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“I’m heartbroken but I’m not broken and I’m so grateful to the Hospice”

16 October 2019

For Peter, this will be his first Christmas without his wife, Penny. Penny was just 59 years old when she received care at Birmingham St Mary’s Hospice last January. Here, Peter shares their story…  

There isn’t a moment that goes by when I don’t think about Penny. She was a very special person and the love of my life and I miss her every single day.

I met Penny five years ago and we were pretty much inseparable ever since. Penny had a great love of life – she loved music, travelling, trying new things, and working with the pupils and colleagues at the school where she was head teacher. We would spend countless evenings making plans for our future, plans that would see us move in together and get married. It was a life that we were both looking forward too.

But everything changed when I received a phone call in November last year. Penny’s cancer had come back and this time, there was nothing more they could do.

About three years ago, Penny had been diagnosed with cancer of the womb. She had an operation and everything seemed fine but it came back a second time. So they did another serious operation and again, we hoped that it had gone for good. But that wasn’t the case – the cancer was back again and this time, the doctors said it wasn’t curable. I was heartbroken.

I proposed to Penny that night. We had always planned to get married and it was something that we both really wanted to do. The next day, I saw our local vicar and he agreed to marry us in three weeks’ time but Penny’s cancer became very aggressive and we had to go to hospital. It became obvious that we weren’t going to get married in our local church.

So we went to Plan B. Whilst we were in the hospital, the chaplain agreed to marry us there. Penny’s three daughters helped us to arrange the most beautiful wedding. They got Penny a dress, organised a bouquet of flowers, made the wedding cake, the lot. They even dressed her hospital bed in lace and lights – it was really quite special. So on the 18th December, I got to marry the love of my life.

Just a few weeks after our wedding day, Penny was admitted to Birmingham St Mary’s Hospice.

Because Penny’s cancer wasn’t curable, she decided that her quality of life was the most important thing to her and so she chose to go to Birmingham St Mary’s.

It was just after Christmas when Penny was admitted to the Hospice’s Inpatient Unit and I can honestly say that it was the best thing we did. We knew that Penny’s cancer could never be cured – which was heart-breaking to think of – but Penny’s care was on her terms and it was about making her time remaining the best it could be.

At the Hospice, Penny had her own room which meant her daughters, my sons, our friends and family could spend quality time with her in a private space. Penny even had her own fridge, which she kept stocked up with bottles of wine and prosecco. It’s a small gesture but it meant that whenever anyone visited her, they could crack open a bottle, have a glass of fizz and just enjoy themselves. It was so comforting to see her smiling and happy in those final weeks, to see her having a laugh and spending time with the people she loved.

There are no words to describe how wonderful the staff at the Hospice were – they couldn’t do enough for you. Not only do they do the medical side superbly well but they genuinely care about your wellbeing too. They made Penny’s last days as good as they can be.

The staff were amazing, they did everything to make Penny’s final weeks as comfortable and positive as they could be. You never had to ask for anything – they just seemed to know what Penny needed before we even knew she needed it, which was a huge worry off our minds. Like pain relief for example – they were so quick to sort out pain relief, they just seemed to know when Penny would need it.

One of the biggest things for Penny though was that the care was on her terms. The doctors spoke to her about what she wanted and what was important to her and they made it happen. They never dressed anything up. They were honest with her and Penny really appreciated that – it meant that she could prepare for her future.

And the care wasn’t just for Penny, the Hospice supported me too.

The nurses let me sleep at the Hospice every night, from the day that Penny was admitted to her very last day, just so that I could spend as much time with her as possible.

Even though it devastated me, I knew that Penny wasn’t going to live for much longer. I knew her time at the Hospice would be her last days and I didn’t want to waste a single moment. Penny was the love of my life and I wanted to spend as much time with her as I could.

It was a difficult few weeks but Birmingham St Mary’s helped us to make the most of Penny’s remaining time.

When Penny passed away at the end of January, it was peaceful and calm. She was conscious right until the end and just drifted into a sleep that got deeper and deeper. There was a real dignity with her passing. The staff were so considerate at that moment, they gave us all the time that we needed.

When Penny died, I was completely heartbroken. But what made that moment a little more bearable was knowing that it was on Penny’s terms. The staff at the Hospice knew exactly what Penny wanted because they had talked to her about it, so they knew her wishes and they respected them. It was a tragic situation but the Hospice was there for us every step of the way.

It’s because of the incredible care that Penny received that’s made me want to give back to the Hospice.

One of the things that surprised me most was finding out that the Hospice is a charity and that it relies heavily on donations. I couldn’t believe it – hospice care is such a necessary service and was so essential to Penny’s wellbeing and yet, she only received that care thanks to other people’s charitable donations. It was then that I decided that I would fundraise for the Hospice as a way of giving back. I want to make sure that other people can get the support they need, just like Penny did.

This will be my first Christmas without Penny and although I’m heartbroken, I’m not broken and the quality of care that Penny received at the Hospice helped tremendously with that. Even now, I’m still so grateful that her final days were spent in comfort, surrounded by the people she loves and with a smile on her face.

Thank you Peter for sharing your story with us. This Christmas, your support has the power to help more local people, like Penny and Peter, who are living with life-limiting illness. To find out how you can support the Hospice this festive season, take a look here.