Originally published in Issue 4 2005 icon
A Warm Welcome In Wirral
Madeleine Kingsley visits the Wirral Holistic Centre
The archetypal nurse is crisp, professional and caring, synonymous with medicines punctually dispensed and No Nonsense on the ward. Even today, however, Nightingales are not exactly famed for counteracting cancer misery with complementary means. Back in mid-eighties Birkenhead, Dorothy Crowther, NHS Nurse Tutor and driving force behind the Wirral Holistic Care Service, drew some suspicion when she started talking about acupuncture, reflexology and juicing. "We were certainly thought weird" she smiles. "Some health care professionals obviously thought we were going to let the devil into their souls" she recalls mischievously.
It was a bold initiative to set up a centre from within the Health Service itself: "That´s me sacked" reckoned Dorothy when she first approached her District General Manager with a report on problems and needs compiled after three years of listening at local self-help groups. But her entrepreneurship on patients´ behalf paid off: a local polio and cancer research trust provided 20,000 (´quite a lot of money, then´) to help set up a telephone Helpline staffed by volunteer nurses. One room became two, and then a whole welcoming floor at St Catherine´s Hospital, Birkenhead, transformed from institutional white tiles, curtained wards and plumbing pipes as old as penicillin. Putting their money where patient word of mouth recommends, three Primary Care Trusts in the region contribute 49,000 a year to upkeep WHCS, about a quarter of the running costs.
A cancer diagnosis is very scary
"In the early days" says Dorothy, "People thought they would be coming to a miserable place. A cancer diagnosis is very scary. For many people it´s a bit like being a rabbit caught in car headlights. What do you do? Where do you run? Here they find that our biggest fault, if anything, is that there´s too much laughter. Everyone here is treated normally, not greeted with gloom."
After an initial hour´s consultation with Dorothy or one of her nursing team, a new patient can choose from a whole range of treatments including aromatherapy and acupuncture to reflexology, hypnotherapy, Bach remedies, kiniseology, counselling and autogenics. He or she (The gender mix is 50/50) can ring a helpline staffed by nurses, book in for nutritional advice or simply drop in for a cup of tea and a chat. Every first-time patient is seen within seven days. "When our auditor points out we are seeing 200 patients face to face each week I nearly have a heart attack myself, wondering ´How do we do this?´ No one is ever discharged, so they can drop out as they resume old lives and drop back in again if they are worried."
Support is also on hand for relatives who find it hard to cope. "People come to us at all stages from newly-diagnosed to the point of palliative care. We´ve had patients come here on the day they die, because it is where they choose to be."
In the late eighties Dorothy was a Nurse Tutor in Oncology, and a working mother with two young daughters and a husband away three months at a time in the Merchant Navy. Teaching nuclear physics and the details of radiotherapy, she had, you might think, enough on her plate: "But I was also a council Member for the Royal College of Nursing, so it was normal for me to get annoyed by things I didn´t like. I would create about patient standards, and set off in search of the right people to put wrongs right." Even then she was hot on nutrition: "As part of my own nurse training in Scotland - which was totally different from England - I spent time in hospital kitchens. I learned how to make beef tea and how to get protein into your patients."
It was normal for me to get annoyed by things I didn´t like
Sadly, Dorothy also had personal experience of securing gold standard cancer care where only the basest metal seemed on offer: in the mid seventies her father, coughing up blood, was sent home from the GP with instructions to put a bit of grease and brown paper on his chest. 24 hours later, Dorothy´s long-distance intervention had him admitted to hospital, diagnosed with lung cancer and making ready for radiotherapy. "I didn´t go into this work because of my father," says Dorothy. "But I knew then that what we achieved for my Dad, was achievable for everybody." "I think people´s belief system at that time was that if you got cancer, then pain, sickness and weight loss were your lot. I wanted to shift those belief systems, explore what was real and what was hearsay, often passed down from the generation above and also to turn the negatives into positives."
The fact that WHCS is nurse-led and that patients always see someone qualified in the health care system gives it unique credibility. Every volunteer therapist must be qualified, fully insured and come bearing the highest references: "I was involved in setting up the first UK nurse training in intravenous chemotherapy," says Dorothy, "So you may be sure that we are not going to do our patients any harm. We can talk medical language and we´ve also demonstrated over the years that we can identify problems as they arise and send patients back to the doctor for an earlier appointment than planned, if necessary. With acupuncture for back or shoulder pain, for instance, we´ve noticed that if the area around the needles becomes red, an inflammatory reaction is taking place there which could suggest that the cancer has spread."
Aromatherapy is ruled out during and for three months after chemo: "The oils are absorbed through the skin and we just don´t know how they might react with other agents being given. The research isn´t out there, so we err on the side of caution. We also know that radiotherapy - which is given to destroy cells - carries on working after treatment ends. So massage is contra-indicated at this time because cell destruction leads to a rise in toxins in the urea. Massage mobilises the toxins and would increase the level in the urea making the patient feel worse. Our policy - though not necessarily everyone else´s - is to offer reflexology, which also releases toxins, instead."
Perhaps because they are so secure in their medical knowledge, staff at WHCS are also prepared to try what is fresh and different - hence their approach to chemotherapy nausea: "Doctors traditionally give a drug to stop the sickness side effect, despite the fact that this drug has side effects of its own. Sickness also means that basic nutrition isn´t working, yet dieticians would suggest keeping weight on with double cream and ice cream. At WHCS we´ve found that chemo changes patients´ tastebuds so that they fancy something nice and sharp, like blackcurrants. We also suggest old-fashioned hangover remedies like gruel - barley water drained off porridge oats - or fresh ginger tea. Chemo attacks the base of the whole intestinal tract, but our trained nutrition workers show patients how to make fruit-based smoothies and juices they can tolerate very well. We have a visiting firm who tests our patients on the VEGA machine, free, for food intolerance, and my next move is for five of us nurses here, to train in its use as well."
Nobody at WHCS will raise, unbidden, the subject of Gerson therapy - alternative medicine´s ultimate challenge - with a patient. But if a patient comes along already interested and self-motivated then the Wirral will back him/her up throughout the rigorous year regime of juicing and coffee enemas. Mark, a young father and youth theatre director had tried all orthodox treatment for testicular cancer before approaching Dorothy´s team for support with Gerson. At his request Dorothy travelled with him to a Gerson Clinic in Mexico. (His family and friend set up a fund called the GICO Fund - Gerson in - Cancer Out).
This most daunting dietary programme begins to sound more user-friendly
Although Mark lost his fight, his wife Jane is now a Trustee and with her family, raised enough money for the GICO Fund to send a doctor, Dorothy and another nurse to train in Gerson therapy. The Fund has also fitted out the Centre´s kitchen with pots, pans, various juicers, cookery and cutlery. As Dorothy describes it, this most daunting dietary programme begins to sound more user-friendly: "It´s unrealistic to suppose people can´t work because they need to spend hours juicing and on coffee enemas. People HAVE to work to meet Gerson costs. We look at every patient´s lifestyle and work out how they can fit the programme around their needs. They can, for instance carry juices to work in a flask provided it´s full to the top with a little vitamin C added to stop oxidising deterioration."
Centre staff also act as confessors to the Gerson guilt-ridden: "I had to have some chocolate" one woman owned down the telephone, "But at least it was organic." Dorothy chuckled, and said "Well OK, but did you perhaps give yourself an extra enema?" One lady on the Gerson programme, she recalls, was desperate to go swimming in the Irish Sea "Which is against Gerson rules because the body absorbs some of the salt, in the same way that it absorbs toxins from swimming pool chlorine. In due course the woman came up with the idea of swimming in a wet suit so that´s what she did because it met her particular need."
I do believe that it gives the body the best possible nutrition to heal itself
Does Gerson work? Can it shrink tumours? Says Dorothy: "The body is capable of combating abnormal cells every day of your life. So a bit of logic tells you that if you push a person´s immune system, it should be able to do that on a grander scale. I´m not saying that I believe Gerson can cure people of cancer. But I do believe that it gives the body the best possible nutrition to heal itself. And I know patients have a better quality of life. One of our ladies who is just about coming to the end of her Gerson treatment has, by choice, had no conventional treatment at all for myeloma. Medics are surprised to find her cancer held in check."
Feedback along the lines of "I don´t know how I would have done without you" is frequent at the Centre. No question of having to do that now or for the future, as Merseyside´s ´healing angels´ having outgrown their space, are shortly moving to larger premises - an atmospheric thirties family house in the leafy Claughton area of Birkenhead. Renovation is just beginning, but here, along with the 10 softly painted therapy rooms, the education unit, state of the art kitchen, sitting areas and pretty gardens, reclaimed from wilderness by an army of volunteers, visitors will find the first Catherine Corner in memory of Chris Woollams´ lost daughter.
Chris has so often said: "Don´t Die of Ignorance." So a fireside spot in the WHCS living room will serve as an information centre, complete with well-stocked library, sink-into chairs and free internet access. Says Dorothy: "With the Catherine Corner, Chris has made sure that his beautiful daughter will never be forgotten. By doing so, many people will benefit, and that is very much a positive. He´s found a way of giving to others the information that he used to help Catherine and that knowledge shared is going to be so important."
Opening in the New Year, The Centre´s new home has yet to be named "If anyone would like to donate 250,000 to christen it, we´d be very pleased" twinkles Dorothy who is serenely determined to raise a further 130,000 through public appeal by the end of the year. Even if nothing else is entirely ready, she has set her heart on the big sitting room, at least, being painted, polished and ready to receive a Christmas tree with lights.
There, as if to endorse the fact that the Centre promotes life not as sadness, but as celebration, its new chapter will be toasted - in juice, no doubt for some, but also with eminently appropriate champagne.
53 and a Macmillan Library Information Facilitator, Sue tells of her experience with WHCS
On 9/11 2001 they bombed the Twin Towers and the world changed. On 9/11 2002 I was diagnosed with breast cancer and my world changed. I´d heard of the Holistic Centre, which is known throughout Birkenhead, but I didn´t turn to it at once, though I wish I had.
I didn´t turn to the Holistic Centre at once, though I wish I had
So much was going on for me, and moving so quickly. I lived with my daughter Katrina, who now felt she couldn´t go off to study psychology at University, so there was a good deal of: "Oh, no I´m not going!" countered by "Oh yes, you are!" I assured her that I would keep her updated with everything as it happened.
The months of treatment following lumpectomy were really the easy part - It´s a job of work you just have to get on with, the chemo the bloods, the sickness, I just felt it was a challenge. I´d first visited WHCS in November; this was after my first chemo, where I had Reiki before each following bout of chemo. If anybody had told me before that healing works, I´d have shrugged "Whatever", but in my position you will try anything. And it worked - I don´t know how - but I felt so much calmer and tolerated the chemo better for it. I went on the Centre´s nutrition course, and learned about supplements like selenium and Q10. I discovered the importance of juicing and went at least part organic.
I felt I was getting real emotional as well as physical support
The course was thoughtfully planned on a modular basis so that although I had to miss the third session for my chemo, I could catch up another week. I felt I was getting real emotional as well as physical support, which I needed most, ironically, after treatment ended. Your consultant says how really well you´ve done. He´s really proud of you, and then suddenly, after nine months of life revolving around the hospital, you are cut loose. And you still feel poorly, because you´ve lost all your old fitness and for six months they´ve poisoned your body with chemo.
But I could still get to the Centre weekly and sometimes, two or three times a week, if I was feeling vulnerable, I would just pop in for a cup of tea and a chat. It was at this time that I had some autogenic training with Dorothy and also some counselling through the Hypno-chemo programme at the Centre, which was by a very nice gentleman who is a psychotherapist.
There was a tough time when Katrina came home after her first year at uni. I might have been a good patient for the NHS, but not to her, my closest carer. She was very cross and angry and it all came flooding out how she´d felt shut out and disempowered during my treatment. Realising I was too involved and could only help so far, I suggested she got in touch with Dorothy herself. She had two or three sessions, just talking. Whatever was said helped her understand what I´d been through and she came away content.
It´s scary to think what my experience of cancer might have been without the Centre to see me through
When you´re going through cancer you need to have an aim, and my objective was to see Katrina graduate. I wanted this so much, that as the July day approached this summer I became more and more stressed. You can´t believe you are going to get there - was I going to have a heart attack or be run over just beforehand? In the event we had a fabulous day, with lots of photos taken, but afterwards I needed to see Dorothy and dump some of the powerful feelings I´d had on someone who would understand. It´s great that I can pick up the phone at any time, and it´s scary to think what my experience of cancer might have been without the Centre to see me through. Three years ago Katrina and I would never have believed we´d both emerge from what we´ve been through into good times and jobs we enjoy.