Cotswold Character: Christine Mills
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
Hope for Tomorrow is a Gloucestershire-based charity that builds and funds mobile chemotherapy units, operated by the NHS, for use by patients up and down the country. Katie Jarvis met Christine Mills, the inspirational woman behind it
“Now,” says Christine Mills, showing me round the sparkly new unit she’s just had built. “This, here, is for umbrellas… This is our toilet – runs on a cartridge system: like changing a printer. Really easy and hygienic. And this is the nurses’ room, where people can make tea and coffee. If a patient wants to have a quiet word with a nurse – a bit of a tear - they can go in here for privacy, but the nurse can still see what’s happening.”
It’s an extraordinary space, inside this unit, capable of treating up to 20 patients a day; and it’s a unit that goes out to them, so they don’t have the nightmare of long journeys or difficult parking. But what strikes me, as Christine shows me around, is not just the grand vision of ‘inventing’ the world’s first mobile chemotherapy unit. It’s the detail. The detail that says: we’ve really thought about this, my friends: this is where we put the magazines for you to read; this is where the biscuits live. We’ve worried about your every comfort; we’ve heard every tinsy-winsy little thing you’ve told us, and nothing is too much trouble.
Listen, this unit says; we care. “I had one 89-year-old lady, right at the beginning, who sent me a cheque for £30,” Christine says, gesturing towards the kitchen area. “She said, ‘It’s so little, Christine.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s not! It will buy the kettle!’ And she was thrilled.” At that moment, Christine and I pass in front of a man who’s looking out on all of this; looking out on it all from a frame on the wall. “My David,” Christine says.
Let’s go right back in this story. Back to a golden couple – David and Christine Mills - who worked for many years in the glamorous world of motor-racing PR, before moving into selling artwork based around motor-racing. They enjoyed the usual sorts of things – sitting round a log-fire in winter; sharing a meal with friends; drinking a glass or two of wine. And the more unusual, too - moving from London to the warmth of the Cotswolds, to a beautiful house once owned and decorated by Laura Ashley; a house with three stone gables and a glory of trees.
A student working with the couple once asked why they laughed so much. Christine replied, “Life’s too short not to! If you have a good friend, you giggle.”
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Early this millennium, they decided life was so good that they wanted to give something back. So they began the process of setting up a charity, selling art to raise money for good causes. To raise money for people whose lives weren’t going as well as theirs.
Within a year, that vision had become hauntingly personal. David Mills was diagnosed with a rapid form of cancer; in May 2002, he died. Eighteen months after her husband’s death, Christine Mills launched Hope for Tomorrow.
The idea of mobile chemotherapy units – units that bring life-saving treatment to patients in the areas where they live – is a brilliant one; but Christine’s first thoughts were more modest. The thing is this: the hugeness of a cancer diagnosis dwarfs the little things. How will I get to the hospital for my treatment? How much is the car-park? Will I feel up to driving after several hours of chemo? Unimportant issues at moment-of-impact; massively important issues in the shrapnel of the day-to-day.
But Christine had thought all this through from personal experience. “I remember once, after driving David to hospital, that I couldn’t park. After 40 minutes, I dumped the car and left the keys in it; I was crying. A man came up and said to me, ‘You can’t leave your car here!’ and I said, ‘I don’t care.’” She wanted to do something about travel, she decided; perhaps she could organise extra parking. So she took her ideas to Dr Sean Elyan, consultant oncologist and medical director of Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. Far from looking at her as if she were mad, he had his own suggestion. ‘I’d like to help by taking chemotherapy close to home,’” he said.
Christine laughs. “It was a lightbulb moment. Our visions just clicked.”
But, hang on! There’s a big difference between helping with parking, and raising hundreds of thousands for mobile chemo units.
She laughs again. “He did say that he was surprised to see this very small person saying, ‘Yes! Let’s do this!’”
Sean Elyan had had his own personal experiences to inspire him – as a cancer doctor, in his case – which had come to a head when one particular patient turned up half-an-hour late for an appointment in Cheltenham. This man had had to take a bus, a train, and then walk to get to hospital, from his home in Llandrindod Wells. “I’m so sorry,” the patient said. Sean replied, “We should be apologising to you.”
The world’s first mobile unit was launched in Cheltenham on Valentine’s Day, 2007. Sir Stirling Moss – the charity’s patron - came down to cut the ribbon. It sounds easy, put that way, but raising the money (£260,000 for each bespoke unit, including three years’ running costs) was a relatively easy hurdle. More significantly, the charity had to prove to hospitals that this innovation was a safe and effective way of delivering treatment. They piloted that first unit for three years before building another; that first one – refurbished - is still used each week to visit Stroud, Cirencester, the Forest and Tewkesbury. The unit I’m looking round today is number 10; the other nine stretch from Cornwall to Lincolnshire; the latest was launched in Colchester earlier this summer.
“I still get emotional, every time we build a new one,” Chris says. “My aim is to have one in every county in England, and our target for this is 2025.”
Her position in the charity is far from that of figurehead. She listens to what patients say; experiences the units for herself, with a warmth that’s captivating. (If I were to describe her, then it’s like this: someone who wouldn’t look out of place at the most glamorous of parties; yet someone you’d equally want a hug from when things go wrong.) “One of the reasons why we added an inner door was because I came to see a patient in Cirencester one winter, and my legs got cold when another patient came in.” She enjoys watching everyone chat – local people together, who’ll often socialise while they’re being treated.
Nor, with her motor-racing background, does Christine stand back on the technical: “I met Ron Dennis, who’s head of McLaren, in 2006. He recommended Mercedes, where we get our engine and chassis. The body is built by WH Bence [in Yate]. I don’t think they made a penny on this one.”
I meet other members of the team. Randy – employed by the NHS [as are all the unit staff] - who greets patients, takes their coats, makes them tea. Says he’s prouder of his Hope for Tomorrow fleece than of an England shirt.
And there’s Tina Seymour, who has overseen the building of unit number 10. She’s from the world of local government, “But my mum was treated on the unit in Gloucestershire by Dr Sean. I lost both my parents to cancer and, by a bizarre twist of fate, I ended up working for Christine on this project.
“Not that it’s like being at work at all,” she adds. “Emotionally. When you get a card in from a patient – and we had one in this week from Bodmin…” She pauses, but it’s not a sentence she needs to finish.
Many send more than cards – one lady lost a friend, who was treated on the Stroud unit. She donated a new car (for transporting nursing staff to the units), which they’ve named Thelma, at her request. Another patient – who was diagnosed himself, just after his wife had been given the all-clear – grows plants for the charity to sell.
Then there’s Nick Cowan, a supporter from Tetbury, who in 2009 told Chris he wanted to do the gruelling Ironman triathlon for them.
“I looked at him and I thought, ‘I don’t like to say it, but there’s no way you’d even run to Tetbury – so unfit!’ Chris laughs. “Eighteen months later, he’d lost all the weight; did a blog and raised us £10,000, purely because he had come on board to look round and was motivated to do it.
“Last year, we had a friend – a grandmother - who is scared of heights but decided to do a sky-jump for the charity, raising over £11,000. That’s what I call a brave lady.”
This year, the charity won a prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise, in the Innovation category. The commendation reads, “The Award, the UK’s highest accolade for business success, was made in recognition of Hope for Tomorrow’s achievements since its founder, Christine Mills, MBE, set up the charity with a single aim: to bring cancer care closer to patients.”
Christine Mills recalls Dr Sean’s one reservation. “How will I tell patients they’re having treatment in a van?” he asked. Then she looks round her latest state-of-the-art, heated and fully air-conditioned unit, and smiles. “I took a unit once to Westonbirt School, for people to look around, and a little girl of about eight came on board. She said, ‘It’s so homely in here’. She asked if cancer was catching, so I explained not, and showed her where all the drugs went to help people who were ill. When I’d finished, she skipped off down the steps and said, ‘It’s a better-bus’”.
Hope for Tomorrow is seeking funds to upgrade its existing Gloucestershire mobile unit, ‘Helen’, after nine years of service, to one of its new, second-generation vehicles. Nearly £70,000 of the £247,500 total needed has been raised and the charity hopes to achieve its target in time for ‘Helen’s’ birthday in February 2017. To find out more about Hope for Tomorrow - as a patient, volunteer or fundraiser - visit the website or call 01666 505055.