by Carol Dyce
Celebrating their first wedding anniversary in Cyprus wasn’t the romantic celebration Russ and Kelly Lees had planned when he had a seizure and was diagnosed with a brain tumour, undergoing a life-saving 11-hour operation.
The couple’s planned four-day trip turned into a six-week stay on the Mediterranean island as they struggled to navigate the medical system and faced a painful separation from their children Casey, six, and Chloe, two, and Russ’ daughter Bethan, 15.
Ironically, the couple’s nightmare trip started off as a much-needed break for some quality time together.
“My mum suggested that Russ and I went out to our villa for a long weekend when lockdown lifted as we hadn’t any time to ourselves since we got married in May 2019,” said Kelly, 38, from Farnham, Hampshire.
“In the middle of planning our wedding, we became guardians for my niece and nephew Casey and Chloe and welcomed them into our home. Together with Bethan who lives with us half the time and Casey and Chloe’s half-sister, Claire, who often stays with us, we became a family of six.
“We also needed to check on the villa but it was so stressful trying to book flights, get Covid tests and sort out the kids for my parents that we nearly decided not to go. But my mum urged us to go as we needed a break. If only we’d known.”
Russ, 39, was sent home from his first trip to hospital when doctors put his symptoms down to too much alcohol and sun.
“He was dismissed as a ‘typical British tourist’ and they didn’t take his symptoms seriously at all,” said Kelly.
“I was so upset and frustrated as I knew Russ wasn’t drunk – something had happened to him.”
Back at their villa five hours later, Russ had what they now know is a stroke and they called an ambulance again. This time he had a CT scan, which revealed a “mass” on his brain and he had surgery two weeks later.
They were relieved when doctors told them biopsy results revealed the tumour was a low-grade (non-cancerous) oligodendroglioma.
After Russ was signed off as fit to travel, they finally got a flight home on November 9, 2020 to an emotional reunion with Casey and Chloe, being looked after by their grandparents at home.
But their joy was short lived when they had had a devastating blow after Russ’ biopsy was re-tested and his tumour regraded to a grade 3 brain cancer.
He’s just finished a six-week course of radiotherapy and will now have four weeks’ rest before chemotherapy for six- nine months.
“We were in shock and didn’t hear anything after the word ‘cancer’,” said Kelly.
“Russ tolerated treatment quite well but the fatigue is really kicking in.”
Now the couple are sharing their story to help The Brain Tumour Charity raise awareness about brain tumours – the biggest cancer killer of under-40s in the UK - and highlight the importance of its support services as a brain tumour diagnosis has such an impact on emotional and mental health.
“We didn’t know where to turn as we struggled with Russ’ diagnosis,” said Kelly.
“It was such a shock for him and it affects the whole family. When we reached out to The Brain Tumour Charity’s support team, we didn’t feel so alone anymore.”
The couple’s ordeal started after they flew out to their villa in Kapparis on the south of the island on September 23, 2020.
“We got there late on the Wednesday night and spent Thursday and Friday checking on the villa and relaxing over dinner and a few drinks,” said Kelly.
“On the Saturday morning, Russ mentioned that he had a headache and felt ill. I teased him, ‘that’ll be the cocktails you drank last night! I was making tea and when I turned round, I saw that Russ’ left arm was jerking. He’s prankster and I thought he was messing about, so I told him to stop it. But then he dropped his glass and it smashed on the floor. He was jerking along the left-hand side of his body and his arm and leg were locked in place.
“Russ is 6ft 4in and 20 stone and I’m only 5ft 4in so I couldn’t lift him. I managed to kick the stool out from under him and he fell to the floor with his left leg still locked.”
Kelly Facetimed her friends Tracy and Scott Walker who live nearby, for help and blurted out Russ was having a seizure.
“I was so scared and said ‘Call an ambulance, please help me,’” said Kelly.
The couple called emergency services and rushed straight round to the villa.
“Russ’s seizure lasted for about 20 minutes,” said Kelly.
“He was taken in the ambulance to the local hospital. I couldn’t go with him due to Covid so I followed in the car with Tracy and Scott. When we got to the hospital they said that Russ was drunk and that he had sunstroke.
Russ was sent home after blood tests came back clear. He was tired and went to bed.
“I woke him up after a few hours,” said Kelly.
“He stood up and looked at me saying. ‘It’s happening…” and before he could finish his sentence, he keeled over. I put a towel under his head as it was a hard, tiled floor and moved him into the recovery position while I tried to call Tracy.”
At that moment, Tracy and her son, Mark, walked through the door with a hot water bottle we’d asked to borrow.
“By then, Russ’ left side of his face was droopy and he couldn’t lift his left arm,” said Kelly.
"We called an ambulance again and the paramedics wanted him to get on a stretcher or in a wheelchair, but he insisted on walking to the ambulance. But as he tried to climb up to the ambulance, he fell flat on his face as he had no feeling in his left leg.”
This time, Russ had a CT scan, which revealed a “mass” on his brain and he was transferred to New General Hospital in the capital of the island, Nicosia a one-and-a--half hour’s drive away.
“I burst into tears and felt so frightened, especially as we were away from home in another country where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t understand the health care system,” said Kelly.
“We rushed back to the villa to pack him an overnight bag and it was nearly 10.30pm by the time we got to the hospital. I could only stay for a few minutes due to Covid so I gave him his bag before we drove the one-and-half hours back home again.”
The hospital was shut to visitors on Sundays, so they made the three- hour round trip to see Russ on the Monday. He’d had an MRI scan, which confirmed he had a large brain tumour.
“As well as the language barrier, it was difficult to find out what was going on due to limited visiting hours and the doctors didn’t make their rounds until after I left,” said Kelly.
Poignantly, devoted dad Russ was frightened he wouldn’t make it through surgery.
“He said to me. ‘What if I never see my kids again?’’ said Kelly.
“I was terrified, too, and worried about the impact on the kids at home. We managed to get Bethan and her mum flights to come over to see him,”
After a week in hospital, Russ was discharged before surgery and Kelly looked after him for a long weekend at Tracy and Scott’s, which had become her “second home.”
“We were sent home with all his medication and instructions,” said Kelly.
“I was terrified about looking after him and I don’t know what I would have done without Tracy. Scott and Mark’s support.”
Back at home, friends Nick and Siobhan Wright set up a go-fund me page for the couple calling them “two of the kindest, most caring and generous people you’ll ever meet,” to help with costs as plant engineer Russ will be off work long-term during his treatment and recovery.
Russ had surgery on October 8. 2020.
‘"I was told it would take three-five hours but he was in theatre for over 11 hours,” said Kelly.
"I was frantic with worry and it seemed like an eternity.”
At 5pm, they went to the ward and were told, “He’s not here,”
"My mind leapt to a dark place and was terrified he hadn’t made it through surgery,” said Kelly.
“"hen I saw I saw a figure being wheeled out and I said to Mark. “That’s my husband! That’s Russ.” I could tell by the way he had his arm on his head and I recognised his tattoo. I’ve never been so relieved or happy to see anyone. He was pretty out of it, but managed to say, ‘I made it then, Babe. He asked what he looked like and I took a picture. Then he started singing, ‘I’m a little tea pot.’ Of course he doesn’t believe it, I wish I’d filmed it!”
Surgeons had removed the whole tumour which was 5.1cm x 9cm deep and close to his spinal cord, which is why surgery took so long.
Four days later, Russ was discharged and the couple stayed with Tracy and Scott for a few days before going back to the villa.
“Bethan and her mum arrived after he’d been discharged,” said Kelly.
"It really gave Russ a boost to see his daughter and she was reassured to see he was OK. We were missing Casey and Chloe terribly and they were missing us, and I was worried they wouldn’t understand why we couldn’t be with them.
“We told them that Daddy had a poorly head and we couldn’t come home yet.”
On October 23, 2020, Russ went back to hospital to have the staples in his wound taken out.
“We had to wait until Russ was signed off by a doctor to travel and then due to Covid, flights kept getting cancelled,” said Kelly.
“We surprised the kids as we didn’t want them to be disappointed if the flight got cancelled. Their little faces just lit up and they were so excited when we walked into the house.”
Now life is challenging for the family as Russ undergoes treatment.
“’It’s full-on trying to juggle everything and supporting Russ,” said Kelly.
“I’ve got the kids and their school work to keep up with and I’m working two days a week as a PA as Russ can’t work, so we’ve got financial pressure on top of everything else. Our holiday is one I’ll never forget – but for all the wrong reasons.”
But the couple are determined to count their blessings.
“Going through this has brought us closer than ever,” said Kelly.
“It brings it home what’s really important in life and our family means everything to us.”
Russ said: “I could never have got through it without love and support from Kelly and our Cyprus family especially our 'mum and dad', Scott and Tracy.
“It was one of the scariest times in my life, and makes you think about life and how easily it can change - and how not to take things for granted.”
Russ' story originally ran in The Mirror.