'When we put Oliver on his chest, Kenny spoke for the first time in days... they were the last words he ever said'
As Hospice Care Week begins, the family of a Newtownabbey man tell Stephanie Bell how staff at the facility helped fulfil his dying wish to hold his newborn grandson
Life was slipping away from Ken Philips as his new grandson was due to make an entrance into the world. Ken didn't want to die without seeing baby Oliver, and the determined spirit he showed through a long and tough battle with cancer carried him through until his grandson was born.
As Oliver, just a few hours old, was laid on his grandfather's chest for the first and last time, Ken surprised everyone by speaking for the first time in days, and then died peacefully just two days after his final wish was fulfilled.
For his family, it was the most heart-rending week as the joy of welcoming a new life was overshadowed by the pain of Ken's passing.
Ken (51), from Newtownabbey, had been semi-conscious for days in the Northern Ireland Hospice and, as his life ebbed, his family were amazed at how he somehow found the strength to hang on for Oliver's birth.
To add to the agony, his daughter Julie (29) was a week past her due date, and knew how ill her dad was and how desperately he wanted to see his new grandchild.
Julie asked the hospital to induce little Oliver so that her dad would get his wish and, despite a heavy blood loss after giving birth, she was at her dad's bedside with her new baby within hours.
The hospice staff arranged for a bed to be put beside Ken's for the new mum and they were given the privacy they needed as a family to share the special moment.
The emotive story will this week be shared by the family with 300,000 households in the province to help mark Hospice Care Week.
Ken's wife Jackie (53) and daughter Julie agreed to share this most poignant and private of moments to show their deep gratitude to the hospice for the care it provided, not just to Ken during his illness, but to the whole family.
Jackie's gratitude is clear as she says: "Anything I can do to help the hospice, anything at all, I will do it gladly. It does feel really weird to have our story going out on 300,000 leaflets but I know Kenny would be really proud and, in fact, I think he would be over the moon about it."
Ken was cared for in the hospice's temporary home at Whiteabbey Hospital, and now Jackie is giving her full support to the charity's efforts to rebuild Somerton House.
Jackie says: "Kenny was only 51 when he passed away in April 2014. His illness came as a complete shock to us all; looking back, I really don't know how we would have got through it without the care, compassion and support we received from everyone at the hospice."
As well as Julie, Ken and Jackie have a son, Ryan (34), who has three children, Katie (11), Nathan (7) and two-month-old Reuben. Little Oliver is now 17 months old.
Ken ran one of Northern Ireland's biggest security supply companies, Greenhill Security Products, for years before selling it and working as a security product sales representative throughout Ireland.
He had suffered for many years from a sore back, which he put down to arthritis.
As the pain started to worsen, he was referred for scans which revealed a large tumour on his spine, which required urgent surgery.
Just two days after his 50th birthday, he underwent an operation to have the tumour and part of his spine removed
Jackie recalls: "About eight weeks later, after an agonising wait, we were given the news we had been dreading. The tumour was cancerous and the operation hadn't removed it all.
"Kenny was referred for chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment, but there were complications and, although he was beginning to feel a bit better, he decided to retire from work so we could spend more time together.
"However, the pain returned in his back and, after more tests, we were given the devastating news that the cancer had spread and was now incurable."
Ken was then referred to a hospice nurse to help with his pain control. The plan was to get him strong enough to start chemo again but, unfortunately, he was too sick and in too much pain.
The nurse wanted Ken to go into the hospice to help manage his pain and, initially, both he and Jackie were hesitant. Jackie says: "He really didn't want to go; we were both terrified of that word … hospice.
"We couldn't have been more wrong. From the day and hour he went there the nurses, doctors and volunteers couldn't have done any more for him and for us all. Kenny stayed in hospice for around five weeks and, by the time he got out, his pain had been brought under control and he was well enough to start radiotherapy again."
Sadly Ken's illness returned and the treatment had to be halted. He was admitted back into the hospice a couple more times to try and manage his pain.
Finally, in March 2014, he returned for end of life care.
Jackie stayed with him on a camp bed and watched as he slowly deteriorated, all the time aware that he desperately wanted to see his grandchild, who was due to be born in April.
She says: "Kenny was so brave throughout it all. His only worry was that me, Ryan, Julie and the kids would be all right.
"He wasn't frightened and had made all the arrangements for his funeral. It was just amazing, the way he coped.
"We knew he wanted to see Oliver and make sure that Julie was okay. For the last couple of weeks before Oliver was born, Kenny really wasn't compos mentis, he was completely out of it and not talking."
Although so close to the end of his life, Ken continued to hold on and as Julie asked if her baby could be induced, the hospice arranged to have a bed put up beside Ken's to accommodate mother and baby.
Jackie describes the heartbreaking moment her husband got his dying wish to see his new grandchild: "That day it seemed like Kenny wasn't with us. He was just staring, as if he wasn't there. I put Oliver on his chest and said 'what do you think of the wee man' and he just turned his head and looked at him and said 'he is big, isn't he'.
"Those were the first words he had spoken in a while and also his last and that was it. After that, he just slipped into unconsciousness and he passed away two days later.
"God bless Julie, because she had just given birth and then she was burying her dad.
"To be on such a high with Oliver coming along and then to lose Kenny, was just awful."
Little Oliver brings much joy to the family's lives and Julie, who works in passenger services in the city airport, says she too is grateful that her dad got to see her son before he died.
She adds: "We really didn't think it was going to happen, as dad's condition had deteriorated so much.
"Even at our wedding the year before, he wasn't well at all. It meant the world to me that he got to see Oliver, as we all knew he was hanging in there hoping to see him.
"I just thought 'he is never going to meet him' and then I asked to be induced and the Ulster Hospital staff were brilliant and they broke my waters and Oliver was born.
"Dad had not really been conscious, but he knew Oliver was there and it was very tough."
For Jackie now, little Oliver has been her saviour, bringing joy as she struggles to get on with life, without Ken beside her.
She says: "It is the wee things that are hard now. All the wee things that Oliver does which I know Kenny would have loved to have seen. I know he would have just worshipped him. Julie's wee man has kept us all going, we live for him. Our first Christmas without Kenny was a nightmare, and only for Oliver, I don't know how we would have got through it."
Jackie has been attending counselling sessions in the hospice to help her come to terms with Ken's death. Having Ken's story featured on the charity's literature to mark Hospice Care Week is one way she feels she can give something back.
She says: "We all need to make sure this care is there for future generations, as sadly none of us know when we will need it. Kenny certainly didn't think he would ever end up in the hospice, but when he did, we were so thankful that he had that option. The new hospice will allow the nurses there to care for thousands more families, for many years to come.
"The care he received made everything else so much easier to bear. We will never be able to repay the hospice for all they did, but I hope by supporting the efforts to build the new hospice, we can help give something back and ensure that other families who find themselves in a similar position can get the help and care that we received."
Funds needed for new hospice
It is hoped that the new hospice at Somerton House will open for patients early in 2016, but a lot of money still needs to be raised to complete the facility.
There will be 18 new, modern, individual patient rooms which have been carefully designed to ensure the best possible care within a safe, comfortable and modern environment.
Each of the rooms will have an en suite bathroom and plenty of space for family and loved ones to stay overnight.
As well as giving families more privacy and space, the individual rooms will help with infection control, allowing the charity to care for more people on a more consistent basis.
The design of the new rooms, along with new equipment, will also enable staff to care for a wider range of patients, including those with dementia and respiratory illnesses, as well as people with cancer.
The aim is to provide a warm and welcoming place, a comfortable home-from-home alongside world-class care facilities. However, money to fit out the new hospice still needs to be raised and, during Hospice Care Week, which runs until next Monday, the charity is appealing to the Northern Ireland public to help out.
Donations can be made online at nihospice.org or by calling the Hospice on 028 9077 7123.