Real Life: Here Come the Girls for Girls Night Out
When her beloved mum Margaret spent her final days at St Nicholas Hospice Care, Julie Elder of Thetford was blown away by the amazing support the whole family received.
“She would do anything for anyone. Always so friendly and sociable, a really lovely women. As children we were always allowed to just play; make tents in the house and that kind of thing. She’d never tell us ‘No, you can’t do that’. She was a special person.”
Warmth and love radiates down the phoneline as Julie Elder describes her beloved mum Margaret. “We talk about her all the time as a family. I feel very lucky she was around to spend time with my children. When milestones come around, I always think of her and know she’d of been so proud.”
Margaret passed away in 2012, following a long battle with cancer. Losing her mum was, Julie says, a heartbreaking time for the whole family, but it was made so much easier thanks to the ‘phenomenal’ support Margaret received from St Nicolas Hospice Care, where she spent her final days. “My mum only had four days’ worth of their care - she was in there from Friday to the Monday - but it was such a lovely experience. I know that’s a really weird word to use, but it was exactly that. It felt like they were there holding our hands the whole time. From the ladies in the kitchen to the nurses. . . it’s an amazing place.”
St Nicholas Hospice Care is based in Bury St Edmunds and provides help, advice and support to people in West Suffolk and Thetford in the final chapters of their life, who are living with long-term and life-threatening illnesses. The services it provides are not just a lifeline for patients, but for their friends and family too, and range from specialist medical care to bereavement support.
The initial decision for Margaret to go into the hospice had been a difficult one. The cancer had spread to her brain and spine, and “mum just became really confused; she was in distress all the time,” Julie remembers. “Me and my sister could see that dad wasn’t coping at home. They were both suffering, so we knew we had to take control of the situation and get some help.”
From the moment they walked through the doors of the hospice, they knew it was the right decision. “A weight just lifted off mum and dad’s shoulders. They both looked so comfortable, so peaceful. I remember the tennis final being on and them watching that, mum joking with my daughter and dad going to play games in the family room,” Julie recalls. “You know how amazing these places are, but until you are inside there, it completely opens your eyes.”
And when Margaret did pass away, Julie took great comfort in the fact that she’d spent her final days in such a “calm, peaceful and personal place, surrounded by her loved-ones.”
Julie has lived in or around Bury all her life, and runs a hairdressers close-by. Chatting to clients, it’s clear that her family’s experience of the hospice is just one of many positive stories. “It touches the lives of so many families in the area – it’s such a big part of the community,” Julie says.
It’s one of the reasons why Girls Night Out has become such a popular event in the local calendar over the past 10 years. Taking place on September 14, the sponsored walk is the hospice’s biggest event of the year, with 2,100 women taking part in 2018, raising an amazing £226,000. The premise is simple: don pyjamas, glowing bunny ears and a smile, and walk 11.2 or six miles through Bury St Edmunds. Julie has taken part in the walk nearly every year since it started in 2009, and says it’s a “complete joy”.
“It’s been phenomenal watching it grow – it’s just got bigger and bigger,” she enthuses. “Everyone comes out in their gardens to watch and cheer and hand out sweets and chocolate. There’s a really amazing atmosphere.”
The walk passes the Hospice at the half-way mark. A moment that is always incredibly emotional for Julie, as thoughts turn to her mum. “It always feels like mum is there with me when I pass it,” she says. “You also think about all the families in there now, who you’re walking for too, hoping that they have the same amazing support we had.”
Walking alongside Julie will be best friend Allison Humphreys, who’s taken part in Girls Night Out for nine years in a row. Allison lives with multiple sclerosis (MS) and sometimes struggles with pain in her legs and severe fatigue. But during the toughest moments of the walk, when it feels like her legs won’t carry her any further, Allison thinks of all those people the hospice has helped over the years, and will help in the future too. “One day it could be me who needs their support,” she says.
Back in 2006, I woke up one morning with tingling in my hands and feet. My hands were all claw like and I couldn’t stretch my fingers out. I couldn’t press buttons, change earrings, open toothpaste… just little things like that.
It was around four months later when I was diagnosed with MS. I was in shock and denial. I went home and decided that I wasn’t going to have it. I carried on my life as normally as I could and tried to forget about it. But in 2010, I realised that the left side of my body had no heat sensation. I’d stand in the shower and feel all the heat as normal on my right hand side and on my left, I had nothing. It felt totally bizarre.
It turned out I was having an MS relapse, and was told that I needed to start on a disease modifying treatment. I think for a long time, I just tried to put it right out of my mind, thinking I’ve not got it, it’s going to disappear, I’m fine. But then I realised, I can’t live like that.
MS is an invisible illness: just by looking at someone you can’t tell if they are healthy or not, you don’t know what’s going on in their body, so you should never judge. I struggle with fatigue and have problems with my legs, but I do feel fortunate that I can live my life and do the things I want to do. I’m a stubborn mare and people have given up saying to me, ‘Take it easy, have a rest’, because they know that I’m going to do what I want to do.
My diagnosis has made me realise you have to live life by the day. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Some mornings when I have a shower, my legs just buckle, they’ve had enough. I just end up sitting in the shower, not able to move and I think I could sit here all day. Eventually I can get back up again, but that might start happening every day, or one day I might not be able to get up at all.
So I do what I can when I can. Like the Girls Night Out walk, yes I can find it very difficult and yes I might struggle the next day, but the work of the hospice is so important. One day, I might need their care, so whatever I can do, I will.
To anybody thinking of taking part, I’d say, go for it. It’s an amazing evening, with a brilliant atmosphere. It’s a great girls’ night out!
To find out more about the work of St Nicholas Hospice Care or to sign up for Girls Night Out on September 14, visit stnicholashospice.org.uk