Following a terminal cancer diagnosis back in 2018, Dave Mills was cared for by the community palliative care team and then at the inpatient unit at Katharine House Hospice. Now that some time has passed, his partner, Julie, felt able to share their story with us.

“Over the course of 15 months, Dave had undergone a series of treatments, including a complicated emergency procedure and six months of chemo. For a brief while we felt much more positive about his future, but sadly he began to deteriorate once again.

“He had a scan in April 2018, which showed significant re-growth. The cancer had returned with speed and aggression. There was the choice of further chemo, but it was felt Dave had struggled with the previous treatment and so we accepted this was a terminal prognosis and on 3 May he was given three months if things went badly, six if all went well.

“I stopped working the day of that meeting. Somehow up until then I had managed to fit work around appointments and caring for Dave and our two young daughters, though it was taking its toll. I had planned to take some time out to get my head clear, but suddenly I was looking at simply making the most of the few months we had left together.

Building a relationship with Katharine House Hospice

“At this stage we visited Katharine House Hospice. Dave had initially wanted to die in Wales, his birthplace and home for many years. He had visited his aunt at St Kentigern Hospice in St Asaph and loved the idea of being so close to the sea and the mountains. We discussed the implications of this, but after visiting Katharine House and meeting with Katie, our community nurse from the hospice, he felt comfortable that Katharine House would be his preference.

“Right from the outset, the hospice felt peaceful, caring, sensitive and is set in such beautiful surroundings. Katie visited us or spoke with us regularly, working carefully with Dave to get his morphine levels right and to ensure we had the support in place that we needed. It was incredibly refreshing to work with a team that were focused on making end of life care as personal and supportive as possible, by understanding the patient’s needs, discussing real-life pros and cons, and personal feelings and desires.

“Towards the end of May, we’d booked a weekend away at the Pirate Festival in Swanage, Dorset with family. It was a carefully executed excursion as Dave was feeling pretty rough and on a variety of medication. Dave made it to the festival in a wheelchair and in full pirate attire! He was so happy to see our daughters and their cousins enjoying the event and playing on the beach.

“Over the weekend, however, he became worryingly disorientated and confused, not recognising family members and struggling to hold a conversation without drifting off. We returned home and checked into Horton General Hospital. Scans and blood tests showed his kidneys and liver were failing due to cancer spread.

“On Monday, they said he had now perhaps only six weeks left. On Tuesday, this decreased to just four weeks. On Wednesday, we transferred to the inpatient unit at Katharine House Hospice, and they said that sadly Dave probably only had a few days left. We had initially hoped medication and respite at the hospice would help to ‘clear the fog’ and he might make it home for a while, but it was not to be, his body was failing him.

Care at the hospice

“Dave was given his own room, which was wonderfully equipped, and as the weather was so warm, it was lovely to have the doors open and watch the birds feeding close by. We had a lot of visitors, so having our own room and outside area was again a blessing. The staff were wonderful in managing visitors to ensure Dave was willing and able to see them.

“The nurses were so attentive and supported me to care for Dave myself, which I treasure. The doctors were also wonderful because they answered my many questions with honesty and clarity.

"Being at the hospice was so different to being in a hospital setting, as suddenly everything was focused on you and your experience. They were open, consultative and incredibly respectful of Dave: the patient, and me: the soon-to-be-bereaved partner."

“The love and dedication shown to us was just amazing and I marvel at these people. It was like they would often second guess what I was wondering or wanting, and they catered both for physical and emotional requirements with the utmost professionalism and efficiency.

Dave’s final night with Julie

“On the Sunday, Dave deteriorated quickly and it became clear that his death was approaching. By this stage it was just Dave’s mother and me at his bedside, taking turns to sit outside or wander the gardens.

“Each night at the hospice, I had pulled my bed beside his. On this night, however, they suggested I lay beside him, and they put his arm around me. He was now heavily sedated and on strong pain relief. I lay there and listened to his heart stop and him take his last breath at 00:16 on Monday 4 June 2018.

“When I called the nurse, she confirmed his passing and left me with him. Dave’s mum then spent some time with him before leaving. I spent a long time with him then. It seemed so surreal that he had gone, yet I had felt his presence, his energy, move from his body to the space above me the moment he died. I felt that presence dissipate slowly. I hadn’t expected that, but it was wonderful and strangely life affirming.

“Everyone at the hospice was so friendly, loving and sad for our loss. It’s clear that these people are not just doing a job but are living through these deaths with the families and friends – they really care.

"We are privileged to have such an amazing provision on our doorstep, including the bereavement counselling that I later received. I am so glad Dave felt this was the place he wanted to be as his life ended."

Bringing Julie’s story up to date

Julie first wrote this account of her and Dave’s experiences at Katharine House shortly after Dave died, when everything was still very raw. Reflecting on the years since then, Julie said: “This June marks five years since Dave's death. While it's been a difficult and challenging time, the three of us [Julie and her daughters] agree that we have done pretty well! 

"We have been blessed with loving support from so many family and friends, and the girls' school has been fantastic. We will never stop missing him or loving him, but we have grown with our grief and are feeling happy and hopeful for the future.”

Julie’s fundraising for Katharine House

Since Dave’s death, Julie and her daughters have taken part regularly in the Moonlight Walk (or Midnight Walk, as it was previously called) and the Santa Fun Run, raising a great deal of money for the hospice.

Julie said: “When the Santa Fun Run came along, I knew we couldn’t miss it. The girls were excited to take part and we had a great time at the event. We set our target for fundraising at £150. I see now this was a bit conservative, but you don’t want to be too presumptuous! We raised over £1,200, including Gift Aid, which was fantastic and was achieved purely through sharing our JustGiving page with friends on Facebook.

"We're really looking forward to this summer's Moonlight Walk and already thinking about what movie stars we'll dress up as."

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