Maria’s story – St Columba’s Hospice Palliative Care, Edinburgh

Maria’s story

Maria Kempf is an American art historian and devoted step-mum to six-year-old twins and a teenage boy. One year after marrying their father Damien, Maria was diagnosed with cancer.

Maria’s story image

Maria shares her story with us here:

“Damien and I met online while I was working at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Damien is French and a professor of medieval history at the University of Liverpool, and I approached him to do a project with the Museum. That later developed into us writing a book together on medieval monsters, now published in English and French.

“We got married four years ago and we had a totally normal life together: we travelled lots, did lots of activities with the kids, we would ride our bikes together to places, etc. Just as I made the decision to make the permanent move to Scotland by selling my house in Los Angeles, I started having an unbearable pain in my stomach and back. An MRI scan revealed a tumour, and exactly one year after we got married, I was diagnosed with cancer.

“I have secondary breast cancer and a large tumour in my spine. I’ve had the same surgery several times on the tumour in my spine, but after the fourth or fifth surgery I could tell I was losing the use of my legs. When I woke up from the final surgery I couldn’t walk anymore. I’m now paralysed from the chest down.

“There is so much I can’t do now without someone helping me which has been devastating. Our house, ‘Sur la mer’, is on the sea in Portobello, it’s a great location where everything is accessible. Before, I walked everywhere, I was out and about all the time to the grocery store and along the high street, I also did lots of art with the kids in the house, but now, Damien has to do everything. I can’t go upstairs, so we put my hospital bed in the living room like a sofa covered in big cushions. We look after the kids part-time, but I can’t take care of them by myself.

“I found out about the Hospice through The Western General. At first I didn’t want to come here. I had a negative view about the Hospice because I understood hospices as being for people in their last days of life, but of course a huge part of what you do here is pain management. When I first came here, I still had use of my legs but I was in so much pain I couldn’t sit down comfortably, and had to stand all the time and walk everywhere. Now, although I still can’t lie down on my back and need a wheelchair to get around, I’m in relatively little pain. I have a room here that is bright and full of light and the Hospice has a lovely view of the sea.

“I can say that no matter what your situation, if you are referred to the Hospice for care, you’ll be in great hands.”

“Prior to being diagnosed, I worked in a major museum and had grown up around art but I’d never drawn anything in my life. Since I’ve been in the Hospice, using the art room has become a regular thing. I started out doing Chinese watercolours, painting different animals. I seem to be particularly good at fish! I’ve also taken Scottish paintings and copied them in my own style, using them as inspiration. It’s therapeutic; it’s my favourite thing to do here.

“My twins love climbing the big tree in the front and hanging out in the lounges. My husband has had massages from the complementary therapies team and loves them. My family comes as often as they can, it’s such a comforting, warm, welcoming environment. It takes a special kind of person to work in palliative care and the people here are that special kind of person. It’s not just the nurses, it’s the doctors, it’s the volunteers, everyone that works in the café – they are all lovely people. I actually feel like they are all my family. One of the nurses always blows me a kiss at night; it just makes you feel good. I feel so safe here, because they know how to fix anything.

“From the very beginning I was able to go home for visits and right now we’re planning for me to go home on a permanent basis. Although this won’t be the case for everyone, I can say that no matter what your situation, if you are referred to the Hospice for care, you’ll be in great hands. I will be eternally grateful to my “family” at St Columba’s. They are exceptional!”

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