St John’s Hospice holds a special place in the hearts of many local people, but for one Burton-in-Kendal family, the relationship started 33 years ago before the first brick was even in place.
Pam Williams was just 27 years-old when she lost her brother, Jeff, to cancer in the spring of 1985 shortly after his 22nd birthday.
For the previous two years whilst undergoing treatment for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, Jeff had begun a mission to raise money for a place where people could be treated and supported in their local area. There was already talk in the community about a hospice and, from that point on, Jeff – supported by family and friends – was determined to raise as much money as possible to go toward building what we know today as |Lancaster’s St John’s Hospice.
“He did all sorts of things,” said Pam, 60.
“He was really active and always on the fells with my dad so he did a sponsored walk and even in between having chemo sessions, he cycled from home in Burton-in-Kendal to Lancaster and back.
“Every penny went toward building the hospice. When he passed away, it was just natural for us all left behind to carry on his work.
“So through coffee mornings, dances, darts matches, sponsored walks and lots more, we managed to raise £30,000 in four years, which was a lot of money in those days.”
Back then, little could Pam have known just how much she would come to use the services of St John’s in later years and just how much of a say cancer would have in her life.
In 2007, after a long period of illness, Pam lost dad, Dennis but it was another nine years later, in 2016 that fate struck the cruellest blow.
Pam worked in the NHS all her life between hospitals in Lancaster, Kendal and Morecambe before taking early retirement five years ago aged 55.
Husband, Bruce was only working part-time then and, as a self-confessed “sunny weather person”, she talked him into retiring early and going off to live in sunnier climes in Turkey.
“We had a fabulous life,” said Pam.
“We got to spend so much quality time together, had a fantastic social life and travelled to see lots of different places around Turkey and Greece. We were so happy.”
While they were living in Turkey, Pam’s mum, Barbara, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. This was cue for the couple to return home to look after her. “It had started 12 months earlier in her legs, then bowel, then bile duct, and she had lots of operations to remove it,” said Pam. “Every time they removed one, she was getting all types of skin cancer popping up everywhere – her face, arms, legs. She was covered in skin grafts.
“The final tumour, which returned to her bowel, couldn’t be operated on and at this point, they told her to go home and she would have three months tops. I promised her I would nurse her at home as she didn’t want to go in anywhere.”
In July 2016, just before they were due to come home, Bruce collapsed and had a seizure. A cyst was found at the back of his sinuses and it was suspected that leakage from the cyst caused the seizure but all other scans in hospital in Turkey were clear.
“Two weeks later, we came home but the day after we landed, Bruce was so poorly that we had to call an ambulance, “said Pam.
“Further scans revealed a new growth on his lung but doctors told us they had caught it in time and gave him a 95 per cent chance of full recovery.”
Sadly Bruce developed pneumonia and the subsequent delay in receiving chemotherapy meant that the growth became too big and the cancer had spread to both lungs.
“He too was given months to live so we started conversations with St John’s to organise for the Hospice at Home team to come out and get things sorted to bring him home,” said Pam.
“Heartbreakingly he never made it home and died just 10 days later in hospital.”
Even for the strongest amongst us, seeing both your husband and mother dying of cancer in front of you is the bitterest pill to swallow.
But after losing Bruce, Pam had to keep nursing her mum. It was too late for her husband but Pam soon found the support of the St John’s Hospice at Home nurses invaluable when it came to coping with her mum.
Her youngest daughter Kelsey, 29, adds: “The family helped as much as we could but it was all left to mum as she was living with nana 24/7. She didn’t really have a chance to grieve for dad as she just went from one to the next.
“Nana was getting infection after infection and would be up every night confused and disorientated. It was relentless – all day and all night – and mum was exhausted.”
Thankfully, the district nurse realised that she really needed help and the next day Pam got a call from Hospice at Home.”
“I kept saying, no its fine, I promised my mum I’d look after her so I can’t have anyone else doing it,” said Pam.
“I felt guilty accepting help as I was still relatively fit and I’m a qualified nurse but its different when it’s family. If I was nursing, I’d be going home at the end of my shift but I was living with mum so there was no reprieve.
“My sisters, brother, and sister-in-law all used to help out as much as they could but when the hospice nurses came in for a night shift, it was just nice to know that I could go to bed and someone else was there.”
Despite Barbara only being given a maximum of three months to live, she battled on for another year-and-a-half during which time Pam had around five months support from the St John’s Hospice at Home team.
Barbara did end her days, peacefully in her sleep at home as she wished, in August 2017. She had organised her own funeral and specified that any money collected should go to the hospice. More than £500 was raised and Pam also filled her car boot and back seat with 10 bags of unopened gifts to donate to hospice raffles.
After we lost dad and nana, both mum and I were offered support from St John’s,” said Kelsey. “To know that you’ve got people to turn to at that time was really important to us. They weren’t just there for the people who were ill, they were there for the people left behind too and not everyone gets that.”
Pam added: I’ve got a lot to be grateful to St John’s for. I honestly think I’d have lost the plot if it hadn’t been for them.”
Pam and daughter Kelsey will be taking part in the St John’s Hospice charity skydive – Jump for St John’s – on Saturday September 22.
lTo find out more or to register to take part, visit https://www.sjhospice.org.uk.
lTo sponsor Pam & Kelsey, visit https://jumpsept18.everydayhero.com/uk/keeping-it-in-the-family.