'The hospice gave us the strength to live our last days together'
Given as little as three months to live after her
cancer returned, Alice Ward was invited to stay at Canterbury’s
Her husband George, like many, saw it as a sign of
giving up hope, but here he tells how the experience helped the
couple to make the most of their final days
We came to the hospice in a state of raw despair and fear. The
diagnosis that the cancer, operated on five years before, had come
back and was now inoperable; that Alice had three to six months to
live; came without warning after years of clean check-ups.
That was compounded by a brutalised lack of empathy by hospital
staff. Unable to feed herself, her food was left. Dehydrated, she
was without a drip for five hours, because on a weekend no doctor
could be found to sign the paper.
In need of morphine for the cancer in her spine, ribs and liver,
the dose was held in front of her while she was in too much pain to
push herself up from the pillows to reach it.
The small hospice-related team came. “If you are in pain, the
last place you want to be is a hospital,” they said. “We can find
you a place in a hospice.”
But even as uncaring as this one ward had been, a hospital means
hope, whereas a hospice, surely, is an admission of the end of
hope. Some certainly do go there to die, they said, but many were
stabilised and went home. No, no miracles, but home, not a hospital
bed and strangers.
I work in Canterbury and a bed was available there. The first
days were spent balancing a whole spread of drugs. Alice began
taking notice of her surroundings again.
It’s open house at the hospice. Friends wandered in as and when
their work and family commitments allowed them.
It was a hot May and the garden provided both sunshine and
restful green shade. Friends would come and Alice asked if I could
bring in some wine for them. “No problem, but remember there’s a
free 24-hour bar for you Alice,” said one of the staff.
Our favourite spot was a little arbour in the corner where we
were brought drinks, meals and unlimited time and attention from
From the arbour we could hear the pile driver sinking the
foundations for the mini Sainsbury’s on the corner of Station Road
West. It was the sound I heard every day from work at the Goods
Shed – just a touch of everyday reality we knew we shared between
We soon found the hospice has a relaxed, rock ’n’
roll attitude that marches over red tape. There’s a comfortable
smoking room: you smoke there or in the garden. Just don’t, warned
the notices, smoke if you are on oxygen.
The treatment at the hospital had left Alice cowed. During her
months of chemotherapy she had never missed a day at work,
insisting the treatments took place in the afternoons so she could
at least work mornings.
But those few days in hospital had left her unwilling to hit the
buzzer for help and more painkillers, terrified that once again she
would be angering the nurses. It took the hospice staff a week of
talk and hand-holding to get her to ask for help without fear.
Meanwhile, our house was being knocked down. The operative
heart, the kitchen, bathroom and only lavatory, disappeared in the
last phase of extension work. It was the nurses who insisted I
should use their shower rooms, be given a cooked breakfast and
brought endless cups of coffee.
Sometime I stayed the night, sometimes on a camp bed in Alice’s
room. Once, to give us a bit more comfort, the chapel had the altar
curtained off and two comfy wheeled beds were put side by side.
I brought tempting little dishes of food and we dined outside in
that spring heatwave. Alice with her cigarettes, me with my
The brushing away of all bureaucracy, the easy compassion of
staff and volunteers, gave us a cocooned space in which to begin to
face the new reality.
When we got there Alice was a body kept alive by pills and
injections. After about two weeks she was asking when she could
drive again. A tendency to hallucinate did not impress the doctors,
but she kept pushing.
Then she began planning not just a June wedding anniversary but
a renewal of vows ceremony which involved shopping at her favourite
The doctors and nurses were all for an outing and did all they
could to help. Regular pain killers: check.
Breakthrough pain killer (to get her out to the car and over the
potholes): check. A driver full of Class A drugs: check. Couple of
syringes of just-in-case morphine: check. Paperwork: forget it.
And so we went shopping. Alice high as a kite, me regretting I
had not asked exactly where we were going before the drugs kicked
in. But we got there, bought the feathers and the red velvet hearts
and headed off to Birchington for fish and chips, washed down with
squirts of morphine.
Alice worked as manager of the deli counter at Macknade Fine
Food at Faversham. Some of her first visitors were Stefano Cuomo,
the second generation of the family to manage the store, and his
sister Francesca. They brought work and began planning how they
would get her to work when she left the hospice. “That’s what you
want, that’s what you do,” was the hospice attitude.
The day came when we left. The house was not yet ready so we
stayed with friends. First thing was to register with a local GP to
access district nurses and GP care. Instant registration is only
possible if you have a close relative already registered, we were
I explained that my brother lived just up the road and was most
likely on their books, if they would check. “Sorry, patient
confidentiality, we can’t tell you that,” said the receptionist. We
were back to form-filling reality.
But, far more importantly, Alice was back. Back in control of
her life, back working, back driving, back planning and back
She did die, last month. But she died at work and with a holiday
booked for the following week in the south of France.
The hospice never promised hope of a cure. But from its care and
expertise came the strength to live whatever time, good and bad,
that was left.
The Pilgrims Hospices is the Gazette’s charity of year. To donate
- Click here for more Canterbury news...
- Click here for more news from across the county...