Jo’s marathon journey for best friend, Natalie
After Jo Phelps’ oldest and best friend, Natalie Havill, was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, she began fundraising to support Natalie’s family during a very difficult time. At the end of her life, Natalie was cared for by Pilgrims Hospices; the local charity helped her to remain comfortable and make special memories with her family.
To give back and say thank you for the care Natalie’s loved ones received, Jo will run the Virgin Money London Marathon on Sunday 3 October 2021. She has already raised £1,300 of her £1,800 fundraising target, which will directly support vital hospice services within east Kent and help ensure that other families can benefit from Pilgrims’ specialist, compassionate care.
Jo from Milstead, Swale and Natalie from Ashford were childhood friends.
Jo said: “We didn’t have to live in one another’s pockets for our friendship to remain strong. Our lives mirrored each other; we had our first babies a day apart and then our second ones four weeks apart. This experience was amazing – we cried, we laughed, and we shared so many memories together.”
In 2018, Natalie’s cancer returned and was no longer curable.
Jo continued: “From the very beginning, when she was first diagnosed, I remember Natalie saying to me: ‘This is my life and it’s a story, and that’s how I’m going to live it, telling each chapter as I go.’ Natalie was an inspiration to us all. She was the least negative person I knew, and not once did she ever say ‘Why me?’ or mutter ‘It’s not fair’ or ‘I can’t do this’.”
Natalie was admitted to the Ashford hospice in January 2020, where Pilgrims supported her to live well until the very end. Her husband, Ricky, and their daughters, Jessica and Olivia, were able to visit and stay over every day.
Jo added: “It was amazing; she was so happy, she gained part of herself back. Pilgrims made that possible. Ricky and the girls kept her going and she kept on going for them, too.
“I went to see Natalie during her final few days. To leave her for the last time knowing she was happy and peaceful just left me speechless; she was pain-free, joking, and so, so comfortable. I’d never been to a hospice before and I felt so nervous – you picture a hospital, cold and uncared for, but this was so far from the truth.
“On arrival, Natalie was sat in the family lounge and it was like walking into her own lounge at home. She looked amazing – so different on the surface but our Nat was smiling, laughing, and telling jokes as she always did. There was never an awkward silence with Natalie around – if anything, you fought to get a word in and this day was no different. We sat for hours with a few tears, but mostly laughing, holding hands, and reliving our childhood memories.
“With a massive smile and straight from the heart, she told me about the food (always her focus), the care, the equipment, her room, the nurses, doctors and carers and their treatment towards the girls, Ricky and her parents. It was clear to see how relaxed they all were and how comfortable and nearly pain-free Natalie was.
“She told me how a nurse had spent two hours one evening making sure her pillows were comfy, refusing to leave until she was satisfied Nat would get a good night’s sleep. She also told me how lovely the doctor was, and how he encouraged her to bring in as many pictures as she wanted for the walls in her room. He would then sit and talk about these with her – making time in his day to get to know her and her family.
I went to see Natalie during her final few days. To leave her for the last time knowing she was happy and peaceful just left me speechless; she was pain-free, joking, and so, so comfortable. I’d never been to a hospice before and I felt so nervous – you picture a hospital, cold and uncared for, but this was so far from the truth.
“When the girls heard their mummy was on her last few days, even the cook came to comfort them. The care Natalie and her family received was phenomenal.
“After visiting her at the hospice, I got in the car and said to my mum: ‘She looks so well – it was Natalie!’ I was in awe of her, questioning how the end could possibly be so near. Pilgrims gave her the chance to be the most amazing mummy, wife, daughter, sister, and friend she always was. She felt safe and secure, looked after but also cared for and loved. Her pain was managed to such a level that she could hug the girls and not cry out in pain. Seeing Nat like this after so much fight and pain makes me struggle to put into words what Pilgrims means to us all.”
Natalie’s mum, Mandy, reflects on Pilgrims’ care
“Before Natalie came to know Pilgrims, she was finding mobility a problem and struggling with working, running the home and looking after her two girls, then aged six and four.
“She initially had Therapy Centre sessions with a physio and counselling, and every now and then she was treated to a nice manicure or facial, which I was invited to as well. This was when she realised what a wonderful team the hospice had; it gave her a feeling of safety when she was there.
“When she was admitted to the hospice, all the family were allowed to visit and Ricky, Jessica and Olivia had family sleepovers where they enjoyed a stay in the family room with Natalie and had movie nights. There were two lounges, which were beautifully decorated with comfortable seating, a TV, games, books and facilities for making drinks and bringing your own food in. Her daughters especially loved the rocky horse! We all bonded with the staff at the hospice as they became part of our family, and we looked forward to seeing them on our daily visits.
“The care Natalie received from Pilgrims knew no bounds; nothing was too much trouble, she felt safe in their care and she had her own room that was decorated personal to her with family photos and bits and bobs from home. If she was uncomfortable at night there was always a nurse to rearrange her pillows and bedding to make her more comfortable and stay with her until she felt able to sleep. She loved her carers there and they loved her back.
When the time came for our final goodbyes to our gorgeous girl, we were given lots of privacy and offered a room to stay overnight, and nurses were right there to comfort us. Though it was a most difficult time, I couldn’t have wished for a better place for our daughter to spend her final days.
Mandy, Natalie’s mum
“Mine and my husband’s experience of the hospice was, at a time when we were losing our ‘little girl’, comforting to us. I too felt the staff were part of the family. From the moment Natalie came to stay, the nurses would take each of us aside and ask how we were and made time for little chats and support. I felt I could ask any question and also have a cry with them. We were encouraged to help look after Natalie and enjoyed coming in most mornings when Ricky couldn’t make it, to help with feeding her breakfast and doing her hair and make-up. We were never made to feel in the way.
“I celebrated my 60th birthday while Natalie was at Pilgrims. A surprise birthday party was given by my family and my new nursing family, which meant so much to me to be able to spend it with my daughter; a very special memory! We were allowed to take Natalie outside in her wheelchair, even driving her to Hythe, her favorite place, for a short time to have a stroll along the canal, making memories.
“To me, Pilgrims is a place of safety, love and comfort. I would not have coped with my daughter’s end of life as well without the help and support Pilgrims gave Natalie, her immediate family and friends. It meant so much to know that she felt safe, pain-free and rested but still enjoyed a laugh and joke right up to the end.
“When the time came for our final goodbyes to our gorgeous girl, we were given lots of privacy and offered a room to stay overnight, and nurses were right there to comfort us. Though it was a most difficult time, I couldn’t have wished for a better place for our daughter to spend her final days.”
Jo’s marathon journey
On Sunday 3 October 2021, Jo will take on the Virgin Money London Marathon in Natalie’s memory and to raise vital funds for Pilgrims. She held a coffee and cake morning to boost her fundraising and hopes to organise another soon. With the support of family and friends, Jo is well on the way to achieving her £1,800 target.
She said: “Natalie was a part of all of us and everyone is always willing to go above and beyond to help. I have no words to express how grateful we all are for the care Natalie received, so running the London Marathon for Pilgrims is my way of saying thank you. To lose your life at 34 is beyond unfair, but knowing she had the best care possible made it a little easier to accept that she was ready to go peacefully in her sleep. It will be amazing to know I’m running with Natalie by my side whilst supporting Pilgrims.
“It will always be Pilgrims that I support, and I want to raise as much money for them as possible. Natalie was given her final weeks of life to live in peace, surrounded by love and care and it’s something you could never put a price on. If my fundraising helps give others a tiny piece of what Natalie received from Pilgrims, it’s worth its weight in gold.”
You can keep up to date with the Jo’s fundraising journey on her Virgin Money Giving fundraising page.
Inspired to follow in Jo’s footsteps and run the London Marathon for Pilgrims? Charity places for 2022 are available; apply here.