David took up wild swimming when his wife Sarah was diagnosed with a life-changing illness. Having given up work to care for her, he found his new hobby was not only good for his own health, but also provided much-needed structure and a sense of community.
Since Sarah’s death in March 2023 wild swimming has continued to bring David solace. He recently completed the Thames Marathon to raise funds for Sue Ryder after the Wokingham team provided palliative care for Sarah in her final months.
I have swum for years but I only started wild swimming in the river when I started to care for Sarah four years ago. When I stopped work, I lost my routine and all my regular contact with people. Sarah could not get out of bed, particularly early on when she was poorly, so it gave me the chance to go out in the morning to meet some people and swim which has been good for me in lots of ways.
Good times after bad news
In 2018 I had melanoma cancer. I’m five years in and cancer free now, but three days before my last immunotherapy treatment Sarah had a seizure. She had felt something wasn’t right and had already arranged to see someone, but after the seizure she was diagnosed with a glioblastoma and given 14 months to live.
She had a craniotomy which she came through brilliantly. She had lost a lot of movement on her right side after the seizure and she actually got a lot of that back, so for the next three years we were able to lead a fairly normal life and do things together. She also had chemotherapy, radiotherapy and another operation.
So, although there was a long, slow decline in her health, crucially we had been able to do as much as possible together. Sarah lived for three-and-a-half years after her diagnosis, which way exceeded what the doctors expected. And in November 2022, my daughter, who is 27, got married at a week’s notice in our front garden which was a really special thing for us.
How Sue Ryder supported us
In June last year, the doctors, in a very gentle way, said there was nothing more they could do and at that point Sue Ryder happened. Sarah’s Sue Ryder Nurse, Michelle, was around to see her straight away and continued to see us right up until she died.
Michelle was always on the end of a phone which was important, particularly for me at the end.
This was very important to Sarah because when you are told there is nothing more to be done, it’s important to know that there is still something you can control.
Michelle was very good at what she does. Sarah never wanted professional carers so I found it quite hard to do so much by myself. Michelle was instrumental in carefully managing things through that time and she gently persuaded me that outside help was needed. So, for the last four or five weeks of her life we did have carers and it meant that I could focus just on my relationship with Sarah.
And it wasn’t just Michelle, there was Rebecca the Sue Ryder Occupational Therapist, and again she pitched things just right for us. Rebecca helped us to make things work for us at home. How we got Sarah in and out of the shower and things like that. She was very helpful. The District Nurses were also a very comforting presence.
Having people around us was a really good thing because it turns out I’m not invincible!
Coping after Sarah died
Sarah and I were together for 34 years. We have two children both grown up. The three of us had time to prepare so I think we are doing ok under the circumstances. I’m about to go on holiday for a month which I couldn’t have done before when Sarah was ill, so that’s the way I’m dealing with things. I know at one point I was definitely doing too much. I had done a lot of reading about grief but I hit a real block where I couldn’t sleep. It hadn't occurred to me that I might benefit from counselling, but actually it was really helpful to have that. And obviously I’m still swimming.
Everything you hear about how wild swimming makes you feel is true. You have a real connection to nature. There are moments when you are swimming when you are so cold but it makes everything feel very real.
The other thing for me is that the group of people I swim with – there are 100 of us altogether who swim from the same place on the River Thames – it's a proper community who genuinely look out for each other. When you are in the water it can be dangerous, but that support actually extends beyond swimming into people’s lives. Everybody has things going on in their lives and it’s good to have a group of people that you can talk to about things. Being in the river and being with those people is like a safe space.
The Thames Marathon was a 13.5km swim along a beautiful stretch of the Thames from Henley to Marlow. I have done long swims before but never like this. It was loads of fun to be amongst so many people who love swimming.
My shoulders were sore for the last third, but thanks to a friendly flow in the river I got through in 4 hours 16 minutes and raised more than £2,000 for Sue Ryder. I swam in a group of four but we celebrated with our wider group of swim buddies in the pub afterwards. I guess, as it was a Sunday, you could call these people my church.
The need for end-of-life care is projected to increase by 55% by 2030. This, together with rising costs, means we might not be there for everyone who needs us. Will you help us be there when it matters?