BY MALACHY TALLACK
Sometimes, getting home is all that matters. And for Harry Robertson, of West Sandwick in Yell, that was certainly the case.
“This place is where I’ve been all my life,” he told me, “and to be anywhere else would have been no good. “
But getting home is not always an easy matter. Three years ago, in September 2007, Harry suffered a stroke. His speech was severely affected, as was his mobility. He lost the use of his right arm and leg. Things that had once been simple suddenly required tremendous effort; others became impossible. Every day was now a challenge.
The prospects, it seemed, were not good. Harry’s disabilities were so severe that it was considered impossible for him to ever go home again. After rehabilitation it was assumed he would be transferred to a care centre, where he could receive the kind of attention that he now needed. But despite the immense difficulties he faced Harry refused to give up. While in Montfield Hospital he was insistent: as soon as possible he was going home. And if going home meant getting better then that is exactly what he would do.
It soon became apparent though that willpower alone was not enough to get him back to Yell. Communicating was difficult – his speech was impaired and he could not use his hand for writing letters – which meant it was all too easy for others to ignore or dismiss Harry’s wishes and to make decisions on his behalf. Frustrated, he decided to ask for help.
“If people can speak up for themselves then that’s all well and good,” says Hazel Anderson. “But if you’re in a situation like Harry it’s far easier to be overlooked.”
Hazel works for Advocacy Shetland, an independent organisation that offers a voice to vulnerable people within the community. It was she who was called in, in April 2008, to assist Harry with getting himself heard and understood.
Immediately Hazel recognised the problems he was having, and why he was finding himself in conflict with the very people who were charged with providing his care.
“They expected him to perform in a particular fashion,” Hazel explained, “which didn’t fit with the way Harry wanted to live his life.”
Those making the decisions were working “in the client’s best interests”, she says. But in their analysis of what the patient needed, there was rarely sufficient consideration of what the patient wanted. And so began a long and difficult process – “a series of battles”, Hazel calls it – led by Harry and by Hazel as his advocate. She liaised with others on his behalf, contacted his solicitor and worked to get his voice heard by those making decisions about his care.
Partnership It was understood from the outset that the house in which Harry had previously lived, on his croft at Leady, was not going to be suitable for him to return to. It was on two floors, and would no longer be practical with his limited mobility.
Fortunately though, Harry owned another house – Houll – an old, single-storey cottage that he had already begun to refurbish before he became ill. He also had enough savings to pay for this work to be completed.
Hazel contacted Hjaltland Housing Association to ask for their assistance in getting this work done, which they agreed to undertake on an agency basis. Architects and a builder were needed to make the house suitable for habitation and to provide wheelchair access. Together with Hjaltland, and in regular consultation with Harry, plans were drawn up and builders were contracted. Things, on that side, were coming together.
For Harry too there was progress. His rehabilitation was going well, and in January of 2009 he was offered a place at North Haven Care Centre in Brae, which he accepted. Though others still did not see it that way, for him the move was a step towards home.
Inevitably though, problems still arose, and sometimes over the most surprising of things. One subject that still causes Hazel some consternation is the refusal of care staff to provide Harry with a wheelchair. Quite early on, he had decided that an electric wheelchair would be a positive way to improve his mobility. If he were to get home, life without it would be very difficult. But not everyone agreed.
“On the one hand they said he wasn’t well enough to go home,” Hazel says. “On the other they said he couldn’t have a wheelchair because he could walk.”
And so Harry was forced to buy his own wheelchair, with assistance from Hazel. She researched available models for him, as well as assessing costs and organising delivery, and in February of last year he became the owner of a two-speed electric power-chair, something which has helped him considerably in regaining his independence.
All through this process, which Hazel describes as “a partnership”, it has been Harry that has pushed things forward, with Advocacy Shetland providing as much support as he needed to get things done.
“It needs to be driven by [the client],” Hazel says. “If they want to do something and I’ve got the legislation behind me, then that’s what we’ll do.”
And, she adds, much of the resistance that’s been met with has been entirely unnecessary. “He wasn’t asking for anything that was impossible.
“There is a need for society as a whole and agencies in particular to acknowledge that just because someone has a disability that doesn’t mean that they don’t have hopes and dreams and wants. They need to see beyond the disability and see the person.”
Despite an unwillingness by some to even make the effort to communicate with Harry, neither he nor Hazel would allow this to slow down progress towards his ultimate goal.
Success Throughout last year, work continued at Houll. Harry and Hazel visited to see how the refurbishments were moving ahead, and to check the wheelchair accessibility.
The occupational therapist also attended to assess how the house could best meet Harry’s needs. Carpets and curtains were fitted; a BT line and home-link were connected; and despite a few last minute troubles, success was in sight.
Finally, on 18th August last year, Harry moved back to his own house in Yell, just two years after his illness first struck. According to Christine Brown, the manager at North Haven, he is the first person to have returned home after being admitted to the care centre following a stroke. A “unique case”, as Hazel says.
A care package was initially provided for him by the Nordalea care at home team, and more recently by the equivalent team from Isleshavn, but in his own home, Harry has found a level of independence that many felt he would never again manage to achieve. And since returning to Yell, his health has continued to improve.
Hazel still comes north to assist with ongoing issues that Harry might struggle to deal with alone, and to help him with making phone calls and writing letters. On the day we visited they discussed the sale of his house and croft and the decision to tar the track out to his house, as well a broken door handle that needed replaced. Hazel allows Harry to think things over, and when he’s made a decision they will work together towards a solution.
There is a sense, seeing Harry at home, that he has been given a new start. The stroke, which might have cost him his independence, has instead provided him with a series of challenges – challenges that he has been willing and able to take on. And all along, it has been the thought of coming home that has driven him on.
“I’ve fought my way back,” he says. “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Advocacy Shetland is a tiny organisation, employing only two staff and a small number of volunteers. But the group’s work has allowed Harry Robertson to achieve his ultimate goal, of getting back to the place he loves. The partnership between he and Hazel Anderson has clearly been a very productive one, and the case has been a tremendous success for both the organisation and the individuals involved.
“It’s been such a unique experience,” Hazel says. “I suppose it’s been a journey for me as well as for Harry.
“He’s some guy,” she added. “All things considered.”
Advocacy Shetland is currently looking to recruit volunteers. Anyone interested in finding out more should contact them on (01595) 743929 or at firstname.lastname@example.org