"It has been a long journey, she has been in hospital for 153 nights, with a couple of breaks since March of this year, she had 3 rounds of intensive chemotherapy first then she had a bone marrow transplant. For the chemotherapy she was in the secteur protege, which means in a room where everything is clean and only 2 people are allowed in at any time in hospital blues and masks. She was then in a bubble for 3 weeks, which is basically a bed with a plastic cocoon all around it and the only way you can touch your child is via these huge black gloves, as she was completely cut off from us all in a totally sterile environment" (HW, December 2011)
What is your name, age and how long have you lived in Creuse?
Which part of Creuse do you live in ? My name is Helen Wilkinson, 42 years old and we moved here June 2010, we live between Montlucon and Gueret.
Why did you move there?
My partners business is property and he had been working 70 hour weeks for about 3 years and he went through a very difficult time with the property market, so we decided we had had enough and wanted to enjoy our lives a bit more and relax. We chose this area as a very good friend of ours lives 15km away and we felt we needed the support to start with, especially as my partner still flys back to the UK all the time to run his business.
What is the area like where you live? Quiet and slow but very beautiful.
What nationality are you and your partner? British
How many children do you have, what are their names and when were they born? 3 children - Jacob aged 8, Molly aged 6 and Jemima aged 4
What was your experience of relocating to Creuse with children?
Other than the paperwork it has been relatively easy, we found a good local school for them all who were very welcoming and the children seem to be happy. I think it has been more of a worry to us with the French school system, their way of teaching children is very different to the UK and it is a negative form of teaching and quite critical, but saying that they have been very good with my oldest boy, he had French lessons 3 times per week and has now been put up a year as they did not feel he was being challenged.
Your youngest daughter has been diagnosed with Leukemia, how & when did you first realise that something was wrong?
She was diagnosed last March, she had a chest infection for a couple of weeks and was not quite right, but we never expected it to be cancer.
How did you go about getting a diagnosis and have you been happy with the doctors and hospitals who have been treating your daughter? What kind of treatment has she been having?
The doctors and hospitals have been truly amazing, everything they do is extremely thorough with no thought to how much it costs, like in the UK.Our local Doctor took a blood sample just as routine, but as soon as he got the blood results back, we were in hospital within an hour, then transferred to Clermont Ferrand hospital after 2 days for further tests. It was amazingly fast and very professional, she had the bone marrow biopsy and within 1 hour we knew she had cancer. They wanted to start treating her that night, but we wanted one night at home as a family before it all started. She has acute myeloid leukaemia, which is not as receptive to treatment as acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. It has been a long journey, she has been in hospital for 153 nights, with a couple of breaks since March of this year, she had 3 rounds of intensive chemotherapy first then she had a bone marrow transplant. For the chemotherapy she was in the secteur protege, which means in a room where everything is clean and only 2 people are allowed in at any time in hospital blues and masks. She was then in a bubble for 3 weeks, which is basically a bed with a plastic cocoon all around it and the only way you can touch your child is via these huge black gloves, as she was completely cut off from us all in a totally sterile environment.
It was very hard for us as you are totally isolated and so is your child, and the French medical system is great but emotional and psychological support is pretty non-existent, I went for whole days with just a couple of conversations with nurses. The nurses are very strict and not as warm in general as English nurses, it is very much stick to the rules. We were not allowed to be with her from 8pm till 10am in the morning, but we did ignore this rule when she was in the sterile room as she did not like the nurses that much, so we washed and cared for her. The nurses were great when she was in the bubble.
How did you and your husband cope after being told that your daughter had cancer? Have you and your husband/partner undergone any kind of counselling?
No counselling was offered at all, we just relied on friends and family, luckily we are both quite strong, and my mother came over to live with us for 5 months to keep a stable homelike for my other 2 children. it is still very hard now as we are not allowed any visitors to the house and Jemima can not go to school till next June, the only support we get now is 1 hours teaching per week, there is no home support of any kind, no equivalent to Macmillan.
How have your other children dealt with their sister’s illness? Pretty well due to my mother being with them all the time, they have been a bit jealous of all her presents, but overall have coped extremely well. I think when she came home it was very hard for them as we were going to the hospital 3 times a week, medicines every 2 hours or so, keeping everything clean, so it was all about Jemima, but it has settled down now.
How is your daughter now and what further treatment will she have?
She is OK, it is a long haul after a transplant, 5 years before we know she has beaten it and another 8 months before her immune system is strong enough to live a normal life
How does your daughter’s Leukemia manifest itself on a day to day level? Does she get frustrated at not being able to do certain things?
She has coped with it all amazingly well, she has adapted to her restricted life very well and all the ghastly things that have been done to her, children are truly amazing.
Do you ever wish that your daughter was being treated in the UK? Treatment wise no, but support wise totally.
What advice would you give to other parents whose children have been diagnosed with cancer in France?
Try and find other families in the same situation and talk to them, you need to create your own support network. But treatment wise for children we have the best care you could hope for, you just have to make sure you are being treated at one of the main cancer hospitals in France, there are about 5 very good ones.
Do you work and if so what do you do? I have my own business Cococards, which is an online stationery store.
Did you buy or rent your property? How did you find the process? Rent for now as we do not want to stay in this area long term
How well integrated would you say you and your family are? We were getting there slowly, but our lives have been put on hold since March and will not really be normal again till mid next year.
What language do you speak to your children? English
Do you think it is essential to speak French when relocating to Creuse?
My husband speaks perfect french, he adores languages and used to live in France when he was younger, so that has been very helpful. My French is pretty poor and I find it very frustrating and it can be quite isolating, and learning french has been slow over the last few months.
What is your impression of childcare and education in Creuse? We are pretty happy with the schooling so far, it has its drawbacks, after reading Peter Gumbels book, we are definitely aware of the harshness of the classroom culture, we feel we need to ensure that we encourage self esteem and an enquiring mind in our children
What do you think are the main advantages and disadvantages of being a parent from the International Community living in Creuse? Diasadvantages - you are not able to look out for your children as well as in the Uk due to the language barrier. Advantage - cant think of one at the moment - oops
How welcoming were the locals when you arrived in Creuse?
They were incredibly nosey and some were welcoming, it is a slow process finding friends who are french and being able to socialise with them
Would you say your area is family-friendly and is there anything you think would improve children´s lives where you live? The area is very quiet with a few child related activities - football, gym, ballet etc, btu there is not a huge amount going on, we have accrobranche 6 miles away which is great and only an hour from Lake Vassiiviere which is truly fantastic, great for beaches, waterspouts, good cafes and restaurants.
What advice would you give for anyone having a baby or thinking of relocating to Creuse with children?
Be prepared for a very laid back life and lots of older people.