She would say don’t go on and on, my life was pretty ordinary but Debra wasn’t just ordinary, she was truly remarkable, a much loved and admired young lady. A very special caring daughter. Our Rock.
Debra was just 54 when she died following a short battle with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. A type of leukaemia which is more frequently seen in under 18’s and very rarely in those in their fifties. Debra died at the same age as her dad Gerald; Gerald had bladder cancer for which he also received the care of the Arthur Rank Hospice back in 1996 at their original site on Mill Road. It was like reliving it all again.
Debra had been feeling out of sorts for a while, she had less appetite, she’d lost weight and it was decided that blood tests were needed. On the 23rd December 2015, I received a call from Debra asking me if I could meet her and her partner Steve outside ward C10 and E10 at the Addenbrooke’s hospital, these two wards were to become Debra’s second home. We owe our everlasting thanks to the wonderful staff who gave Debra such special care. It was just typical that Debra would be diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia.
During her life as she had encountered the loss of her dad, her brother Tony from heart disease (at just 45) and now sadly she faced the greatness challenge of all, a fight against this very aggressive form of leukaemia. At the age of 52 and as a mother of two, Clare and Glenn (both now in their late twenties) with her partner Steve and her immediate family around her, her 19-month journey commenced which she immediately faced head-on with such courage.
The hospital suggested immediate treatment, she underwent an intense five-week chemotherapy programme and a cocktail of various drugs in attempts to overcome this rare condition. The hospital remained positive and said that successful treatment, could see Debra return to work in a year, but we also knew that if the treatment and drugs did not work, this disease would indeed be fatal.
Debra loved her work at Wolfson Court, belonging to Girton College, as a dining hall supervisor she sometimes supervised weddings and special dinners for many people. On evening shifts she would serve Steve, who also worked as night security at Wolfson Court, his dinner too.
She was advised a stem transplant may be needed at some point in her care and earlier than expected in June 2016, it was decided it was now time. Sadly Debra encountered many side effects as a result from skin conditions to the norovirus and sepsis. It was an awful time, she lost weight and couldn’t eat. Drugs continued to be administered and at their peak. Debra was taking as many as 45 tablets in one day plus a selection of infusions, but she always put up with it. Bad luck ensued as she also broke her right hip in August 2016 resulting in major surgery. She was so brave and after a slow and painful recuperation she returned home to the lovely house that she and Steve had created only a few years earlier.
For several years Debra had been looking forward to being a nanny so when Glenn and his partner Rosie announced Debra’s first grandson was due in November 2016 she was overjoyed. Due to her illness she was unable to bond with Baby Harry as she so desperately wanted to. She was able to hold him on occasions for a short time and although she put on a brave face we could tell she was heartbroken.
But we have photos’ which is a blessing. In the intervening months Debra spent more time in hospital than at home and then in January 2017 she broke her left hip, which resulted in major surgery again and painful recuperation was much slowly this time as Debra by now was much frailer and her body wasting away. Debra and I were really close and we thought alike, we could talk about everything.
In March 2017, Debra returned for a spell in hospital and I asked the doctor, unbeknown to Debra at this time, the most difficult question of all ‘Is Debra dying?’ They didn’t give a definite answer but I knew.
In April, conversations were initiated by Debra about withdrawing treatment; this was a massive decision which involved all of the family. Debra decided to trial a new drug which was about to become available, this would be the final drug which could be offered to Debra. Whilst waiting it was suggested that Debra be moved to Arthur Rank Hospice. She was becoming anxious and it seemed sensible to have a break from the ward. We were told the drug could be administered there and as Gerald had been cared for by Arthur Rank Hospice, I thought this was a good idea. Debra didn’t want to go, but I reassured her having visited earlier to see Tony’s clock taking pride of place in the Bistro, that it was beautiful there. Debra was admitted on the 12th May and we awaited the arrival of the drug. When the drug arrived sadly it did not work.
For the next few weeks, I visited every morning and Steve, Glenn, Clare and her sister Tracey along with other family members and many friends formed a rota, organised by Debra of course, her supervisory skills in evidence, so typically, Debra. It was lovely all being together at the hospice. There were no visiting times, so we could come and go and Debra would always encourage us to stay. I often had to remind her she needed to rest for her next visitors but she never wanted us to go.
We would make our way around the gardens, which were so well maintained, and had changed from green to now display so much colour. Two hospice garden volunteers, Graham and Michael, who were known to Debra having previously worked at Girton College would pop in on a Thursday to visit whilst they enjoyed their break. Debra always enjoyed seeing them and all of her visitors. The nurses were absolutely wonderful. Everyone had time for you. Doctors would spend any amount of time talking about the things we needed to know but also the things that we wanted to know. It was different there to being in hospital.
It was the 16th June, when I knew that I was beginning to lose Debra. Debra could barely walk and the trips around the gardens of the hospice to our usual tea spot became less frequent. For the first time since being a child, she asked me to feed her ice cream. We saw each other’s tears and hugged and talked. She was so frail, but her mind was alert. That talk I will cherish forever. She said she was ready to go. She said “Them two better look after me Mum”, meaning her dad and her brother.
Debra would try to remain cheerful for us, as we did for her, but there weren’t many laughs during those continuing months, however the last couple of weeks of Debra’s life she was sedated and when she awoke she would say such funny things because of it, we all laughed together and Debra, bless her, would wonder what was so funny. Clare and Glenn would record them on their phones and can now replay those times, poignant but comforting for them. Thank you Debra for those memories.
We made lots of friends during the ten weeks which Debra spent at the hospice, staff, patients and their relatives hold a special place in my memory. It was early Saturday morning, about 8am, on the 22nd July, when I received a call asking the family and I to make our way to the hospice. We stayed with
Debra until the following day when she passed away at ten past ten on the morning of Sunday 23rd July. Debra’s passing was just how Gerald’s
had been 21 years earlier. For Tracey and I history once again repeated itself, even ironically in the same month too! But Debra was now at peace and yes, I hope so very much that her dad and brother are looking after her as she had wished.
It was so important that the family were there. Debra was a one-off, she was loved by many so very much and we miss her terribly. My darling, precious Debra. I’m so pleased that she had the privilege of being cared for at the Arthur Rank Hospice for those ten weeks. Although decades apart, the care both Gerald and Debra received was excellent, that was never in doubt, the staff are wonderful and it is all about the care and the empathy. They remain so professional but you know that they want to cry with you (and I know they did). Most importantly they cared for Debra but they actually cared for all of us.
Debra wrote letters (leaving them in my care) to me, Steve, Clare, Glenn and Tracey to be opened after she passed away. This again would be so typical of Debra. She even planned some of her funeral. The letter I received was beautiful and she urged me to get on with my life and although I just wanted to hibernate, she would have had none of it. I am now getting back into my shifts at the ARHC shop in Great Shelford as a volunteer and I have also returned to my Monday indoor bowls club and my Thursday evening carpet bowls club. I know that she sits on my shoulder each day and says ‘Well done mum’. Thank you Debra, I am so proud you were my beautiful daughter, my pride and joy, and in her words “Hey you out there, I’m only ever a whisper away”
Jennifer kindly shared her story in support of Light up a Life 2017.