CHARITY APPEAL ‘It’s brilliant to see them return to their jobs’
visits Jubilee House in Cumbria to see how the Fire Fighters Charity provides physical and emotional support
Normally it’s a bad sign to have so many firefighters in such proximity, but at Jubilee House, on the edge of the Lake District, the opposite is true. There are dozens of fire service personnel here because Jubilee House is one of their profession’s three main recuperation centres. Since 1995, it has offered rehabilitation services to firefighters past and present, as well as their spouses and children. It’s one of three centres run by The Fire Fighters Charity, the others being Harcombe House in Devon, currently being repurposed to specialise in mental health, and Marine Court, a centre in West Sussex.
Because Jubilee House has a 24hour on-site nursing team, it specialises in treating physical injuries, though it often welcomes people with psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and works by the general principle that physical and mental health are tightly knitted together.
The charity is one of three chosen by The Telegraph for our annual Christmas appeal, so I’ve been invited to spend 24 hours at Jubilee House, to meet the men and women who come here for treatment, and to learn how they benefit from the support of the charity and its donors.
I arrive on a cold, wet Wednesday. The river Eamont, which runs past the centre and on occasion nearly floods it, is flowing quickly. The centre’s physiotherapists often organise Lakeland walks for the beneficiaries, as they call their visitors, but sensibly they’ll be staying indoors today.
Fortunately, they have a busy pro-
Christmas Charity Appeal 2018
gramme to get on with. A couple of the charity’s staff show me around what in many ways resembles a small school, albeit with more pictures of firefighters on the wall than usual. There are classrooms, in which beneficiaries learn about mental health, nutrition, good sleep and so on; there is a canteen, a swimming pool, hydrotherapy pool, and corridors of single rooms for beneficiaries to stay in. But first I’m shown the sports hall.
There are about 10 beneficiaries in here, and physios too. It’s a large-windowed space, with mats, gym equipment and massage tables. The beneficiaries each have their own routine, tailored to whatever ailment they’ve arrived with. Some focus on injuries, like the young man to my left doing leg exercises. Others are doing what resembles firefighting work, like the 50-something carrying big plastic containers of water up and down the length of a rope lying in a straight line down the hall. They’re all working with purpose and camaraderie.
Stuart Richardson, 28, was the man doing the leg exercises. After lunch, we sit down on one of the big sofas in the communal area. In June, Richardson ruptured the patellar tendon in his left knee, he tells me. He acquired the injury while representing Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, but he wasn’t fighting a fire – he was in a charity football match against a police team.
“It was a freak accident,” he says ruefully. “There was no contact at all, I just stuck my leg out to tackle the boy, and when this foot” – he points to his left foot – “was on the ground by itself, the leg sort of gave way and snapped.”
Ironically, Richardson had given up playing football a couple of years ago to focus on his young family and his firefighting career. He is a driven, energetic man, who works full-time for the Aberdeen fire service, and as a parttime member of the watch at Montrose, where he lives, and his sudden inability to do anything but light desk work was frustrating. On top of that, his wife, Kim, was pregnant with their second child.
He used the birth date as a milestone. “The main aim was to get back walking in time for that, so I could carry our sons about” – they already had Blake, two years old – “and help about the house.” At that point, though, he couldn’t even drive, and most days was stuck at home. He’d had surgery on the NHS a few days after the injury, but was only entitled to half an hour of physiotherapy a week. One of Richardson’s colleagues told him to apply for a stay at Jubilee House. As it happened, he had supported the centre for years, being one of the many firefighters who raise money for the Fire Fighters Charity. Twelve weeks after sending details of his injury, he began six days’ residence. He took the train to Cumbria and, like every beneficiary, was given a personalised programme melding individual treatment with group classes. “Back home,” he says, “you’re doing a silly rehab exercise at the gym, and you feel pressure because other people are wondering: ‘What’s he doing? What’s he all about?’. But down here, you get a good laugh, and you real- ise that you’re not as bad off as others; some have got worse injuries.”
He enjoyed the camaraderie that came with working with other members of his unique profession, and his recovery was helped greatly by the attention given by the Jubilee House physios. They gave him exercises and advice that were appropriate not only for his injury, but for the particular demands of firefighting.
The six days were so helpful that he applied for an additional four days a few months further into his recovery, the period that coincides with my visit. It means being away from three-weekold Adam, but Richardson is now fit enough to carry him and should be ready to resume work in May or June.
Later I meet Vicky Ridgway, another beneficiary. Ridgway, who became the first female firefighter in north Wales when she signed up 19 years ago, is a member of Wrexham’s fire service. She’s here as part of her recovery from an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in-
jury she suffered in May. Sitting on a sofa with views of the river, she explains how her crew had finished their weekly parade and were rushing round the station picking up kit.
“I heard a pop and it floored me,” she recalls. “It was instant agony.” She tried getting on with her work, which at that moment was teaching a new recruit how to use breathing apparatus, but her knee couldn’t bear her weight and the pain wouldn’t go away. An MRI scan confirmed that she had ruptured her ACL, needed surgery, and would not be able to resume physical work for the best part of a year.
She had heard of sportspeople having their careers wrecked by ACL injuries, and worried that the same would happen to hers. “I did have a very down spell then,” she says, “just before the operation, thinking: ‘Well, what if?’”.
The surgery was successful, but, like many injured firefighters, Ridgway felt dislocated from a career that gave her life purpose. She was used to a rolling eight-day week, night shifts included, but suddenly she had little to do. “You don’t have that routine that most people have,” she says of recovering from injury as a firefighter. “You spend a lot of time thinking about the injury.”
Ridgway is looking forward to returning to her nine-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter, after four days away, but, like Richardson, finds that Jubilee House is good for her morale as well as her injury.
Both of them have suffered, but mingle with people whose injuries are even more severe. One of those people is James Thorpe, 30, who suffered a devastating spinal injury on his stag trip two years ago, hitting his head on the seabed when his party went for a late-night swim. He was paralysed from the neck down, and might have drowned had he not been able, thanks to his training, to calmly tell his friends how to safely remove him from the water and support his neck.
With the help of some metal supports, Thorpe was able to meet his goal of standing at the altar when the wedding came around. But the marriage soon broke down, and, housebound and rudderless, he began suffering with clinical depression.
In recounting his ordeal, Thorpe is sanguine and engaging and he puts a lot of his improvement down to his experience at Jubilee House. He has now stayed here several times, and has benefited immensely. “Every time I come here they’ve got new equipment I can use,” he says. Thorpe will never recover his mobility, but in his quest to reach other milestones, like walking with parallel bars, he has been helped by resources such as the hydrotherapy pool, and a bike that uses electrical stimulation to stop his leg muscles wasting away.
The staff help him dress and shower and get medication from him, but cultivate a positive and encouraging atmosphere too. “The nurses put all your worries at ease. They’re so friendly and knowledgeable.” Like everyone else here, Thorpe enjoys being around fellow beneficiaries. “I’ve met so many different people with different injuries, and some have returned to their jobs, which is a brilliant thing to see.”
And while his new friends won’t see him rejoin the fire service, they’ve witnessed him turn his life around. He’s walked with parallel bars, which he says was as good a feeling as it gets, he’s started a disabled bathroom fitting business, called Ability Bathing. And he’s met someone new. “She’s really brilliant. It’s going really well.”
Later, we eat dinner and return to the canteen for a quiz. The firefighters’ distinctive traits are visible throughout: they’re friendly but driven, team players with a sense of humour.
In addition to that, what I’d learned from speaking to Thorpe, Ridgway and Richardson was that they and their colleagues are far more used to rescuing others than being rescued themselves. Yet firefighting is a dangerous job, both physically and mentally, and centres like Jubilee House give vital help to the men and women who habitually help the rest of us. The conclusion I leave with is that this kind of bespoke, attentive treatment can be a lifesaver.
‘The nurses put you at ease. They’re so friendly and knowledgeable’
How to play Basics: Griddlers are solved using number clues to locate solids (filled-in squares) and dots (empty squares) to reveal a picture.
Each column and row has a series of numbers next to it. These refer to the number of adjacent squares that should be filled as solids. If more than one number appears, that line will contain more than one block of solids.
The solid blocks must appear in the order that the numbers are printed. For example, a row that contains the numbers 11.5 would contain, somewhere, a block of 11 adjacent filled-in squares (solids), then a gap of one or more empty squares (with dots in) and then a block of five adjacent filled-in squares.
Cumbria County Council asked its residents to vote for names for its new fleet of 11 gritting vehicles. Which of these names failed to make the cut? (a) David Ploughie (b) Spready Mercury (c) Gary Gritter