Tina Millard, Project Lead of Rowans Hospice Veterans Services, talks about how she aims to provide a constant support to veterans such as Spencer Drain, who has an inoperable brain tumour, and his family.
I met Spencer, his wife Jane and one of their sons at the Hospice Open Day. Spencer had come to see what we did - he was very newly-diagnosed with his brain tumour and already he knew that it wasn’t curable.
Spencer needed to take control back. His way to regain control was to engage with places like us, looking for advice and identifying how we could support him.
He was surprised to discover we offered a Veterans Service. At our veterans Monday morning drop-in session I undertook an informal holistic assessment. This includes a financial check such as are you getting pension, benefits you’re entitled to, through to how are you coping emotionally.
This was especially important as Spencer’s journey had been so sudden. One day he was all right, the next he was told he had a brain tumour, which had to be operated on.
However, he knew the operation wouldn’t cure him. He now was having to wait to see what would be offered next. He hadn’t been given the whole picture.
Spencer knew he was going to have some treatment, but not yet. He didn’t know what treatment he was going to have. And he definitely didn’t know what it was going to do.
Spencer and I had a great chat, where I listened to what he was experiencing, acknowledging how he was feeling and what his concerns were.
Normally a brain tumour patient, or anyone in that situation, would get contact from a nurse specialist in that field. Unfortunately at the time there was no-one available, so Spencer didn’t have anyone.
As an experienced oncology cancer nurse, I was able to give him some guidance, sharing my knowledge to say generally this is what happens to people in your situation.
Spencer had been told some of this information before, but naturally, due to the huge emotional turmoil anyone confronted with diagnosis of life-limiting illness goes through, it’s really hard to take in all of the information.
Our conversations helped to process and reconfirm what he had been told. From this point we set key goals. My immediate action was to find and put him in contact with a brain tumour specialist in the hospital.
I remember being insistent that he contacted his GP, as they often get forgotten when you enter the hospital system. In addition signposting him to any of the relevant veterans’ services for him to contact, out of the hundreds that are available.
I also highlighted the things we offer at the Living Well Centre that might interest him. He has ended up having reflexology and massage, which I didn’t think he would do, but I’m so glad he has.
It is great to see Spencer every Monday, when he pops in to enjoy the banter with the other veterans. He seems happy and contented here, which gives Jane the chance to go off and get anything done that she needs to do.
It’s great to witness them both entering a relatively settled period. Things are as okay as they ever will be and they are starting planning things for the future.
I think what really helps is I know Spencer’s story, what he has been through. Being a veteran isn’t about ticking a box. I make sure I know where they have been, what they have done and seen. Being in the military isn’t a job, it’s a way of life.
Furthermore, I know what Spencer is currently going through. If he tells me on a Monday it hasn’t been a good week, he doesn’t have to explain he has been having chemo that week.
I want to provide a constant for Spencer, Jane and their boys, so they know I am alongside them throughout the journey.
Spencer Drain’s story
In October 2017 I went for a routine eye test and my optician noticed that the pressure in my right eye was high. I was referred to St Mary’s Drop-In Centre in Portsmouth and put on a course of eye drops.
Life carried on as normal until July 2018 when I was referred for an MRI scan as the pressure hadn’t gone down. It was then my life was turned upside down, as I found out I actually had two brain tumours, one of which was inoperable.
Last September they operated and took out as much of the larger tumour that they safely could. Subsequent reports confirmed it to be an incurable grade 3 cancer.
I don’t know how long I have left, but the post-op treatment I have had and am still having is to help prolong my life for as long as possible. I have an amazing wife, Jane, and two fantastic sons who are 18 and 23. One day I hope to see grandchildren.
My plan is to live, not exist and that is what Rowans Veteran Service is helping me to do.
Discovering about Rowans Veterans Service
The day before my operation I did a long bike ride with two of my ex-military friends and we cycled past the Rowans’ Living Well Centre. I knew this place was here and it was part of the hospice but that was it.
It was whilst in hospital I picked up a leaflet about the Open Day, so came along. This is when I met Tina, who heads up the Veterans Service and discovered how much was on offer in this lovely environment.
Having a laugh
I was apprehensive when I first came to the centre that Monday morning, but learnt quickly that everyone coming here has got the same thing in common, a connection with life-limiting illness – although maybe with a different set of circumstances.
Tina has been a font of knowledge, signposting me to the right services for me. Her nursing background has obviously really helped. I have met some great people, with great stories to tell. We have a laugh and it’s not doom and gloom, it’s ‘Hey, what did you do at the weekend?’ You talk about normal things rather having to explain I have brain cancer.
Living, not existing
I look forward to coming here every Monday. I want to see how Jim is doing, he is ex-navy and has many a story of the seven seas to tell. I also go to the monthly brain tumour support group that meets at the LWC.
More than that, I look forward to doing certain things, such as the complimentary therapies on offer. I am focused on others and what else I can get involved in. It’s when you do that you’re still living and not just existing.
Here, I also get inspiration. It helps take my mind off things. My cancer is not going to go away, but I can talk about other things like topical news or what it’s going to be like outside in the spring.
It’s a place I feel comfortable and the staff are all fab. When I come in I get ‘Hi Spencer’, which is really important because I am me, Spencer, not just a cancer patient. This also all means Jane can go off to do what she wants to do, knowing I’m safe.
We all take so much for granted in our everyday life. Just waking up every day, speaking, vision and mobility. I also totally appreciate that the Rowans doesn’t run on thin air, so I really advocate, if you can, giving a few moments of your time to be a companion or dipping your hands in your pockets. It is really helpful and will make a real difference if you do it.