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Tribute to Deal's blind physiotherapist Lionel Westbrook whose healing hands were "a gift from God"

The family of a blind physiotherapist who was known for his healing hands have described him as an “exceptional man”.

Lionel Westbrook, who worked at Deal Hospital for 22 years, has died unexpectedly aged 59.

Defying the advice of his teachers who said he should become a piano tuner, the South African native followed his dreams to become a physiotherapist.

Blind physiotherapist Lionel Westbrook died unexpectedly
Blind physiotherapist Lionel Westbrook died unexpectedly

His wife of 30 years Christine Westbrook said: “He was much loved by his patients. They say he didn’t just treat them for back problems, he helped them in so many other ways. He helped them emotionally and spiritually.

“He always said his healing hands were a gift from God, in that he was able to deal with people like that. He loved being a physio, he loved people and he loved practising.”

Born in Kimberley in South Africa in 1958, Mr Westbrook was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer, retinoblastoma, when he was just 10 months old. Within two years, he’d lost both of his eyes.

From the age of five and a half, he attended the Pioneer School for the Blind in Worchester, South Africa, many hundred of miles away from his family home, where he excelled.

He was known by his fellow students as ‘professor’ because of his knowledge of so many diverse subjects and wide range of interests.

His mother, Hilda, who lives in Walmer, believes that a tragic incident on a train where one of his school friends lost both legs inspired her son to study to become a physiotherapist.

She explained physical science was not taught in his school. But with private tuition and help from his late father, Walter, who would do the drawings, he was accepted as one of only five foreign students that year to study at the North London School of Physiotherapy in Archway.

She said: “We got a letter from the North London School. My heart jumped out of my body when I read it to him. That was a great day.”

He qualified as a physiotherapist in 1981. Days before leaving to begin the three-year course, Mr Westbrook met his now wife, Christine, an art teacher and a fellow committed Christian. They married in September 1987.

Lionel Westbrook doted on his granddaughter Arya Grace
Lionel Westbrook doted on his granddaughter Arya Grace

After training, he returned to South Africa, working at Kimberley Hospital and was known for his work on babies with breathing difficulties and intensive care patients. He ran a thriving physiotherapy practise, with doctors referring patients to him from right across South Africa.

In November 1995, with his wife Christine, two young daughters and a baby on the way, the family moved to Deal, first setting up home in St George’s Road before moving to Dover Road.

His wife said it was a sign from God that led them to this new beginning.

Mr Westbrook started work at Deal Hospital in February 1996 and remained there for 22 years.

He was the physiotherapist for Deal Town Football Club during their vase win at Wembley Stadium in 2000. The team bus made a special detour past Mr Westbrook’s house, calling his name aloud, to acknowledge the role he had played.

Lionel Westbrook in the snow on Walmer beach
Lionel Westbrook in the snow on Walmer beach

Outside of work, he was a leader at the Carpenters Arms Church in Southwall Road, taking the sermons most Sundays. Mr Westbrook was also an active sportsman and loved sports that included speed, including cycling, water skiing and blind navigating in off-road high speed car rallying events.

He learnt to driver cars and motorbikes on dirt road in South Africa.

He played bowls as a young man, winning national tournaments in South Africa and Zimbabwe. He was also a D.I.Y. enthusiast.

Mr Westbrook is survived by wife Christine, three children, Catherine, Mari Anne and Matthew, granddaughter Arya Grace, siblings Gillian, Suzanne and Ed and his mother, Hilda.

All are welcome to attend a memorial service at St George’s Church, Deal on Friday, June 22 at 1.30pm.

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