I have learned that integral to my slow progression to alcoholism was denial; the inability to accept that I had a problem — alcoholics become experts at being economical with the truth. The culture of drinking, the pub being the hub of the community, aided and abetted this mindset of being no different from anyone else. To convince oneself there is no problem — even when the problem is highlighted by someone who loves you, someone you love dearly — is the psychological Gordian knot inherent in this illness.
A couple of years later tragedy was to visit our lives once more. Mhairi became unwell; the subsequent diagnosis was cancer.
She had survived cancer earlier in her life. She was twenty years old when her daughter was born and was diagnosed shortly after with cancer of the womb. Hospitalised in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary for over a year and close death on occasion, she survived invasive surgery, radiotherapy, drug treatments, dramatic weight loss, etc.
In late 2006 she began to feel unwell; experiencing bouts of severe pain in her abdomen. Initially our family doctor thought in might be a colic-type condition. Nothing relieved the pain she was experiencing and the episodes became more frequent and she was unable to continue working.
This was the start of many months of visits to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness and Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. After tests, scans, exploratory surgery, biopsies etc., cancer was diagnosed. Drug and radiotherapy treatment failed to arrest the cancer and she required major colostomy and urostomy surgery.
Her cancer was eventually diagnosed as terminal.
She managed to live at home with the assistance of her family, a wonderful team of district nurses, Macmillan nurses, stoma nurses and her close friends. I became her full-time carer. Her condition finally deteriorated to the extent that she could not be cared for at home. In October, 2008 she was admitted to the Highland Hospice in Inverness.
Mhairi died in the hospice in February, 2009.
Five months is an exceptionally long time to be a patient in a hospice environment. We met many patients and their extended families and friendships were formed albeit short-term — friendships that can only develop between people coping with the same inevitable outcome. Had we lived closer to the hospice Mhairi could have attended as a day patient in the early stages.
We had, during the course of her illness, travelled hundreds miles by car and ambulance to hospital in Inverness and by air from Wick to Aberdeen and back. The first time I drove Mhairi to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary the trip took over six hours. To say the journeys were exhausting for her would be an understatement.
Mhairi’s strength of character never ceased to amaze me. While she was still mobile she visited and chatted with other patients and their families. Always managing a smile and a laugh in the face of adversity; regularly telephoning me to take in a book she had been discussing, favourite sweet or suchlike for fellow patients.
One day when she was still able to go out for a visit; which was encouraged by the staff; she asked me to take her to the Eastgate Shopping Centre. We could park there and use the lift. She wanted to pop into a jeweller’s shop.
A very helpful assistant asked if she could help:
“I would like a gold ring; a plain band”, Mhairi said.
“Is it a wedding band? Is it for your man here?” the assistant enquired as she showed her a selection.
“Yes,” Mhairi replied.
“Oh, that’s lovely and when is the wedding,” she said.
“Now,” Mhairi said and slipped the ring onto my finger.
The assistant started crying; I started crying — I’m crying now! Mhairi just smiled and said:
“That’s that done then. I’m tired now; can we go back.”
She was one principled, strong-minded and passionate lady. I loved her very much.
Being married had never been important to us; in fact, a few weeks’ earlier the hospice chaplain had asked if we wanted to get married.
Hospice care extends so much further than medical care for the patient; it reaches out to the extended family with support and counselling; a level of personal inclusion and time which cannot be delivered in a general hospital environment. We could even take our labrador, Caoran, in to visit. He was very popular with staff and the other patients loved making a fuss of him and giving him little treats. In fact, his visits were actively encouraged by the staff and were acknowledged as being therapeutic for the patients.
One day the staff surprised us both by telling us we were going on a trip. Mhairi at that time was no longer able to go out; so we were very intrigued by what they meant. With great hilarity they announced that Mhairi was moving down the corridor for the weekend and off we went in procession; Mhairi took the lead in her wheelchair.
The staff had temporarily converted two rooms into a bedroom with a double bed (two singles pushed together) the connecting room into a lounge/dining room with television and CD player. We were served a silver service, candle-lit dinner by Mhairi’s sister and her staff and I stayed over for two nights — so did the dog; his bed having been surreptitiously delivered. I was instructed, accompanied by hoots of laughter, to go home and get my jammies! I mentioned earlier that hospice nurses are very special people!
It was our last two nights’ together as a couple.
This is not the time or place to discuss the politics of funding end-of-life care; I mention it here only because it was so important to Mhairi — she had strong political views on social care in our society. Anyone, any family, who has to experience the long journey of suffering and caring for cancer sufferers and all terminally ill patients know the importance of our NHS and the funding assistance to charitable hospice services — we should treasure them with pride.