The face behind the name

The face behind the name

Make your weakness your superpower.

~The Judiths trust~

This morning, as I drove up to the GC hospital in Abergele I was overcome by a wave of emotion. A rush of mixed feelings which were both happy and sad, which gave me strength and weakness all at the same time. Only this time I was there for a totally different reason. Today I was here for a personal appointment and not to visit my dearest mum like I did ten years ago during her long stay recovering from cancer.

People often ask me why and how I started my journey as a paramedical artist, and I truly believe this centre has a lot to answer for.

It is a chapter of my life that I had firmly placed in a box, locked away with a big old key, all the traumatic and emotional turmoil that accompanied my visits during this time was just too painful to process so I went into survival mode and believe I have been in this mode ever since. Hence being a workaholic.

My mother was a wonderful woman, a true gentle spirit who would have done anything and everything to help others. Her kindness was often mistaken for weakness and people would regularly take advantage of her kind nature. She was a petite little thing with the heart and courage of a lioness. The surgery and transformation she had to undergo during her time here at Glan Clwyd was only the beginning of her long road to recovery.

Mam was diagnosed with stage three oral cancer which then spread to the head and neck including oesophagus. Upon her first diagnosis, she had to undergo the most traumatic surgery to remove and rebuild her tongue and parts of her mouth internally and externally.

She was exceptionally brave during this stage and never ever expressed any fear towards the process. When she was told of her diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment she simply replied to Dr Chris Lloyd.

“Okay “

“Let’s do it as soon as possible, but will I be able to have my smokes?”

Anyone that knew my beloved mum knew how much she enjoyed a fag and a glass of wine. In fact there were times I remember the whole hospital was looking for my mum shortly after surgery as she had escaped for a sneaky fag. The nurses were absolutely gobsmacked with her will, wit and drive to recover and get what she wanted (a fag) and was often found at the front of the hospital with all the other rebels having a sneaky fag and a good old laugh.

This surgery has to be one of the most visually disturbing experiences of my life and It certainly left its mark emotionally on all the family. But my mum was unaware of her appearance for several weeks as it was advised she heals a little more before being shown her new appearance.

My mum’s tongue had to be rebuilt using a muscle from her thigh and re-attached as a graft to her throat and remaining tissue. My mum’s new tongue was in fact part of her leg and had to be carefully grafted on 4x times the size of a regular tongue, attached together with a vascular graft to keep it alive.

This meant my mum was unable to talk, eat, or drink for the best part of a year, and was hooked up to a feeding tube and a tracheotomy tube connected to a hole at the base of her throat. She was non-verbal but could communicate through a little whiteboard and pen. She walked around the hospital unaware of her appearance (which shocked many) hooked up to tubes and pipes, whiteboard in hand. Always making people laugh and feel good about themselves my mum would wonder the cancer wards with her handbag full of the usual, typically consisting of these top things:

Crumpled photos of her daughters and grandchildren (she would always talk about her five beautiful daughters, we were her everything )

Make up, her rouge blusher, impulse spray, tissues, and of course her cigarettes, brush, lighter, Steven King book a scrunchy, sweets, and a toy car for the kids.

The nurses would often be in a frenzy looking for her and would find her in other people’s bays on the cancer ward sharing her ‘Take a Break’ magazine and her makeup/perfume making others feel better and good.

This was touching on so many levels as she had put her own needs and trauma on the back burner as she would accompany others on their daily radiotherapy routines and long-drawn-out chemotherapy.

Every day I would drive up to the hospital and see my mum in the library above reception or on the bench outside waving and smiling so pleased to see me.

I remember thinking how lovely she looked and hopeful as she slowly regained strength.

Six weeks post-op the day had come for my mum to look in the mirror. I remember dreading this day as my heart was aching at the thought of my mum finally seeing her face after such transformative surgery. The stitches were coming out and it was time to face her new appearance. I promised her I would be there to hold her hand as they took her to the mirror.

The nurse walked in, and she slowly walked towards the mirror, (this had been covered up until this date) I held her hand and remember the nurse gently saying “in your own time Judith, take your time cariad”

Mum’s face was pale, and I could feel the anxiety, as she was the most beautiful and proud woman I had ever known. She was scared and could not hide it.

She opened her eyes and tilted her head to the mirror, and there was just silence, she was still only able to let out gasps from the trachy placed in her throat and her little whiteboard was her gateway to the world.

Her eyes filled with tears, and she squeezed my hand tightly and she let out a gasp. The nurse left the room and there was silence, and the tears were rolling down her face. There was nothing I could do to comfort her, and I remember feeling desperate to take away this pain for her. I can still feel this pain as I am writing this.

When the doctor arrived on his daily visitation my mum slowly put her hand to her face and just cried. This broke my heart.

I remember thinking how could I help her? What could I do to help her and all the other amazing patients I had the pleasure of meeting on the recovery wards after cancer. I felt helpless.

I came across a flyer in the foyer of a lady who worked with prosthetics her name was Amanda, I rang her immediately when I got home that night and asked her so many questions about what could be done to help disfigurement and scars. She told me about paramedical restoration, but no one did it around our neck of the woods.

Well, the rest I can say is history. I decided there and then that I would turn my career around and use my creative skills to improve people’s confidence and scars after cancer or any trauma had taken it away. If I could take some of that pain away, then I would.

I soon started talking to other patients on the ward about how they would feel if there was a service that supported them fully after discharge. I was astonished to discover that no one offered such a service locally. That was it!! This was my new path.

I am a true believer that no path we embark on is an accident and we should embrace the journey no matter how painful or traumatic the story is.

This is the first time in ten years I have spoken about my time with my mum during this painful period. It was too hurtful to process, so I used the energy given to me in ways that would heal others whilst I processed my pain.

Unfortunately, I lost my mum to this fight in 2018 but my goodness didn’t she fight. Never complained and was determined to smoke till the end. Typical Judith’s style.

Today was the day I realised my pain was far from healed, and as I walked through those very same doors for the first time in ten years floods of tears just came rushing down my face. The same tears that I am holding back as I am writing this now whilst sitting next to my daughter my mum never got to meet.

Everything in the hospital was as it was 10 years ago, the same café and chairs, the same spot she used to escape for a cigarette even the little bench where she would often wave goodbye.

My heart is hurting today as years of unprocessed grief is finally being released. Years of holding back my tears finally ready to come out. A time to finally appreciate when weakness becomes your strength and acknowledge it, thank it and move on.

Mam I cannot thank you enough for showing me what true strength looks like and making me believe in myself when no one else ever did.

Thank you for making me see my path and turn my pain and weakness into my superpower.

So many people will now be blessed with this amazing service as your legacy lives on through the Judiths Trust and its artists, I promise to be as supportive and kind as you were to all those in so much pain when you locked yours away.

This was not the easiest of blogs today, but I truly feel you should all know how amazing the face behind the name was.

Judiths Trust. Here to hold your hand through the pain and transformation of cancer.


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