Helen Tolmie-Thomson

Helen’s husband Bruce was diagnosed with gall bladder cancer in April 2017 and died at home, with his wife and son by his side, in August, the same year. She explains what it meant to have the Rennie Grove nurses on hand for the final few days.

“In the run up to his diagnosis, Bruce had had no real symptoms – apart from feeling more tired than usual.   In hindsight, I so wished I had paid more attention to that, but we just put it down to our being in our 70s and leading busy, active lives.  Unbelievably, we were skiing only a little over a month before his diagnosis:  a pastime that we had passionately shared for more than thirty years. 

“We were away again in mid-April, when Bruce fell ill with what I thought was a gastric bug.  I made an appointment for him to see our GP as soon as we returned home.  The doctor, who knew us very well, must have suspected something because he examined Bruce and took blood for testing then and there.  On seeing the results, 36 hours later, he arranged an immediate ultrasound scan which showed a mass on Bruce’s gallbladder.  Ever the optimist - I assumed it was gallstones.  It was only when the radiologist said he would arrange a CT scan for that same day, that alarm bells began to ring! 

“After that second, much more detailed scan, the radiologist took us aside and gave us the awful news that it was cancer – and it had already spread into his lymph nodes, and liver.  That moment was probably the worst of all – apart from the last few days. 

“We left the hospital in a daze, clinging on to one another.  We’d already had extensive discussions about what we would do if either of us fell ill as we got older, and had decided that we once we reached our 70s, we would not undergo chemotherapy or radiotherapy – now the dreadful moment had arrived, when we must test our resolve…

“Strangely only a matter of weeks later an eminent oncologist was reported in the newspapers that it was his opinion that ‘once you reach 70, it was better not to have chemo – but go on holiday instead!’  It was no longer hypothetical for us.   Bruce knew that I would support him whatever he decided, and he didn’t hesitate. The last thing he wanted was to spend the time left to him undergoing such treatments.

“In spite of everything, we did manage to spend a week with very dear friends, on their boat in the Balearics, which unbelievably was to be only a month before Bruce died.  I know he had to push himself to cope with the travel - but he did it for me, and the summer sun on our backs was a joy.   Everyone – the radiologist, oncologist and our doctor – respected our decision, but had explained that, without any treatment, the likelihood was that his condition would deteriorate rapidly.

“None of us were prepared for quite how quickly the deterioration would happen – which was why it was so amazing that Bruce managed that trip in July.  His initial prognosis was six to nine months – maybe even a year.  He was prescribed Fentanyl pain relief patches straight away, which helped, because of their continuous action, especially with the back pain caused by the tumours.   But within two and a half months the dose he needed had increased almost ten-fold.  Our private GP, a close friend of the family, was brilliant – but we needed to see an NHS doctor in order to arrange a referral to Rennie Grove, and, ultimately, we were well looked after by our local NHS practice, who were able to arrange the Rennie Grove support that we needed so much.

“Bruce was adamant that he didn’t want anyone to know about the cancer – which made him unwilling to accept help beyond myself, our son and our very close friends.  Our family doctor came to visit us at home towards the end of July, on one of his frequent visits, and as he was leaving, he told me in no uncertain terms that Bruce probably had only two weeks left to live.  That was a huge shock – as though a rug had been pulled from under me.  I was desperate for the Rennie Grove referral at that point.

“It was a great relief when they became involved. I knew Bruce was deteriorating fast, but, as it turned out, the day of their first visit coincided with the first time he felt too ill to get up.  The wonderful nurses at Rennie Grove immediately instigated a schedule of daily visits to make sure his pain was under control and that he was made as comfortable as could be.  Our son moved in, and it was wonderful to have his love, help and support during those difficult days.  It meant the world to Bruce too.  As that week wore on, his condition worsened rapidly, and he began to spend much time asleep.  One night he was very restless, and we could tell he was in pain – we called the out of hours line at Rennie Grove and the nurses were with us in 30 minutes.  They were able to increase his pain control and settle him, which was of enormous relief to us all.

“That level of support was immeasurably helpful.   The Rennie Grove nurses were simply there for us - so reliable and comforting – not just for Bruce, but for myself and our son too.   Not being medical professionals, looking after someone that you love, and for whom you only want the best care is a tough call.  

“In spite of some tremendous rain and flash floods during those 10 days, the Rennie Grove nurses always made sure they got to us when they said they would.  Whatever they said would happen, happened – and they were knowledgeable, liaising efficiently with our doctor about prescriptions for pain relief and other medication.  Their support was simply there whenever it was needed.   They are lovely, kind and generous people, and nothing was too much trouble.  They truly are angels – it is humbling to be the recipients of such wonderful loving care.   It meant everything to Bruce to be able to stay at home - and I promised that would happen.  With the help of Rennie Grove, I knew I could keep my word. 

“The Rennie Grove nurses discussed with us the optimum time for setting up a syringe driver, in order to administer continuous pain relief etc. for Bruce. It was clear to the nurses that he was showing signs of approaching end of life, and so they liaised with our doctor to counter-sign the necessary paperwork and set up the driver for him, to ensure he was as comfortable as possible.   For the last 36 hours, Bruce slept almost continuously.  We checked him every few minutes and I’d lie next to him for a while.  That was such precious time, that could not have been the same away from home…

“The increased medication made him drowsy as we were warned.   It was so very, very hard to watch over someone you that you love so much, in that situation, and feel so helpless.  So many emotions are experienced in such a short space of time.  But with the wonderful specialist Rennie Grove support we had on hand, we were able to grant his dearest wish of being at home.  He passed away peacefully in his own bed with me, and our son, by his side.  It was around 10pm on Thursday 10 August.  Within a very short time of our calling him, our GP friend was with us to certify the death. 

“We rang the out of hours line at Rennie Grove too, and the nurses were sent to us that night to lay out the body: to wash and dress Bruce, and talk us through the next steps.  It was amazing to have that level of support exactly when we needed it.  And of course, it didn’t end there, because the charity made it abundantly clear to me that if I, or my son, needed further support, at any time, then we only needed to pick up the phone, day or night.

“Rennie Grove helped us immeasurably through this terrible time. The nurses were, without exception, reliable, knowledgeable and comforting.   Their understanding of the situation, their care and concern, and their utmost efforts to help us each and every time we called upon them, were wonderful.   Having such an amazing facility on our doorstep is of immeasurable value.

“We give them our heartfelt thanks.”