Jess’ Stories

The Lifeboat

This is a really hard blog entry for me to write. I wrote a similar post on my personal social media a few years ago, and it felt so rewarding to share this little insight into the hardest day of my life. So, here I am, telling some more people this story, but in a little more detail, and with a few more tears. This, is as personal as it gets. If you’re of a sensitive disposition, make sure you have a tissue or shirt sleeve in immediate proximity.

Tuesday, September 12th 2017. This is the day when my whole world was turned upside down. I was 23 years old, and had recently left my abusive relationship. (That, my friends, is a story for another time). I had moved home, and was enjoying the perks that come with it, such as my washing being done for me, having a fully stocked fridge, and watching Murder She Wrote of an afternoon. My mother had been generally unwell for 6 months. I won’t go into too much detail here, but despite her symptoms she had only recently been diagnosed with The Big C. When I say recently, I mean about 2 weeks prior to the day in question.

On this day, complications had arisen and Mum was rushed into our nearest Acute Hospital, and placed straight on a specialist ward. They were concerned that her heart would stop en-route to the hospital. It was critical. That morning, we were expecting her to have her first round of Chemotherapy to blast the tumours, and for her to be on the mend, back mucking out the horses and walking the dogs in a few months time. When the Doctor was discussing a ‘DO NOT ATTEMPT CARDIOPULMANORY RESCUSITATION’ order instead, I could barely comprehend it. Two days before, Mum had cleaned the house top-to-bottom. How could she have suddenly become so unwell? The reality was that although this seemed sudden, her illness had been taking hold for a while, undetected.

I drove my crappy little car to Southampton as Dad rode in the ambulance which was driving on blue lights and sirens, or ‘blues and twos’ as Dad would say. Side note; I had worked for the Ambulance Service for a few years, and knew that Blue’s were reserved for the sickest of patients. Most patients get a comfortable ride at road speed, even if the Ambulance had arrived on scene at break-neck speed (pardon the pun). Second side-note; my crappy car was an emergency buy after my beautiful Golf TDI had broken when I was trying to escape the ex-boyfriend. Only me.

The drive was horrendous. I felt sick, sweaty, tearful, confused, angry, panicked… I was trying to listen to upbeat songs and not get too worked-up. I needed to get there safely and remain level-headed. Some of those songs have been unplayed by me since.

I walked into the unfamiliar hospital, unsure of where I was going or what to look for. Everyone else seemed to know their way around. I felt lost amongst the rush. Overwhelmed. After a little while, I found the ward, and the far end of one of the hospital wings, a couple of floors up. It was quite small and pokey compared to ward my Dad had been on a few months earlier for his Bowel Cancer surgery at the opposite end of the hospital.

I found Dad who directed me to the corner of the ward, gave mum a quick kiss as she settled into her bed with a cup of water, and was then led into a tiny little family room by one of the nurses. It was about the size of a broom cupboard… OK maybe not that small, but I remember feeling claustrophobic, not helped by the hot air that was stagnant and unmoving. The consultant came in and shut the door. The door opened inwards so we had to shuffle together to allow it to close. He reaffirmed how unwell Mum was. He told us he would do a scan to see if there was any way we could treat her. He apologised for not having better news, and left, leaving the door open.

We waited for the results. I cannot describe how awful I felt, physically, mentally and emotionally. I can’t remember how long we waited, but it felt like forever. I sat slumped in this little chair as Dad sat across from me me, looking up at the basic clock on the wall every 2 seconds.

Surprisingly, Mum is not the main protagonist of this story. Sorry to leave that part on a bit of a cliff-hanger.

After a while, a lady walked into the waiting room. Dad and I moved to sit next to one another so that she could take a seat.
‘Alright Sarah, yeah let me know’, she said to one of the nurses as she walked in.
‘First name basis?’ I remember thinking to myself.
This lady was striking to look at, mainly due to it being immediately obvious that she was undergoing incredibly harsh Chemotherapy. She was quite tall, and incredibly slim. Her skin was pallid, almost grey. She wore a little bandana to cover her completely hairless head, and stretched across her face was a blue clinical face mask. Bare in mind, this was way before the Global Pandemic PPE that we all now know so well. She adorned this face mask as her immune system was so suppressed due to the harsh level of treatment she was receiving. Her nails were thin, chipped and flaky, and she had dark circles around her eyes. Despite this, I noticed how incredibly stunning they were, beautifully blue and green like the ocean. She walked with a reserved gait, as if she was in pain, or perhaps lacked the energy. The latter, I would assume. She looked so, so unwell. I couldn’t tell you her age from looking at her.

She sat across from me, where Dad originally was. We sat in silence. It was deafening.
‘Are you OK?’
I looked up, confused. My eyes met with hers. I broke down. No amount of British ‘stiff upper lip’ would have stopped these flood gates opening. She stood up.
‘Come here’ she gestured upwards with open arms. I stood up too. She held me. I sobbed into her shoulder. She rubbed her hands across my back reassuringly. Hugging a stranger is absolutely out of my comfort zone, but she felt familiar. I can tell you as I am writing this, tears are flowing down my face.
I scoffed to myself a little, ‘How awful must I look?!’. I thought I was hiding it well.
We parted. She sat down next to me and held my hands in hers, clasping them firmly and rubbing the back of my hand with her thumb.
‘Do you want some water?’ She asked. I did, as I felt so nauseas and hot. But I didn’t want her to get up and get me anything. She was unwell, and that would be selfish of me.
‘No I’m ok thank….’ I was cut off.
‘I’ll get you some water, Brian! Bri, could I have some water?’ She called to another Nurse she knew by name. The Nurse mouthed ‘two minutes’ as he scurried past the open door. She didn’t want to wait, so got up to find me a cup of water, despite my protests. The Nurse who had just rushed past the door came back with a little white plastic cup and handed it to the lady who filled it from the water dispenser. She ambled back and sat with me, and listened as I told her Mum’s story. She was so kind. She empathised with me, and reassured me. She spent her time trying to make me feel a little better. It was the most selfless thing I have ever personally experienced.

I decided to ask her about her illness. I can’t completely guarantee I remember this correctly, but I seem to remember her telling me that she had Hodgkins Lymphoma. She told me she was having the most aggressive kind of Chemo to hopefully blast it all. She was also having different types of treatment to keep her fit enough to cope with the Chemotherapy, such as infusions. That’s why she knew all the ward staff by name; she was there so often. She lived just across from the hospital in one of the little estates, and had young children. Three or four, I think, but I can’t remember now. We talked and passed the time. I was in awe; she was going through so much, but was able to smile. Not only that, she was able to make me smile.

Before I knew it, Dad and I were called through to see Mum and speak to the consultant. I waved to her and said thank you, and left her sat in that little room. By the time I left the ward, she was gone. My biggest regret is not remembering her name.

That day taught me a huge lesson. One that I will never, ever forget. That lady was experiencing something that not many of us will. A severe illness, treated with harsh medicine that was affecting her health, whilst still being a young mother. Despite how much of a battering her body was taking, no matter how unwell she felt, and putting her appearance aside, she still felt it important to support me. Me?! Someone she had no reason to care for. Someone she had never laid eyes upon, and likely never would again. She put my welfare before hers. She didn’t judge. She didn’t compare her situation to mine. She wasn’t defined by her illness. In that moment, she wasn’t sick, she was pure. She showed me her heart, and she held mine. It was in that moment that I learned true kindness.

So there we go! A bit of a tear jerker, but a very personal story to me that I feel is important to share. I’d love to see that lady again, and tell her how important she is. I am so grateful to her, and I doubt she even knows. One of my lifetime goals is to have the ability to give someone a similar experience to the one she gave me; to be the lifeboat in the storm. She saved me that day. I hope one day I can return the favour.

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