A Life Embraced: Donald Burge's Journey with us

As he sits, smiling back at me from his bed, there are many attributes of Donald Burge, 84, that immediately jump out.

Donald is warm. Engaging. Kind. Donald has a gentle, softly-spoken eloquence to his speech capable of effortlessly carrying the conversation. Donald is quick with a joke, or a smile.

Donald is dying.

His diagnosis – prostate cancer – first came in 1999.

“The doctors gave me five years to live,” says Donald, speaking from his room on ellenor’s Northfleet-based inpatient ward. “Meaning I’ve had almost two decades more than any of them expected. Years which I’ve enjoyed – to the absolute fullest!”

Initially, treatments – each one bringing their own array of terrible side effects – kept the cancer at bay. But when it became clear that medical interventions could do no more, Donald’s doctor suggested putting him on a palliative pathway. Somewhere Donald could have his symptoms managed, and focus on maximising the quality of his remaining days.

Donald knew just the place.

His first encounter to us came six years ago, when the hospice charity supported his wife, Patricia.

Patricia had cerebellar ataxia – a disease which attacks the nervous system. It compromised her muscles and motor skills, making the two’s favourite shared pastime – tending to the garden of their New Barn home – impossible. 

Then, one day, Patricia suddenly felt very unwell; a trip to the hospital confirmed the worst.

It was leukaemia. And Patricia had just one week to live.

Patricia spent her final three days with us before passing, peacefully, away.

“I’ve been asked a few times if it’s strange – being supported here, at ellenor, in the same building where Patricia spent her final hours. My answer is always no – not at all.

It doesn't upset me,” Donald continues. “I feel the same, I think, as how she must have felt coming here.”

He smiles gently, looking down. “It’s a comforting thought.”

Patricia’s arrival at ellenor is something Donald is well placed to talk about – because it’s something he’ll never forget.

“It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” he recalls. “When nurses put Patricia into a bed in one of the wards. You could see the relief in her face; how the worry drained out of her completely. She was so happy; she felt she was home.

“It was truly amazing. And a memory that’ll stay with me for the rest of my life.”

Since then, us and Donald have remained on each others’ radars. He plays the us lottery on a regular basis – doing his bit for the charity’s fundraising efforts – and is one of the hospice’s most vocal advocates on social media.

But a month ago, Donald needed us more than ever.

Suffering from severe depression, Donald found himself at one of his lowest ebbs. Contemplating suicide, unable to eat, and facing the rapid decline of his mental and physical health, he spoke to one of us Hospice at Home nurses – who were paying regular visits to his home – and confided.

Since then, Donald’s been at us hospice. Here, he’s had access to occupational therapy, pain management, and – crucially – his favourite breakfasts. (Porridge, served with honey and blueberries.)

“The treatment here has been marvellous,” says Donald. “It really has. Anything you want, within reason, you’ve got – and it’s been like that since day one.

“ellenor, and the people here – they’re fantastic.”

Yet Donald acknowledges the vast difference between his – first-hand – experience of hospice care, and the wider misconceptions that exist around it.

“People don’t realise the breadth and brilliance of the care that goes on here. They think it’s a place people come to to die, and that’s it. But the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Ellenor is about living. Not dying!”

Donald also believes that people, in general, aren’t aware that hospice care doesn’t take place in ‘the hospice’ alone – but from the patient’s home in the community.

“I know what hospices are, what they do, and how they fit into the general healthcare scheme of things. Which is exactly why, when we found out that Patricia had only days to live, we both knew this was the only place. It was where she wanted to be.

“But I think there aren’t enough people out there who know what hospices like ellenor do for people at that stage of their lives – how much value they can add; how much stress they can take away.

“People shouldn’t have any worries about being under hospice care – I know I don’t!”

For Donald, life now feels a world away from the anguish and loneliness of a month prior. And in just a few days, he’ll be ready to head back home.

The family helped to clean the TV room and following a home visit by Donald’s occupational therapist Claire it was confirmed that a hospital bed can go there.

Donald says he is lucky to have a spacious lounge in which he can spend his time overlooking his patio and garden and hopefully seeing his wisteria (6 of them) flower.

“I’m much stronger now. And, although I’m looking forward to heading home, I can’t stress enough how magnificent they are here at ellenor.

“So if you think of charity, think ellenor. We all need to consider other people more. And giving even just a few pounds a week to support ellenor – and the patients they support – makes a huge difference to their ability to continue caring for people in the community.”

Donald is dying. But, thanks to ellenor, he was able to live again before doing so. To have his pain taken away. To enjoy fresh blueberries, slathered in honey, scattered liberally across the top of a steaming bowl of porridge. And to rediscover both his quality of – and zest for – life.

When Donald’s time comes, it’ll be at home – not in an unfamiliar bed. When he looks around, he’ll see pictures of his loved ones, and the wife he’ll soon be reunited with.

When he dies, it’ll be in strength. In comfort. And with the dignity he – the dignity all of us – deserves.

In loving memory of Donald Burge. He generously shared his story with us during his lifetime, allowing others to learn about the true essence of hospice care and the value of ellenor’s Wellbeing Services in his journey. He died on 3rd May 2023.

Donald Burge And His Daughter Francois