Serena's story

Sunday 26th October 2003 - the previous evening, my husband Trevor and I had taken our 2 children, Ella (7½) and Elisha (3) to a firework display. When we got home, we didn't notice any messages on the answer phone, and went to bed. Neither of us heard the phone ring during the night, but at about 3am Trevor heard the phone beeping to notify us there was a message. He went downstairs to listen, and I was horrified by what I could hear. Several messages from my Mum, Peggy, who lives 2 doors away on her own, begging me to go round and help her, she felt so ill. I was out of bed like a shot, getting my clothes on, when the final message played - MKDOC informing me that Mum had been taken by ambulance to A&E at MK Hospital.

Trevor called my Dad and asked him to come and sit with the girls while we went to the hospital. We arrived to find Mum in a cubicle, with severe stomach pains and being violently sick. Despite several examinations, the doctors were puzzled, and sent her for an x-ray, which still didn't make things any clearer. Trevor went back home about 6am, so that he was there when the girls woke up, and they wouldn't be so upset, but I stayed with Mum all day, until at about 5pm, they decided to admit her and carry out further tests.

I phoned the hospital the next day, to be told Mum was being taken for an emergency exploratory operation to find out what was wrong. When I phoned later that day to find out how the operation had gone, I was informed that Mum was in ICU, fighting for her life.

Yet again, we called my Dad over to sit with the girls, and raced up to the hospital. We went in to see Mum who was conscious, and acknowledged we were there. She was surrounded by so many machines, with tubes and wires everywhere - it felt like we had walked onto a set of Holby City, not real life. Suddenly, alarms started going off, and we were ushered out to the relatives' room. A Consultant explained that Mum's pancreas was infected, and that she was seriously ill. There was a great possibility that she would die, but the next couple of days or so would be a roller-coaster ride - she would deteriorate enormously, before she would get any better, and then she could deteriorate again. We were advised to inform any family, and give them the opportunity to visit - just in case.

My life suddenly changed dramatically. I worked 3 days per week, and Mum would take Ella to school, and fetch her for me. She also took her to several of her out-of school activities. Elisha was at nursery while I worked. Mum even cooked for us most nights, to save me doing it when I finally got home from collecting Elisha from nursery. Suddenly, I became powered by rocket-fuel!! Initially I had 2 weeks off work; I would take Elisha to nursery, drop Ella at school, do any chores, visit Mum, fetch the girls from school and nursery, fetch my Nan and visit Mum, take Nan home, take the girls to gymnastics, etc, get home and cook tea, put the children to bed and then collapse until the next morning! After 2 weeks, I returned to work, working 4 days, but during school hours only, so that I could continue the evening routine. My main priority, aside from Mum, was keeping life as normal as possible for my girls.

Once we had been told what was wrong with Mum, I sat down with the girls, and explained in very basic terms what the Consultant had told us. They were aware from the start that it was very likely that Nanny would die. Ella was the first one to visit Mum. This was at her request, I never made the girls do anything that they weren't comfortable with - to start with she was frightened and sat in the relatives' room, and she decided when she was ready to go in. She looked nervously at Mum, who was heavily sedated, with tubes everywhere - virtually all of her organs had started to shut down, and machines were doing all the work for her. She didn't want to touch Mum, so I sat down and held Mum's hand and spoke to her, and eventually Ella did the same. I explained everything - in extremely basic terms that often made the staff laugh - what the machines were doing, what the tubes were for, even her urine bag. Once she knew what everything was for, it didn't seem so frightening anymore.

Once Elisha knew that Ella had seen Nanny, she was determined to visit as well. I told her that Nanny didn't look the same anymore - she looked like the 'Nutty Professor' due to the drugs bloating her up so much - but she was not going to be left out. Again, when we first arrived, Elisha was very nervous, but this time Ella explained to her little sister what all the machines and tubes were for, and we even told Nanny off because her tongue was sticking out! Elisha's main concern was that Nanny didn't have any pyjama's on!

The girls then visited everyday, and it was my youngest daughter who noticed when a tube had been taken away, or there was one less machine being used. As one Consultant remarked, my girls became very confident in ICU, fetching chairs to sit on, washing their hands, asking what was wrong with other patients -completely unfazed by what was going on around them.

The Consultant was right - we were in for a roller-coaster ride. Every little sign we took as an improvement, only to be knocked back down again by another complication. Night-time was the worst - I dreaded the phone call, but I was given a pager which was invaluable to me. It meant that whenever the phone rang, I didn't go into a blind panic thinking it was the hospital, because I knew they would only contact me via the pager. Something I found very difficult was everybody calling to find out how Mum was - I made the mistake of writing to many of her friends, telling them how ill she was and that we might lose her, and I would come home from the hospital every night to find about 8 messages - the last thing I wanted to do was call everybody back. So each day I left on updated message on my answer phone as to Mum's condition - this way I didn't have to return everyone's call.

It took just over 3 weeks for Mum to recover sufficiently in ICU, before she was moved to a main ward, but it seemed like forever. The final stage of her recovery, where we could actually see a difference, only took a matter of a few days. From opening her eyes and acknowledging us, to trying to talk to us, to having the tracheotomy removed and getting her voice back, to finally getting out of bed and having a shower - it all seemed to happen at once.

Once out of ICU, things became harder in a way. You become used to the one-to-one care of ICU, and being able to visit 24 hours a day, but on the main ward visiting hours are restricted, and they weren't convenient when you have got children. However, Mum was determined to be her usual independent self, and quickly made remarkable recovery. I will never forget the joy of turning up for a visit, to see the sight of Mum, dressed in a baggy nightshirt I'd used when I was pregnant, and knee-high white support socks, almost hopping and skipping along with a walking frame, because she had succeeded in taking herself to the bathroom!

On 10th December 2003, I was given permission to take Mum to see Ella's Christmas Play at school. Although feeling very weak, and relying on a walking stick, we got her there - and later that afternoon she was discharged from hospital. Once home, it has taken a long time for her to feel truly well again, but she has got there. In May 2004, she got herself a puppy, who keeps her on her toes, and she takes him for a walk 3 times a day. This year, she has been out a lot on her bike, and swimming, and we have both joined an exercise class, which we really enjoy.

During Mum's time in ICU, I kept notes for a diary, as I remember someone telling me that the worst thing is you can't remember/don't know what happened whilst you were in hospital. Unfortunately, 2004 was not a good year for me, as my Dad died in February, and my Grandad died in September, so I never got around to writing up the notes. However, I have just presented Mum with the finished diary, on the 2nd anniversary of her illness. Mum couldn't remember anything that I had written about, but she felt very emotional at what she had put us through - I feel in some ways it is harder for the family than the patient, as we have to deal with the emotions of the roller-coaster ride, while the patients sleep through most of it and don't remember it, but I'm sure the patients would say otherwise. I experienced a very strange feeling when Mum was finally home - suddenly everybody's focus was on Mum, how she was feeling, etc, and I was put on the back-boiler - I wanted to shout; ' Hey, what about me, what about what I've been through. Mum's been asleep through most of it, I've had to cope with keeping life normal for my children, racing backwards and forwards to the hospital, plus all the emotional side of it.'" I felt extremely guilty for feeling like this, but maybe it's normal.

For my Dad's funeral, I chose the song by Ronan Keating, 'If tomorrow never comes', and it may be an old cliché, but I now definitely believe in living for today, because one day, tomorrow won't come.