When Maria was diagnosed with leukaemia, being treated at the Leukaemia UK Ambulatory Care Unit meant her husband Nick could stay with her. Access to this facility, she says, made all the difference during treatment

When Maria was told she needed a stem cell transplant at a hospital 100 miles from her home in rural Kent, she faced up to leaving her beloved pets and livestock behind. But one person she couldn't do without was her husband, Nick.

Thanks to the Leukaemia UK Ambulatory Care Unit at King's College Hospital in London, Maria, who was diagnosed with primary CNS lymphoma in 2018, was able to have her transplant as an outpatient, meaning Nick could be by her side for most of her treatment.

Maria and Nick, both 53, benefited from one of the most recent changes to blood cancer care at King's, which is transforming the way in which complex procedures such as stem cell transplants are performed.

Without the newly opened Ambulatory Care Unit, which was built with funding from Leukaemia UK, Maria would have spent a month in virtual isolation on a hospital ward while she received her treatment.

Instead, Maria, accompanied by Nick, was able to have her treatment in the Leukaemia UK Ambulatory Care Unit, while staying in a nearby hotel at no cost to the couple. Maria was admitted for the final two weeks of her treatment, as had been planned.

"I would have struggled without him"

Having Nick with her for support was essential, she says.

"Nick was brilliant because everyone explains everything to you at the hospital and he listens and then basically tells me what I need to do – and I just do it. That's how we dealt with the whole thing. I was very lucky to have him to do that and I really think I would have struggled without him."

The couple, who have been together for 30 years and have three grown-up sons, live on a smallholding in the Kent countryside where they breed pygmy goats and chickens. Maria is an equestrian trainer and Nick ran his own business until recently. While Maria was ill he was working long hours as a taxi driver to save the couple from losing their home.

Animals play such a big part in their home life that it is perhaps not surprising that it was one of Maria's dogs, Sky, who first realised she was seriously ill. After experiencing numbness in her left hand which was worsening, she had taken a bath to try to ease the pain. Sky was suddenly highly agitated, barking and refusing to be separated from Maria. Concerned, she immediately phoned Nick and said they needed to go to A&E, where her lymphoma was diagnosed.

Chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant

Once referred to King's, Maria had chemotherapy, which she had reacted very badly to, and then was told she needed a stem cell transplant.

"To start with, I had no idea what a stem cell transplant involved. In my naivety I thought you just popped in, had something done and then popped out," she says.

"However, we had a few meetings with doctors and nurses and they went through everything. They were so clear on everything and we could ask any questions. They were brilliant."

Although many of the explanations about what was to come were sobering, Maria approached her treatment positively.

"I was able to think that this was the only way to save my life. So my attitude was I’m so grateful to have this opportunity and so grateful that people know what they're doing and can help me."

At the start of Maria's treatment the couple walked to the unit each day from their hotel, later taking the bus as the effects of the stem cell transplant began to take their toll. Although the unit is inside the hospital, Maria and Nick noticed an immediate difference in atmosphere.

"It didn’t feel like a hospital. Even though the unit is doing very serious treatment, it was relaxed. The staff gave us so much confidence and reassurance," says Nick.

Maria adds: "They had time to talk to you, you never felt you were a burden. Although the staff were busy and were keeping a close eye on you, you never felt it. What was especially nice was that they laughed and joked with Nick too and in a funny kind of way looked after him as well. That made it a lot easier for me."

"I was able to do my bit"

For Nick, being with Maria allowed him to assist with her treatment and to help her with medication and monitoring in the hotel, but also meant he saw her at her most poorly.

"You don’t realise the severity of it all to start with. The worst thing is you go up to the hospital and you’re fine, and then a fortnight after Maria was wiped out and to see that decline was horrible," he says.

"The good thing about staying in the hotel is I felt I was able to do my bit. You have to monitor fluid intake and temperature and make sure tablets are taken, so you're doing your little bit."

The benefits of home comforts

Being able to escape to their hotel each evening, rather than being stuck on a ward, made all the difference to the couple.

"You just felt like you were at home. To have that facility was amazing," says Maria.

"Being out of the hospital just takes you away, you feel normal. Even though you weren't in the hospital you just felt they had everything under control.

"The last few times on the bus, I remember looking up at the hospital thinking 'I’m not going to make it'. It was really difficult just putting one foot in front of the other. But it was lovely to be out and able to watch the world go by for as long as I could. I wouldn't have changed a thing. It was amazing to have that opportunity."

The couple believe that being able to stay together during some of Maria’s treatment allowed them to deal with her illness as a team which has brought them closer than ever.

"We’ve known each other since we were 11 but I think Nick actually knows me better now than he ever has done," says Maria.

"We’ve got a different perspective on life now.”

A year on, Maria is relishing being back among her animals in the countryside. During treatment she had many food fads but says that sampling fruit from their garden is now one of her biggest treats.

"When I was ill I was always wanting food that I couldn’t have. Now Nick will pick me a plum, give it to me and say, 'because you can'. It has never tasted so good."


Please help Leukaemia UK continue to fund ground-breaking improvements in the care and treatment of people affected by blood cancer by donating here.

The Leukaemia UK Ambulatory Care Unit was officially opened in April 2018. Find out more about the unit and the future of blood cancer care here.