Laura Veal, 41, from Christchurch lost her mum Joyce, who was 67 at the time, in June 2017 after she was diagnosed with two Glioblastoma brain tumours on her frontal lobe. Laura, who has been managing 999 call centres with the Ambulance Service for 15 years, was the main point of contact for hospital and hospice staff who explained all the devastating details of what was happening to her beloved mum.
Joyce had attended the GP on a number of occasions over the couple of weeks leading up to her diagnosis. But her symptoms were put down to sinusitis which she had been prescribed a nasal spray and tablets for. The family also thought she could have possible allergy to the rapeseed flowers growing near the family home which she had suffered with in the past.
However, when Joyce’s condition deteriorated further, they all went back to the GP to insist on further tests and she was referred and admitted to Lymington Hospital later that day. Following a series of tests, including a CT scan, the family’s worst fears were confirmed.
“The hospital consultant came to see us and looked at Mum and in her eyes – I knew then that it was serious. I told Dad that I thought it was a stroke because she had some of the symptoms which I knew about because of my profession. But never in a million years did I think that it could be brain cancer – I have hardly come across it in the 9’s but we handle strokes daily. The news about Mum’s brain tumours shattered all of our lives that day.”
Prior to her illness, Joyce was active and took weekly walks with friends as well as eating healthily and attending Yoga and Pilates classes. The family had recently spent a day out at Legoland where Joyce had been on a rollercoaster for the first time. She also regularly looked after Laura’s two children aged 7 and 10, as well as her three other grandchildren, which enabled Laura to work full-time in the job that she loved.
Yet, within a short space of time, her symptoms progressed from a heavy feeling and pressure at the front of her head to struggling to walk, slurred speech and not even being able to pick up cutlery to feed herself.
Laura said: “Mum went downhill very suddenly – it was so scary. By the time of the GP appointment, we struggled to get her in and out of the car as her mobility had nearly completely gone already.
“At the hospital, I asked to see the scans so the consultant sat me down and went through them with me – I couldn’t believe what was happening. They told me that the tumours had probably been there a while but suddenly started growing rapidly. We told Mum and she started to cry knowing that she was going to die – it broke all of our hearts.”
Joyce stayed in hospital for a couple of days to manage the pain before she was able to go home. But she needed help to look after herself, including going to the toilet, as her mobility worsened still.
Her scans were sent to the specialist neurology team at Southampton Hospital who confirmed that the tumours were inoperable due to their size and that chemotherapy would only prolong a poor quality of life.
Knowing that their time together was limited, Joyce went back to hospital and then to Oakhaven Hospice as she chose not to die at home. Joyce was given palliative care and the family were told that she had months – or maybe just weeks – left to live. Laura held her hand all the way to the hospice in the private ambulance as her mum, who now couldn’t speak, let tears roll down her face.
Laura and her dad spent all day every day at the hospice with Joyce to ensure that she was never alone. She passed away after just 19 days at the hospice on 6th June. She left behind a huge family of nine siblings, including a brother in Australia and a sister in America who both flew to be with her in those final stages.
Laura said: “It was the toughest time in our lives to see such an amazing mum, wife and nana be taken away from us too early and too quickly. All of us, including the children, were equally devastated. The time we spent together in the hospice was precious and I don’t regret anything. I fought for her to be where she wanted to be and to be in no pain.”
It was whilst Joyce was at the hospice that Laura found out about The Brain Tumour Charity as she searched online for information. She contacted the Charity after her mum passed away and has since strived to support the organisation in a number of ways. Laura and her family are managing their acute grief, for which Laura has counselling from the hospice for, alongside running a number of their own fundraising events. They have also taken part in the Charity’s flagship fundraiser, The Twilight Walk, in Windsor.
Laura said: “We are very keen to spread the word about, raise money for research into and increase awareness of brain tumours. I feel that if we can get more people to learn about the signs of the disease then other people can get diagnosed earlier. If that happens, maybe they won’t have to go through what we have been through.
“Nothing can prepare you for the overwhelming grief that my family and I feel. I spoke to, if not saw, my mum every day – she was my best friend and will always be my biggest inspiration. I think my professional life has helped me through the whole process as I have known what to ask for and how to fight for everything Mum got when otherwise we would have had no idea what to do. Through my job, I also knew that life is precious and could change in an instant but this happening to my mum has made me even more determined to live everyday as if it is my last.
“For the first year, grief consumed me. Everyone’s grief is different and, until you have experienced it, you can’t describe it. It’s not easier even now – I think about Mum every minute of every day, I light candles for her every night, I have her pictures up and we talk about her all the time. Time passes and you do find a new normal to get used to but there will always be the massive hole in my life which my mum left behind.”