from Newcastle while the Virtual Ward team attended to George. Hazel recalls what happened next:
“Debbie came in and she knelt down and said ‘he hasn’t got long’.
“I had sent my daughter home for a rest so my son quickly phoned her. Fortunately, she lives around the corner and she ran back as fast as she could carrying her toothbrush.
“We all gathered round him and held his hand.
“Afterwards they laid him out and they arranged for the funeral directors to come. They did all of that. If you’ve got to go, that is the way to go. We were all together. It was seamless really from the moment SinglePoint was involved, which was which was great. They were so well organised.
“And throughout the experience, I could be with him all the time, day and night, which is what we wanted.”
Although she hopes to spend Christmas Day with her family, depending on lockdown rules, Hazel is not looking forward to the festive period this year.
“Christmas and New Year is going to be an awkward time, but I think it's always the first of everything, isn’t it? It would have been our 46th wedding anniversary in August and that was a difficult one. He was 67 when he died; he passed away on New Year's Eve and it would have been his 68th birthday on 12th January.
“I have thought about it and I’m dreading it. I know I'm not going to be alone or lonely, but Christmas morning I’m dreading because that was our time together. George and I used to get up, we’d have a bit of breakfast and we’d open our presents.
“I know I’m not the only one in this boat and I try and tell myself it's going to be OK. I don’t mind chatting about it; I just wish I could get through it without crying. I know I can phone St Helena’s bereavement team when I am ready to.
“People just don't realise these services are available. When I was nursing, I sometimes would find people saying ‘I don't want to die in hospital’ but they don't know what else to do, they don’t know of the support that’s there at home.
“I always called them the silent services because they're not in the news and not on the front of the newspapers, and it's such a shame for services that rely on donations. I think they're more important than anything.”
This story may not be published elsewhere without express permission from St Helena Hospice.
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