When Mary Elsdon was diagnosed with inoperable bone cancer and was offered a move to the Margaret Kerr Unit, she rallied against it – she thought it was a place patients go to die.
Her reaction is understandable, it is a misconception held by many. And to be told you do not have long to live when you are 58 years of age is hugely traumatising.
But once it was explained to her that the centre would be a comfortable place for her to stay while specialists brought her pain under control by sorting out her medication, she relented. And it turned out to be a lifesaver for her and her family. Mary is dying, but the staff at the unit have prepared her – and her husband David and children Jeanette, Rebecca, Mark and Andrew – for that eventuality. The family prefer not to be held by the idea of timescales, such as when she is likely to pass on. Instead, Mary concentrates on reaching targets – Mother’s Day, Easter ... and her husband’s birthday in June.
The first sign she had of anything being wrong was last August, when she began to suffer pain at the top of her legs. Subsequent X-rays and an MRI scan showed no apparent cause, and she was told to keep taking painkillers and attend physiotherapy sessions.
Soon, though, the painkillers just stopped working.
In January, she developed a chest infection, and within a week, she was diagnosed with full pneumonia. She was admitted to hospital, but staff could not work out why she was in so much pain. Another X-ray was taken, and this confirmed she had secondary bone cancer.
Mary’s daughter Jeanette takes up the story: “Mum was pretty much out of it at the time due to the medication she was given.
“So when we were told she had cancer, it was the worst thing imaginable. But our primary concern was that her pain was not being managed.
“When a bed became available at the Margaret Kerr Unit, mum became very emotional. She had heard it was where you go to die.
“But she agreed to go, and it was like moving from a battleground to an oasis.
“From then on, the right people came to see my mum and she got the right treatment.
“Mum was in a bad way, she had suffered kidney failure from the morphine and the prognosis was not good. But they gave her an antidote over the course of 24 hours and she was back with us.
“The staff at the centre are superb. We can’t praise them enough. Each and every one of them go above and beyond the call of duty because they really care for their patients. We are a big family and we could visit at any time – dad even slept there overnight.”
Mary, who is originally from Berwick, stayed in the unit for five weeks, before moving home to St Boswells.
She told us: “I came to see the centre as my second home. I felt safe and happy there, but it wasn’t home.
“I felt a bit guilty leaving as all the staff were so caring, but it is great to be in my own home, making new memories for my family that aren’t painful.”
Mary has a hospital bed in the family living room and has been home now for five weeks. She enjoys regular visits from many family members, including her grandchildren.
However, she is in talks with doctors about moving back to the unit soon.
She said, quite frankly: “I now have an end-of-life scenario to think about, and I think the unit will play a part in that.
“I am very happy at the thought of going back. It’s a home from home and the staff are like family.
“If it was not for the unit, I would not be here, it built me from nothing to where I am now.
“I feel fantastic.”