Life-changing support: Becky Brown (R) has nominated Tracy Foster as her health hero
With 60 per cent of her body covered in third- degree burns, teenager Becky Brown could not imagine a day when she’d feel her old, outgoing self again, or be able to dress in her favourite vest tops and short skirts.
‘I dreaded going back to school and hated the idea of people staring at my scars. I wondered who would want to be my friend.I struggled with it all.’
Just a few weeks after Becky, then 16, had finished her GCSEs, she woke one night to find the family home was on fire. She got out through a window, but while the rest of her family escaped almost unscathed, Becky suffered extensive burns and was taken to Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield, Yorkshire’s regional burns centre.
‘I was burnt everywhere except my face and hands and Mum was told that I’d be in hospital for seven months,’ recalls Becky of that night in July 2015. Indeed, for several days it was unclear whether she would survive.
Smothered in cream and wearing pressure garments, she thought she would never live a normal life again. ‘I’d cry for hours and days,’ she recalls.
‘After a few days, the physiotherapists tried to get me out of bed — it took ages just to sit up and eight weeks until I could do it on my own. It was so painful, I’d cry. I felt so frightened but there was one person who helped pull me through — Tracy.’
Tracy Foster is a burns play specialist at Pinderfields, where she has worked for 13 years, supporting hundreds of patients — from babies to adults — as they learn to live with the physical and mental scars of serious burns.
‘My patients can be in hospital for months so we get to know each other very well,’ explains Tracy, 50. ‘I go through every stage with them, from helping their families travel to see them, to visiting their schools and workplaces to explain to others about their injuries.
‘I don’t see them as patients, they are much-loved family — and in Becky’s case she shares the same birth date as my daughter Jasmine, so I related to her even more.
‘When I first saw her in the intensive care unit, she was very poorly and on a ventilator. A few days later I held her hands and chatted with her while the staff changed her dressings.
‘Becky was brave from day one. She brought me to tears a few times as I watched her move agonisingly from one chair to another but she wouldn’t give up. When she learnt she had passed seven GCSEs, we all celebrated with her — it was another step on her road to recovery.’
After a month in intensive care, Becky was wheeled round to the children’s burns unit where she spent a further six weeks.
‘When I felt down and cried, Tracy helped me to look at my scars with new eyes,’ says Becky. ‘She repeatedly told me my scars tell my story — that I am a survivor and stronger than whatever tried to hurt me.’
Becky was apprehensive about venturing back into the world: ‘Tracy walked me round the hospital, took me to the café and then outside. The first time I met my friends for a meal at a shopping centre, she came in on her day off to take me there and sat near by until she knew I was OK.’
Four months after the fire, Becky returned to school.
‘It was then that it kicked in what had happened to me,’ she says. ‘I wanted to go to school but was nervous that no one would like me or want to be seen with me.
‘So Tracy came with me a week before and gave my class a lesson in burns injuries, explained what my injuries looked like, why I needed to wear pressure garments and answered all their questions. I showed them my skin and I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all. It took all the pressure off me.’
Tracy rebuilt her confidence in other ways, says Becky. ‘I was a good swimmer, representing my city and county, but was worried about getting into a pool again.
‘Although I saw a psychologist it was 18 months before I had the confidence to go in a swimming pool. Tracy came with me — on her day off again — and was beside me as I dipped my toes into the water, then eased my body in. It was another part of my old life reclaimed.
‘I honestly think that without her support I would never have left the house.’
‘Tracy also supported my family. When Mum cried as I was in surgery, Tracy was there for her: I watch her with other families and children and she is never off duty, she’s always there at the end of the phone for us. Everybody adores her.’
Tracy originally trained as a nursery nurse and uses play as a way to help young children cope with the trauma of their injuries.
‘I have a special red suitcase and inside it there’s a microphone, a toy snake and an array of other toys. If a youngster doesn’t want to tell me face-to-face how they feel, they might talk about it into the microphone, or share their fears as they hold the toy.
‘I accompany them to the operating theatre and as I often saw youngsters who had frequent surgery become fearful of it, I roped in my local Mercedes garage who supplied us with a battery-powered mini white Merc that the children use to drive to theatre.’
DOCTORS ARE ALWAYS HURRIED, BUT DR LODGE HAD TIME TO CARE
Author Hunter Davies’s health hero is Dr Philip Lodge, a palliative medicine consultant, who helped care for his wife, the novelist Margaret Forster, before her death last year.
Margaret was in the Marie Curie hospice in Hampstead last year, which has a lovely leafy garden and is beautifully appointed. In fact, her bedroom was bigger and nicer than the one we have at home — and it was free.
One day I noticed there were four empty beds. How could this be? So I asked Dr Lodge.
‘I’d have thought,’ I said to him, ‘people would be dying to come into this hospice . . .’
Dr Lodge smiled, a trifle wearily. I think he had heard this pathetic bad-taste joke many times over the years.
I first met Philip — for we were quickly on first name terms — when Margaret was still at home in bed. He arrived from the Royal Free Hospital to administer some morphine, in person. Consultants are normally awfully grand beasts who stride around their wards with an entourage of registrars and housemen, students and flunkeys. They have a special walk: chest out, head high, staring no one in the face. But Philip is quiet and low-key, doesn’t look or act at all like the archetypal consultant and has a local London accent, not posh.
The day he first visited, Margaret was really tired and fed up with having to answer the same old questions she’d been asked for 40 years, ever since she had a double mastectomy.
In hospital, it seems that everyone coming on duty, from the cleaners upwards, has a clipboard on which they must write down your name, age, treatments, religion, favourite vegetable . . .
‘Sorry Margaret,’ said Philip, getting out his clipboard but sensing her irritation. ‘I have to ask you some more things. It’s my bread and butter.’
She smiled at his dry reply, the first time she had smiled in days. And I also noticed on that first visit how Philip, as he sat at her bedside, glanced round the room, taking in our Lake District paintings, Clarice Cliff pottery and family photos.
Doctors don’t usually do that: you are a number to them, not a human being. And they are always in hurry.
Philip always appeared to have as much time as was needed. He told us how much he loved his job: making people in pain as comfortable as possible, going home knowing he had made a difference.
I was given his direct number to ring if she collapsed. And when she did, I rang him at the Marie Curie hospice where he works half the week. He said he would have a bed ready for her and arrange an ambulance.
Margaret died early last year, on February 8, in the hospice. They were wonderful with her and I do feel enormously grateful to them all — and Dr Lodge in particular.
In her own time, Tracy also runs My Burns Club, financed solely from the £30,000 donations she raises each year.
The club takes 170 burn-injured children away every year on outdoor activity camps. As well as being a place to have fun, ‘camp is a place of safety with other burn victims where they can talk about their problems,’ she says.
Tracy calls in husband Norman, 45, daughter Jasmine, 19, and sons Joshua, 24, and William, 26, to help in many of the activities she runs out of work, with William and his friends recently completing a fundraising bike ride to Paris.
Becky herself is now a volunteer at the My Burns Club — and recently completed a half-marathon to raise funds for it.
Becky has had more than 20 operations, yet still managed to achieve A-star grades in her BTec health and social care course — and after a gap year is going to train as a nurse. ‘While I was being cared for, a ward nurse showed me her burns scars. I thought, that’s what I want to do — to help others as I have been helped.’
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Becky but she says Tracy’s support and willingness to go the extra mile has played a huge role in getting her through the worst.
When Becky was asked to be a friend’s bridesmaid in February, she was delighted but fearful. Tracy contacted the Katie Piper Foundation and arranged for Becky to have her hair and make-up done professionally for the big day.
‘Becky skyped me and when I saw the smile on her face, I cried because I knew that she’d have a great day,’ says Tracy. ‘She looked stunning.’
‘Tracy runs herself into the ground to help us all,’ says Becky. ‘The time and love she puts into everyone is amazing. I recently went out in a thin-strapped dress and was not one bit bothered that my scars were visible. They are part of me.
‘But I wouldn’t be where I am now — back to my old, confident self — without Tracy.’
To enter, fill in this form and tell us in no more than 400 words – using the box provided – why you think your candidate should win. The closing date is midnight on Friday 1st December 2017. The editor’s decision is final.
There will be a total of five finalists including the winner. Each finalist will receive a paid-for one-night stay in a five-star London hotel, selected by the organisers, and travel to and from London, for them and one guest. The finalists will receive their award from The Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street (subject to security clearance and the Prime Minister’s availability). The prize for the Health Hero of the Year is a voucher for a luxury break up to the value of £5,000 courtesy of leading villa specialists Oliver’s Travels (oliverstravels.com). This is subject to Oliver’s Travels voucher terms. You must obtain consent of your Health hero to submit the entry before entering and submitting the details below. Usual Promotion Rules apply.