'I'm in awe at the care, attention and affection my mum was shown by NI Hospice through the most difficult journey of her life'
Ahead of the launch of the NI Hospice's annual Christmas appeal next week, Carrickfergus company director Robert Byers, who lost his mum, Gladys, to cancer in January, tells Stephanie Bell how backing the Lights to Remember initiative is crucial to supporting those with terminal illness.
A Co Antrim company director says he will be humbled and proud to switch on the Northern Ireland Hospice Christmas lights next week, helping to launch the charity's annual Lights to Remember appeal.
Robert Byers (49), from Carrickfergus, was left in awe of the charity after the care shown to his mum, Gladys, and the entire family circle when she was being treated for terminal cancer last year.
Robert, his wife and their two sons spent most of Christmas Day in the hospice last year, because his mum was too ill to spend it at home.
Gladys (83) passed away on January 17 after a long battle with an aggressive form of bladder cancer.
Robert, who is a director at Liberty IT in Belfast, says: "The care, attention and affection my mum was shown through the most difficult journey of her life by people who genuinely cared and, I believe, loved her in her hour of need has just left me in awe.
"Within a matter of days of a hospice nurse visiting us in January 2016, everything changed for us. It was like a light being switched on.
"Brendan Rodgers (Celtic football manager and Hospice ambassador) refers to the staff at the hospice as 'angels' and I now totally get it.
"The genuine care and affection shown was like nothing we had ever experienced."
Robert is married to Katrina (48), a legal bookkeeper, and they have two sons, Richard (17) and George (19).
Today, he shares details of his mum's battle with terminal cancer in the hope of helping to give something back to the hospice.
Robert says he will forever feel indebted to the charity, which stepped in at a time when his mum was really struggling with pain and discomfort.
Not only did the hospice make Gladys more comfortable in her final months, but it supported the whole family, especially Richard and George, who were very close to their grandmother.
Robert lost his dad, George, aged 92, in October 2014. He says his mum and dad were inseparable and her husband's loss was a huge blow to her.
It was only three months later that Gladys took ill, although Robert believes she had been struggling for some time without seeking medical help.
He says: "Mum was totally devoted to dad. It was a huge loss for her and us. Age is meaningless when you still have vitality and spark, which he had.
"She was a hugely caring person, having nursed her two sisters with cancer and cared for her mother and father in old age.
"She had neglected her own health and, in March 2015, she was diagnosed with advanced and aggressive bladder cancer.
"I think, looking back, she had been suffering for a long time but was focused on my dad and didn't do anything about it.
"I don't think we ever felt so low and alone as we did leaving the City Hospital in the rain with our little folder and booklet after that diagnosis.
"It was devastating for her and us after losing my dad. As an only child, I wanted to do everything I could for her, but she was fiercely independent, wanting to remain in her own home and do everything for herself.
"She was mowing a lawn in her late-70s with a push lawnmower."
Even though the prognosis was bleak and doctors said they couldn't operate due to other underlying medical conditions, Robert says his mum was determined to beat the cancer. Gladys underwent seven weeks of radiotherapy in the summer of 2015.
While medical staff did all that they could for her, she continued to suffer as a result of other long-term illnesses, including rheumatoid arthritis and acute cellulitis, all of which restricted her mobility.
Robert recalls: "Things started to steadily decline and, as the pain increased, so did her medication.
"She then had really bad psychosis and numerous hospitalisations because of infections.
"She became depressed and felt useless and thought no one cared. I don't think people realise how lonely and mentally draining it can be for cancer patients. When I saw my mum, who was always a very vibrant person, get depressed, that was rough to watch.
"My wife and I tried to help all we could, spending nights with her in the house and cooking and cleaning, so that she could be at home, where she wanted to be."
Robert says it was only when Gladys was referred for palliative care at the hospice in January 2016 that things dramatically improved.
A hospice nurse called to see Gladys at home and arranged for her to be admitted within days.
At first, she was frightened at the thought of going into the hospice, but it was a move that dramatically improved the quality of her life in her final days.
Robert says: "Initially, she did not want to go. She was afraid. People only think one thing when they hear 'hospice' and now I know that is so, so wrong.
"The hospice staff could not do enough. They addressed problems she had with her swollen legs, returning them to near-normal, which improved her mobility. They worked for weeks on her pain relief, getting the balance just right and reducing any associated paranoia.
"They painted with her, read to her and cared for her spiritual needs. When Mum insisted on going back home against advice, the hospice and Macmillan supported us by offering a sitting service two to three nights a week to give us a break.
"We just would not have got through that phase without them - never mind what was to come. Every time I think of what they do for people, I am honestly moved to tears.
"They exemplify everything that is good about human beings - and that includes everyone at the hospice, from the wonderful volunteers to the senior medical staff."
Gladys did get home in March of last year, but in May it became apparent she could no longer live on her own, so she moved in with Robert's family.
They enjoyed five very special months with her and, again, the hospice continued to support them, making sure Gladys had everything she needed.
Robert says: "They helped us access services. They are just there for you, helping you and the patient through a minefield and all the time looking for ways to improve the patient and family's quality of life."
Sadly, in September last year, Gladys was readmitted to the hospice as her illness became more advanced.
Robert was - and still is - stunned by the level of care she received in what were her final months. He says: "She made friends and loved the staff and volunteers, who she knew truly cared for her.
"She felt safe and secure like she had never felt anywhere else.
"As a family, I am convinced we would never have got through those months alone and remained intact.
"Words cannot do justice to what the hospice does for patients and families. The level of care is amazing and the support you feel is evident from day one. They just genuinely care.
"We spent a few hours on Christmas Day in the hospice - and what an amazing day it was.
"They had entertainment for the patients. Brendan Rodgers was there and my wee fella is a real Liverpool supporter, so he was delighted to get his picture taken with one of his heroes.
"Mum seemed to go downhill very quickly after Christmas and passed away peacefully on January 17.
"We owe a huge debt to the hospice for how they cared for her and also our family.
"I really want to do anything I can for the hospice and I am delighted to be able to help launch the Lights to Remember Appeal.
"We all hope we'll never need that kind of help but, honestly, when you do, there is no better place and no better people.
"We, as a family, have nothing but the utmost respect, affection and love for these truly wonderful people.
"Many people are afraid to come to the hospice, because they think it is a place to die, but I'm not.
"When the time comes, the hospice is where I want to spend my last days. I'm relieved that we have this service in Northern Ireland."
Now entering its 23rd year, the Lights to Remember appeal aims to raise £200,000 to help the Northern Ireland Hospice continue to provide the highest-quality palliative care to local people when they need it most, and support for their loved ones.
The appeal provides an opportunity for families to come together, reflect, and shine a light in memory of their loved one.
Next Tuesday, December 19, following a short service at Dominican College in Fortwilliam, Belfast, a torchlight procession will proceed to the new hospice facility on Somerton Road, where the Christmas lights will be officially switched on by Robert.
- To sponsor a light on the Hospice Christmas tree, visit www.ni hospice.org or call 028 9077 7123