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“If I hadn’t come here, I wouldn’t be alive”

Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in July 2016 and living with an increasing level of pain, Russell Lewis tried to remain at home – caring for himself and staying motivated by planning daily trips and tasks. But when a train ride to see his daughter landed him in hospital, he was referred to Thames Hospice and has been receiving symptom control and respite care ever since.

Aged 42, Russell has always been fiercely independent after being taken into care at the age of five. He said: “I had an unfortunate start in life – my parents had problems with drugs, alcohol and crime and felt the need to take their frustrations out on me and my little brother. But I always stood in the way, taking a lot of physical violence and abuse, and eventually the police and social services took me and my brother into care.”

He continued: “Coming to Thames Hospice, that’s one thing I have given into. When I came here, I had a high pain threshold, but nurses were saying ‘please let us help you’, but I’ve always done it myself, so asking someone else to help me was difficult. I never really knew there were people in the world who were that compassionate and wanting to help, but there are people here who want to help you so much they find it almost offensive when you don’t ask and then worry about you. I saw that, recognised it, and now I ask for help when I need help.”

Russell has lived in places up and down the M4 corridor - from his birth home in Chelsea’s World’s End Estate, to children’s homes in Henley-on-Thames, Wales and the Cotswolds, as well as facing many years on the streets. He has now made Slough his home - a place he praises for its diversity and close links to the towns and countryside he loves. He feels that because of his lifestyle, when he reported his symptoms to healthcare professionals, they were more concerned about his mental health. He believes this led to six trips to A&E and a subsequent late diagnosis, by which point it was too late for treatment. He said: “Because of the life that I’ve come from, it’s automatically presumed I’m violent, a drug addict and an alcoholic, but I’m not. My doctor was only giving me morphine for my pain and it was really bad for me; it stopped me eating and I lost all my weight. If it wasn’t for coming to Thames Hospice, I really believe that by now I would have been gone. I was at home and literally pulling myself across the floor with no care or medication.”

At Thames Hospice, we believe everyone has the right to die with compassion and dignity. Anyone aged 18 and over facing a life-limiting illness - whether that is cancer, illnesses resulting from addiction, heart disease or neurological illnesses, including Motor Neurone Disease and Dementia - can be referred to access our free, 24-hour care. Our ethos is built on providing holistic care and patients are admitted based on their personal circumstances as much as their immediate medical needs. With Russell living alone and his health deteriorating, he is being cared for at Thames Hospice whilst the clinical team finds a suitable care home for him.

Russell is deeply religious and has a huge passion for music – playing the guitar, a skill he learnt on the streets to make money rather than turning to crime. When he is well enough, he plays here in The Sanctuary – an indoor and outdoor space used for relaxation and day therapies. He said: “It helps me to play outside; I get lost in my own music. A lot of people today suffer with mental health problems, like me, and when I can relate to another person through my music, that soothes me.”

“The Hospice has meant living, I’m alive. I honestly believe that. If I hadn’t come here I wouldn’t be alive. The first week I couldn’t do anything, then I started eating - I hadn’t eaten properly for months. I had lost so much weight, I wasn’t on any pain relief, and it was the people here who tried to help me.”

It’s not only the patient we care for, our spiritual, counselling, respite and therapy services are all available to patients’ loved ones. Russell is father to four children he loves dearly, and remains close to their mothers and subsequent children. He has a few good friends, one of which he classes as a brother and who he credits for helping him through tough times. He said: “Being here, it helps them to understand a bit more. I know when I was out there living by myself and I tried to talk to them about how I was feeling, it was quite difficult because it upset them. But when they come here, they can see it more and understand more; they can ask more questions and it puts them more at ease. It’s easier for me to talk to the people I love and for them to talk back to me about the reality of what’s happening. I think it definitely helps them knowing I’m safe and being looked after so well here. Gosh, this is a nice place to be. It’s peaceful, it’s relaxing, I only have to see a member of the team and I don’t have to think anymore - I know I am safe and alright straight away.”

Thames Hospice is dedicated to the complex needs of the diverse catchment area we serve and our vision is, and always will be, quality of life, to the end of life, for everyone. Russell finished: “The first children’s home I was in had a garden exactly like the Hospice one, the same shape, and at the back of the lawn was an oak tree, just like yours, and it was a focal point of my life growing up. Then I came here, looked outside, looked at that tree and thought ‘Wow Russ, you’re back in your garden again’, and that’s quite a weird and calming thought. They are good memories and it’s peace for me. I go in the gardens a lot and I like listening for the birds – it’s a lovely garden.

“This place is amazing – I love it here. All the people who work here are absolutely amazing. I think that if I hadn’t come here, I’d be dead by now… and if I wasn’t dead, I’d be in a really bad way, so thank you.”

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