After more than 30 years of serious ill health, 14 operations and with the mental and physical scars to prove it, Chris finally feels calm and comfortable in himself after a three-week stay at Thames Hospice.
Wind the clock back those 21 days to when he was being admitted to the ward here, and Chris was nowhere near so at ease. In fact, the cumulative impact of his innumerable hospital visits meant he very nearly didn’t make it through the entrance of the Hospice.
“When I arrived, I couldn’t even look at the building. My view was hospice, hospital – same thing – just different words but exactly the same thing. It wasn’t until I came here that I understood.
“When I first came, we opened the door with my best friend Sarah and she walked through and I stopped – it was like there was an invisible barrier. Wendy is Head of Admissions and Discharges at Thames Hospice and said to Chris, ‘Take your time; it’s just a room, whenever you’re ready. “I took a step in and it’s not scary.”
Chris’ reluctance is hardly surprising after such a long period of illness. He’s undergone 14 operations over the last 15 years and says this has caused him Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It didn’t take long though for Chris’ senses to tell him that Thames Hospice was very different.
He adds: “The first thing I noticed when I eventually walked through the door, was the smell. It’s not like a hospital at all. Then they gave me a tour and I was blown away.”
It’s not just Chris who’s been so impressed with the facilities. When he’s feeling up to it, he takes all his visitors on a short tour and the response is unanimous.
“They all have the same reaction. ‘Are you sure this is a hospice’, they say. ‘Is this some kind of spa you haven’t told us about?’ They genuinely can’t believe it.”
Chris has been admitted to Thames Hospice for symptom control – or to put it another way – for the medical team to manage his pain. He knows they can’t make it go away, but he says because of the excellent communication with everyone on the ward, he knows what’s happening and that’s what’s important.
“Knowledge is power. If I know what I am doing and I understand what it is they are trying to achieve, that means we are working very well together. They’ve have been very clear that they will never get my pain to zero, but if they can halve it from where it is, is that acceptable? And the answer is a huge, ‘yes’.”
More than anything though it’s the compassion shown by the people caring for Chris that has struck him.
“I think if I was to isolate it to one thing it would be time. My experience of the NHS, and it’s not their fault at all, you have a consultant trying to deal with 40 patients on their round in the morning.
“After 30 years, this is the first place where I feel I don’t need to run. And that’s so important for me because it means I can reflect, ‘how am I feeling, what’s the pain level, why is the pain like that, what’s changed?’”
Chris acknowledges that he’s something of a control freak, likes everything ‘just so’ and, in the calmer environment the Hospice has provided him, he’s feeling ready for what lies ahead.
“My job is very simple. I have one job to do, just one, and that is to die.
“My dad went like that,” he said snapping his fingers. “I promised myself I would never do that to my children. I’ve written letters to them, I’ve been reading stories for my grandchildren so they can hear my voice, just little things like that.
“I use the same aftershave and shower gel so that there’s the same smell attached to me so they will always remember. I think I am almost running out of things to do. I very much feel at peace.”
That sense of tranquillity extends to his decision about where he’d like to be at the end of his life – a decision that he’s done a 180-degree turn on.
“Before coming here my view was, ‘I will not die in hospital. I will die at home’. Now, home goes. Hospital goes. I want to die at the Hospice, not only because of the level of care, but I can also access pain relief any time I need it. And if I need a hug, I can get a hug. If I need advice about something embarrassing, I can talk it though with someone with care and empathy. I don’t think there’s anything more anyone could ask of this place.”
Chris says he’s been singing the praises of the Thames Hospice Team so much recently he needs to invest in a thesaurus.
“I’m running out of words to use. Fantastic, fabulous, incredible. They are some of the most incredible, knowledgeable, friendliest people with huge empathy and who are also hugely brave.”
Remembering his own reluctance to cross the threshold at Thames, Chris has some advice for those like him who’ve never experienced hospice care. “Don’t be afraid, take that step, physically as well as mentally.
“Many years ago during a particularly difficult time a friend gave me a gift. She explained it was a gift that I could hold on to as long as needed but the time would come when I would find someone whom needs it. At that time, you can pass it on. The gift is very simple – four words only – ‘You are not alone’.”
* Chris’ story is that of a real patient but his name has been changed to protect his family’s privacy.
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