Oakhaven Hospice founder Jan Swallow publishes a book about her extraordinary adventures
IT could have been very different for the woman who went on to found Oakhaven Hospice, one of the New Forest’s best-loved charities which since 1990 has cared for thousands of people nearing the end of their lives.
Dr Jan Swallow’s own life was nearly ended at the age of six when a direct hit from a German bomb during the Second World War destroyed the factory opposite her infant school in Luton.
She and her fellow pupils were protected by an air raid shelter but it took them hours to be dug out.
The incident is just one part of Jan’s life story in which just two years ago, to mark her 85th birthday, she leapt out of a plane in a fundraising challenge for Oakhaven – which she helped found and where she became its first medical director.
She has captured her story in a new book, It’s Not Where You Start, whose profits will go to the hospice, and which will prove entertaining to those how only know her through her local work.
Her tales include setting a fractured wrist during a hurricane at sea and how the death of her father planted the seeds for her work at Oakhaven Hospice.
Jan describes her life as one “directed more by serendipity than by ambition or financial gain”, although as she was growing up in Luton she harboured a secret wish to enter the medical profession.
She said: “It was what I had always wanted to do but we were not a medical family at all. My father was a head master.”
She also had thoughts of becoming a vet – but those soon evaporated when someone asked her: “Could you give an elephant an enema?”
Jan started her medical training at St Bart’s in 1953 when she was one of just four women admitted among 60 men.
She said she “enjoyed her time immensely” although “probably had too much fun as a student”. That’s not a regret, however, as she adds: “The memories far exceed any I might have of exams passed.”
From St Bart’s she went to Luton and Dunstable Hospital where she worked in casualty. The memory of her first patient remains vivid in her mind to this day.
She said: “He was a young lad whose right foot was hanging on by a tendon, but he was screaming: ‘Don’t cut it off!’ When we took his trousers off, I was shocked to find his other leg had been amputated below the knee.”
The lad had lost his first leg after being run over by a train. He claimed he had gone on the track to save a dog and his story turned him into a hero with the public donating money to help him.
Later in life he ended up in prison, however, from from which he escaped when he was taken to another hospital. When he was found by police, he ran onto a nearby railway line and lost his other foot.
Jan said: “I wondered if he thought that, having received money the first time, it would happen again?”
Such meticulous forward planning has never been part of Jan’s life – such as when she ended up sailing the seas after spotting a spotting an advert in a newspaper.
It read: “Wanted for British India Steam Navigation Company school ships, an assistant surgeon.”
She answered and got the job which took her all over the world. Jan said: “I had to be prepared for anything and able to tackle most things.”
On one voyage that meant encountering Force 12 Hurricane Hilda during which the ship was rolling wildly as Jan tried to set an elderly patient’s fractured wrist.
She said: “As she went under the anaesthetic she sang Nearer My God to Thee. She didn’t know how near she was with my anaesthetic skills and a Force 12 gale.”
After four years at sea Jan finally came ashore in 1968, joining a GP practice for Bristol University. It was during her time there that her father suffered a heart attack that was eventually to prove fatal.
Visiting him in hospital, she found him facing the end of his days hooked up to medical equipment that could not save him, and his distressed wife by his side feeling useless.
Jan said: “I just felt there must be a much better way than this to care for people who are dying.”
That moment was to come back to her years later when in 1988 she was asked by Lymington resident Phoebe Coates to set up a hospice in the town.
By then Jan had moved to the New Forest after her husband Greville became head master of Moyles Court School near Ringwood.
At the time of Mrs Coates’ offer, Jan was working at the Christchurch MacMillan Unit. After establishing Oakhaven she spent six years there where she says caring for terminally ill patients was a “privilege”.
He dedication to the hospice has led her to complete many unusual fundraising activities, such as when she challenged the whole of Lymington to do “something silly” – and ended up standing on her head on the steps of Moore and Blatch solicitors, singing the national anthem.
Jan laughs: “Yes, my life has certainly been interesting.”
- It’s Not Where You Start is on sale at £10.50 at Oakhaven shops and Pilley community shop, or by phone order via Oakhaven Hospice on 01590 677773 or Jan herself on 01590 677298.