A grieving mum reflects on the life of her calm and selfless son, and her first Christmas without him
The greatest gift in Pat Conchie’s life was her son Lee. “He was my life,” she says simply. “He taught me how to live. He showed me how to die. With grace and dignity and great calm.”
Lee Davis-Conchie, 45, one of the poster boys of the Anthony Nolan Bone Marrow Register Trust and a tai chi master to hundreds locally, died in October from complications arising from acute myeloid leukaemia, a rare type of cancer , diagnosed in February 2011.
Four hundred people attended his funeral. More than 1,000 said goodbye to him on social network sites. Others came to see him at hospital and later packed into the front room of his home at Squires Gate where he chose to die, as he had lived, wrapped in the loving embrace of friends and family, a smile on his lips, Bob Marley playing in the background, his partner’s dog Minnie at his feet.
His Chen Taiji (tai chi) master flew over from China to take his leave of a man he had mentored and come to love – returning with keepsakes of Lee to place on a shrine in the village Lee had been too ill to visit but which he considered his spiritual home. Tai chi combines meditation and exercise to balance health and wellbeing. Lee’s physical and emotional fitness made him the most positive patient many medics had ever seen.
Sadly it was a rogue gene which got in the way, effectively undermining his immunity and making his body reject or rebel against most forms of treatment. And caring medics, says Pat, “threw everything at him – to try to save him.” Chemotherapy, platelet transfusions, bone marrow transplant, Lee had them all, rallied for a while, entered brief periods of apparent remission, then crashed anew. He became increasingly philosophical with each relapse, each challenge.
Pat says that when his consultant, tears in his own eyes, finally told him the worst, that he had days, at best, to live, he responded, characteristically: “It is what it is.”
His partner of the last 10 years Simone Lawton, mother of the twins Lee came to regard as his own sons, adds: “He used to say there are no problems only solutions. He made even chemo look easy. He seemed to breeze it all until the last few months.
“We miss him more than words can say – but we feel his presence all around.”
And today both know what they want for Christmas – for more to support leukaemia charities, to sign up for the Anthony Nolan Trust, to check out the website today and see the eight ways in which they – we, you – could save a life. The life of someone like Lee. Although in truth there was no one like Lee.
He packed more living into two years and eight months – since his diagnosis – than many do in two, three, four times the span. “He was very aware that time could be running out,” says Simone.
It all came to a head when Lee went to Manchester Royal Infirmary early in October after having problems with his platelets.
Mum pat adds: “I brought him home to start receiving so-called super platelets in the hope this would help.”
He endured double bag transfusions over four days followed by another bone marrow biopsy.
“The super strength platelets did not work,” says Pat.
“He reverted to the generics and bloods just to keep him buoyant. He was becoming really tired. It subdued him really.”
Lee reported severe headaches. “Because the pain was so bad the doctor advised him to stay in overnight.”
A brain scan revealed a massive bleed in the brain.
“In conjunction with the test results of the biopsy there was no more that could be done for him. The consultant was crying – by then they had become so close. We were all stunned.”
Doctors and nurses filed into the haemotology ward to say goodbye, along with patients, friends from other wards, who had watched him going through his tai chi moves in the courtyard near the cardiac centre at Blackpool Victoria Hospital.
Pat and Simone would love some lasting memorial to Lee there as it became so close to his heart.
“He used to escape there,” says Pat. “And others used to escape by watching him. If he missed a session patients would ask about him. I’m still asked about him by people who never knew he was ill. They remember him walking the dogs.
“He never dwelt on his illness. They are devastated when they find out. I now try to avoid such conversations.
“If people ask what I’m doing for Christmas and New Year I just try to smile and get through it. That’s what I’m doing now – getting through.”
Lee wanted out, to go home to die. Neighbours included a paramedic and nurse. “We went crying to them for help when it all became too much for us at the last,” Pat says.
Lee had, she admits, a “good death”. He knew what he wanted, the music he needed, and with great fortitude and calm invited friends via Facebook and other networks, to come and bid him farewell.
Pat and Simone slept on the floor beside his bed in the front room of their Squires Gate home.
Simone adds: “He was just Lee, utterly at home in his own self, and with others. He had such presence he would light up a room when he entered it. People wanted to meet, speak to him. He could have succeeded in any walk of life. Ultimately, I think, he would have done far more for charity.”
Home was a brisk five minutes walk to the sandhills where the Anthony Nolan Trust captured photographic images of Lee, desperately ill, but fighting back to fitness, and that sense of inner balance he craved, through the art and spirit of tai chi.
Those images, used as part of the charity’s awareness campaign, inspired others to sign up to donate blood stem cells or bone marrow.
Lee remains one of the charity’s successes for the triumph of the spirit that marked his approach to the disease. His own words appear on the charity’s website: “The work Anthony Nolan does is phenomenal – helping patients, families , even donors – saving people’s lives.” It is signed Lee Davis-Conchie, transplant recipient.
Closer to home Lee spoke at schools and community groups. His true legacy, the real spirit of Christmas, rests in the fact that his one-man crusade has already paid off, that suitable donors have already been found in the ranks of young local men and women who listened to what he said – and then acted upon it.
And that’s the gift that keeps giving, like the love of Lee himself, says his proud mother. Pat says his courage confounded expectations of medics who, within a matter of days, examined a black spot upon his tongue and diagnosed the same type of leukaemia with which Aston Villa captain Stiliyan Petrov had been diagnosed.
By then he was already a walking talking medical miracle. One blow could have killed him, said doctors. But even with white blood cells at an all time low he honoured his obligation to attend a tai chi event – and did so time and again when advised to do otherwise. He lived for tai chi, it defined who and what he was, says Pat.
Once strong enough he went back to the gym three days a week to train, put in eight hours teaching other days, strolled to The Gazette, dogs in tow, to give us updates – and worked out in that courtyard at the Vic during his many hospital stays on the wards at the haemotology unit.
Even there Lee became a life coach to fellow patients, making friends, including some he later lost. He was the ward joker, teacher of calm, bringer of treats after sneaking out on raids to nearby takeouts.
He was the indomitable teacher who nipped over to Stanley Park to help host tai chi in the park sessions, or work out amidst the peace of the trees and the birdsong.
“His dream was to build a tai chi school here,” Pat says.
Pat not only helped care for her son but continues to care for her husband – her second husband having had a stroke. It’s been a way of life for 30 years now, she admits, and she can’t wait for the bowling season to start because that’s her therapy – not tai chi, but crown green bowling with friends.
She’s fiercely competitive on the greens. It keeps the tears at bay – for at least part of the day.
Pat and Simone also draw strength from the support of others for the Anthony Nolan Trust – and the funds raised for the haemology unit and specialist charities by events held in Lee’s memory and by a collection at his funeral. There are plans for more.
Pat adds: “My beautiful darling boy was so strong and brave and calm and I am so proud of who he was – is – and what he achieved.
“The best Christmas gift of all is that others build on his hopes for the future.”
* For more information visit www.anthonynolan.org.