1 November 2022

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Hilary’s Story

Three years after holding her husband’s hand as he died at the hospice, Hilary Lambert has returned as a volunteer.

Three years after her husband Peter died what she describes as “the best possible death” here at St Christopher’s, Hilary Lambert has now fulfilled her goal of returning to the hospice – this time as a volunteer. Her one regret is that Peter isn’t here for her to tell him about it.

Hilary and Peter were together for 40 years. Both teachers, they lived in Croydon where they brought up their daughter and two sons.

Hilary remembers Peter as a very fit and active young man. But in middle age, about 20 years ago, he developed some health issues, including kidney cancer. After successful surgery, Peter recovered, and life returned to normal until a month before he was due to retire in 2015. What he expected to be a routine hospital appointment, resulted in the diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer in the cavity where his cancerous kidney had been.

When doctors at the Royal Marsden referred Peter to St Christopher’s it was the first time either of them had any contact with the hospice apart from a course on child bereavement Hilary had attended some years ago.

“When it was suggested, we were like, ‘he’s not dead just yet’. But we went for a pain management consultation. Then we started visiting regularly and Peter had physio and we’d go into the gardens and café and all the staff and volunteers were so friendly and welcoming.”

Hilary was really struck by the contrast in approach to end of life care between the hospitals Peter was treated in and St Christopher’s.

“On the two occasions when he was admitted to St Christopher’s for pain management the care was absolutely fantastic, so professional. There’s a totally different attitude to end of life care compared with hospitals. We always had 110% confidence in the hospice.”

As Peter’s condition deteriorated further, he received care at home from the hospice’s community team. Hilary was by this stage desperate for him to be admitted to St Christopher’s and was extremely relieved when a bed became available.

“I talked to Peter about where he would want to die and in his typically unselfish way, he said wherever was easiest. For me, that definitely meant St Christopher’s, because the staff were so amazing including the consultants who would stop and have a proper chat with Peter.”

After Peter had been on the ward for a month, Hilary and her daughter went to visit him one day and, when they found him untypically low, offered to take him outside.

“He wheeled him into the garden in his bed. He had a cup of tea and a slice of cake, the birds were singing and we had a laugh and a chat. It was so lovely.”

But when she returned the next day, Peter had a temperature and was lower still. “The staff made up a chair for me and I held his hand and dozed. When I woke up, he was dead. The staff were absolutely exemplary and helped me feel so calm.

“Peter had as good a death as he possibly could, and I think a massive part of that was down to the way he was treated. I am so glad he could be at St Christopher’s and wasn’t moved anywhere else.”

The idea of volunteering first occurred to Hilary while Peter was in the in-patient unit. “They were always so friendly and helpful and seemed to be enjoying what they were doing that I thought as soon as I retired I would like to do it.”

Volunteer recruitment was interrupted during Covid-19 and Hilary was advised to wait a couple of years after Peter died in 2019. Earlier this year there was a fresh recruitment drive and she applied.

“I went for my interview and it was the first time I’d been back since the group bereavement session I went to. But it really didn’t feel too difficult going back.

“I’ve had my training now and I’ve done my first event, meeting and greeting. I’d be happy to have a patient-facing role on the wards too.

“The more I know and experience about St Christopher’s the better it is. The volunteer team have been so supportive, accommodating and welcoming. And it makes me feel good that I am giving something back to a place that gave me and my family tremendous support during a time of real crisis in my life. It just saddens me that I can’t tell Peter about what I’m doing.”

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