Tribute to Donna Ellis. A green-fingered former patient, who was integral to the Wirral Hospice St John’s garden make-over teamPublished on: 28/06/2019
The Hospice Garden (adapted)
“How many kinds of sweet flowers grow,
In our Wirral Hospice garden?
(We’ll tell you below of some that we know,
Those we miss you’ll surely pardon).
Daffodil’s, Heart’s Ease and Phlox,
Meadowsweet and Lady Smocks,
Gentian, lupine and tall hollyhocks,
Roses, foxgloves, snowdrops, blue forget-me-nots,
In our Wirral Hospice Garden.
This may have been Wirral Hospice St John’s summer anthem for 2019 when we completed our garden makeover in time for our Open Garden event on the weekend of 29th and 30th June, 2019. (Many thanks to Jimmie F Rodgers, the American folk singer, who penned (most of) those evocative words. It’s set to a traditional English tune which is said to have been arranged in the sixteenth century).
At the time we were keen to share a story of someone who knew a lot about gardens and gardening. Someone who helped in the planning and preparation, someone who was a patient (nay, “a person”) who attended our Wellbeing Centre and became a friend, giving her own precious time to the hospice.
Donna Ellis was that person.
She was always ready with a broad smile and a friendly greeting. She had an engaging laugh and a twinkle in her eye despite, it is fair to say, having to cope for several years with the really complex health conditions that life had thrown at her.
When she first came to us in the Wellbeing Centre it took a couple of visits to establish that her passion in life was in bringing life to plants and flowers. Our job is to help people to optimise their lives and, where possible, to continue to be involved in, and carry on doing, the things they enjoy.
Soon she’d agreed that she should cultivate a little bed of flowers near to the entrance to Outpatients. This was accomplished with aplomb and the results were there, for all to see.
So, once we decided to prepare for an Open Garden we consulted with Donna, as well as other patients and volunteers, to bring it to fruition.
She got stuck in on extra days, with husband Alan providing the muscle (and who also has an eye for gardening) to move shrubs while Donna applied some finesse to new planting.
I’d sat with Donna the week before our Open Garden event to find out a little bit more about her, while she was also attending to a large pot of flowers, being lovingly nurtured for our display.
Born and Bred in Wirral, Donna was brought up in New Ferry. She was the youngest, by 10 years, of 4 children. Maybe this is why, it became clear, she felt so close to her mum, Mary, and felt her loss very keenly. She also loved her dad, Ken, who still lived in their childhood home and who, with Mary, taught Donna to love gardens, planting and gardening.
Dad built his own timber frame greenhouse for seasonal veg. They never ran out and they’d share the produce, sprouts, tomatoes, cucumber and cauliflower with their neighbours. Donna remembered that one side of the garden was lawn and the other would be for growing plants and flowers to coincide with the seasons.
Donna would sit for hours watching, learning and eventually joining in. What is now clear is that she inherited her Mum and Dad’s green-fingers.
I remember her telling me all this while attentively ‘dead-heading’, removing brown leaves, and planting new flowers in a huge pot!
“This is skimmia, lovely red flowers in the winter. I’m gonna build up this antirrhinum and plant the rest of the bed around it. It will give it some height. Ooh, a bit of vine weevil here to remove. Can you pass the dianthus and those lupins?”
At the time, I was thinking, I don’t know what it all means, but it looks brilliant!
At school, St John Plessington in Bebington, she gained 10 GCSE’s and 4 ‘A’ Levels. She loved theatre studies and wrote and starred in a play, Outside the Bathroom Door, ultimately attaining a Grade 8 qualification for acting, awarded by the Royal College of Music.
At 18, Donna was at a real crossroads. Whether to study for a degree in divinity or to pursue her other calling, nursing? Nursing won and, after 3 years training at Arrowe Park and Clatterbridge hospitals, she qualified as a Registered General Nurse (RGN) at 21 years of age.
While training she was working at the Gateway Supermarket in Bebington where she met Alan (pictured here, on one of our garden makeover days, with Donna),
“Alan was shy when he was younger and I was quite ‘gobby’. But I thought he was the bees knees, he had a Nissan Sunny which I thought was luxury. We laugh now when we look back – it really was an ‘ol’ banger!”
I’m laughing because it’s the way she said it!
The first time Alan said he had ‘something important to ask’, Donna‘s eye’s roll as she recalled it was to ask her to move in together! Not the proposal she’d been expecting, but it was only a matter of time before they were married.
In her late 20’s and early 30’s Donna’s struggles with illness really began to take over her life. A very difficult pregnancy which, happily, did bring daughter, Jess, into the world had been fraught with complications on top of Donna’s developing ill health.
Donna described the moment when Jess came into the world,
“Throughout pregnancy I carried a condition which brought cruel pain. I had truly believed there was little hope for the life growing inside me. So it was a miracle when, there she was, a beautiful baby girl, 8lb 3oz, with a mass of black hair and long legs. I was the happiest person alive.”
Like it has to, life carried on, and Donna was beginning to live with ever-more complex conditions. She had a diagnosis of eosinophilic (brittle) asthma. This is a life-limiting condition in itself, however, a treatment, especially formulated for the asthma, brought her some blessed relief.
But, in her last 4 years, Donna had to combat blood clots, infections and sleep apnoea. Perhaps most challenging of all she developed MRSA sepsis which needed a high dosage of three antibiotics. A reaction damaged her middle ear, which has resulted in permanent vertigo, and she has become reliant on her mobility ‘walker’. She does add, (surprisingly cheerfully in her circumstance), “It’s three wheels. One for each member of our little family.”
Brittle asthma can lead to a referral for hospice care. Donna admitted that before coming to Wirral Hospice St John’s she was at her very lowest ebb. She’d been an accomplished RGN in a career she loved and now she felt like all she was, was a hindrance.
Her initial reaction to being referred to the hospice was, like many people, a little trepidation. Best to use Donna’s own words here after she had asked herself at the time, “Am I dying?”
“The answer is NO! I started to realise I still had a lot to offer. I needed to deal with my illnesses and look forward. The hospice provides me with pain relief but so much more. No-one says, ‘there is nothing more we can do for you’.
I feel like a special person getting individual attention. I feel privileged actually, as not everyone takes up the experience. It’s a place where I can be myself, just ‘me’. My family know that I relish going into the hospice. They look forward to the stories I share when I go home. I have remembered who I am, having spent time with the hospice’s attentive and skilled staff, dedicated volunteers, and, in fact, fellow patients with their own challenges. Laughter is a big part of life at the hospice.
I feel like I’m a Mum and Wife again. I just hope my experience will inspire other people to embrace the hospice should they be referred. It has made such a positive impact on my life.”
Donna developed a further complication, an Aortic Dissection. Her blood pressure had to be constantly monitored and she had to engage in calming activities to maintain a steady rate.
So, it’s a good job that gardening provided just such a past time. She became a fixture during our Garden Makeover volunteering days and we all loved to see her. Her impact was immeasurable and without doubt the garden would not have been quite as beautiful as it turned out to be, without her, and Alan’s, help, in time for our Open Garden weekend in 2019.
You can imagine that we had to be especially gentle when we also told Donna the barnstorming news that that she would be being interviewed for BBC TV’s North West Tonight! Soon after we received the news that, to our great privilege, Wirral Hospice St John’s had secured the right to site the North West Tonight Sunshine Garden, in memory of weather presenter, Dianne Oxberry, here, following its showcase at The RHS Tatton Flower Show ithat July.
Sadly Donna passed away during the first lockdown period of COVID 19 and people around the hospice, staff, volunteers and friends were heartbroken. Her leagacy is all around us in the hospice garden and we all remember, Thank You Donna from, deeper than, the bottom of our hearts.
Author: Billy Howard