14 Jun 2024

Claire and her dad Paul’s story

Leukaemia UK campaigns not only for more effective treatments, but for treatments which are kinder too. Chemotherapy can be incredibly harsh with several side effects and, in unusual cases, the treatment itself can be fatal.  

Claire Kemmitt lost her beloved dad Paul Smithers to a complication of chemotherapy treatment. Paul’s heartbreaking story began in January 2020 when he was given a routine blood test for a condition he had called essential thrombocythaemia (ET), a type of blood cancer which affects the bone marrow, resulting in the body making too many platelets. ET develops very slowly, and, for most people, it does not shorten life expectancy. 68-year-old Paul’s regular blood test showed that his platelet count had markedly increased. 

“He started to feel really tired in February and another routine blood test showed that he had really low iron levels, so his GP asked him to attend Worthing Hospital that day for an iron transfusion,” said daughter Claire, 39, who lives in Littlehampton near Brighton and works as a Pharmacy Technician. “He was admitted to the Ambulatory Care Unit on the emergency floor expecting to have the iron transfusion and then sent home. But then a consultant came round and said that they were admitting him to the haematology ward as they suspected that he had leukaemia.”  

On 6th February 2020, after several blood transfusions, and a bone marrow biopsy Paul was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). 

“I was visiting dad in hospital with my two-year-old son, Jenson. I remember it so clearly – there was a kind haematology nurse and the doctors, and they told us that dad had AML. Dad didn’t even cry – he just accepted it. I think deep down he knew it wasn’t going to be good news. I burst into tears and my son didn’t understand what was going on. He was showing the nurse his hedgehog comforter and she distracted him whilst I was falling apart. I asked how long dad had and the doctor said between two and five years if he had treatment but only a month or so if he didn’t. I heard howling and screaming and realised the noise was coming from me.” 

One of the reasons the news was such a terrible shock to Claire is that she was pregnant with her second child at the time. “I was devastated – I couldn’t imagine my dad not being around in years to come and I wanted him to see his grandchildren grow up. I left the hospital that evening feeling like I was in a nightmare that I couldn’t escape from. I remember just sitting in my car crying and not knowing how I was going to call my mum and sister to tell them the news.” 

More tests were carried out to ensure Paul was fit enough to start chemotherapy, and in the meantime, he was given several more blood transfusions. As he waited for his treatment to start, he was allowed home to spend time with his wife Julia and Claire’s sister Sarah, who lived with them. Amazingly Paul continued his work as a self-employed quality management consultant for various engineering companies as the blood transfusions had helped him. 

“He looked so much better – back to his usual self – so it was really hard to accept that he was very ill. He went into hospital for treatment on the 24th February and his first cycle went really well – I worked in the hospital and was able to take longer for lunch over those few days so I could be with him. He didn’t feel sick and could read the newspaper and work on his laptop. I would pop up again when I finished work to spend another hour or two with him talking about life, work, and my pregnancy. He always fussed over me, told me off for spending so much time with him and made sure that I was looking after myself – he was always thinking of others. He was also popular with the staff and other patients on the ward.” 

On Claire’s day off, Thursday 27th February, she had planned to visit and spend more time with Paul. But he texted her in the morning to say he was not feeling up to having visitors as he had woken up short of breath and he was going to have a chest x-ray. He reassured Claire that he was being well looked after by the nurses and that she shouldn’t worry. 

“The following morning I was at work in the office in the pharmacy department. It was about 9am and I realised that I had not had a text from my dad yet and my mum messaged me to say that she had not heard from him and that she was worried. She hadn’t heard from the hospital though so we weren’t feeling overly concerned at that point. Shortly afterwards I thought I heard someone say that they didn’t know if Paul Smithers was having his chemo today because he was in intensive care. My whole body went stiff – I couldn’t move and it took me a while to be able to communicate and ask the person what she had just said. It turned out I had heard correctly so I ran out of the office and went straight up to the ICU and demanded to know what was happening.” 

Extremely distressed, Claire was shown to the family room and, after an agonizing hour-long wait, she was allowed to see her dad. Incredibly, she found him sitting up in bed. 

“The nurse said that his breathing had got worse and the ward couldn’t give him specialist care so they transferred him there so he could have closer monitoring and better access to oxygen. This had all happened in the middle of the night and my dad had asked the staff not to call his family until the next morning as he did not want to worry us. Somehow this wasn’t communicated to us in the morning. I was exhausted from crying with worry so I was sent home from work. 

“The following day I called the ward to ask how dad was before I visited him and the nurse informed me that he was still finding it very hard to breathe and they were going to put a special breathing device on his head. They said if that didn’t give him relief, they would intubate him and put him on a life support machine for his body to rest.  I was assured that this was quite normal and nothing to worry about.” 

Claire and her husband Mike visited Paul later in the day and found him struggling to breathe and medical staff preparing to intubate him.  

“I asked him if he was in pain and he said no. So I said goodbye and told him I would stay at the hospital until he woke up. His consultant came to the family room to speak to me, my mum, my sister and my husband and explained that my dad was very poorly. He didn’t think he would be up to having another round of chemotherapy. I remember asking about stem cell transplants and he said that dad was too ill.”

 

Tragically, shortly afterwards Paul suffered organ failure.  

“He was put on dialysis. We were told that, if he made it through the night, he may survive. At one point, the readings were getting better, and we thought we were out of the woods, but this turned out to be false hope.” 

As his family played the music from Paul’s favourite film ‘How the West was Won’ he passed away at 2:30pm on 1st March 2020 at the age of 68. Doctors told Claire that Paul had died from major organ failure due to tumour lysis syndrome. This can occur as a complication of chemotherapy, when large amounts of cancer cells are killed off and their contents are released into the blood stream and the body fights to deal with their toxic contents.  

“Without treatment we were told he would only have had two to four weeks to live,” said Claire. “We take comfort in knowing that he did not suffer and just went to sleep peacefully, and that everything that could be tried was tried. But his loss was devastating. It’s vital that we research new treatments that are not so aggressive, so that more people don’t have to go through what we went through.” 

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