An inspiring nursing student has graduated from Swansea University, dedicating this remarkable achievement to her late sister, who, in the weeks before she tragically passed away, penned a heartfelt congratulatory card.
Catherine Jones, 32, from Pembroke, was in the first year of her BSc Adult Nursing degree when she recognised concerning symptoms in her sister, Emily Winterford.
Amidst the backdrop of the Covid pandemic, with the complexities of lockdowns and limited face-to-face consultations, Catherine saw first-hand how difficult it was for her sister to get answers.
“Emily was pregnant during Covid when access to her local GP surgery was extremely difficult, but after numerous phone calls, she was finally seen and diagnosed with a thrombosed haemorrhoid,” said Catherine.
“She was told she’d be able to get treatment once the baby was born, but this did not happen, and after several appointments and trips to A&E, we were still not being taken seriously.
“The pain she was experiencing was far beyond what they had said it was, and I started to become concerned that she had been misdiagnosed.”
Now in the second year of her degree, Catherine was determined to use her growing knowledge to advocate for her sister to receive an urgent medical investigation.
“One night, she was in the bath trying to ease the pain, and I thought, enough is enough. I picked her up and took her to the hospital,” said Catherine.
“With Covid still rife, I couldn’t go in with her, so I wrote on a piece of paper, ‘She has been diagnosed with a thrombosed haemorrhoid, but I want her checked for anal cancer’ and gave it to the receptionist.
“Thankfully, the triage nurse said I would be able to come in to support Emily, who was extremely distressed, as she had seen her many times before and was shocked at how long they had left her like this.”
After hours of waiting, Emily was seen by a junior doctor, only to be told she was on the colorectal waiting list and would need to wait for an appointment.
“I didn’t accept this, and after they realised we wouldn’t be leaving until we saw a consultant, the doctor agreed to escalate Emily’s case.”
The next day, Emily was sent for urgent biopsies, revealing an 8 cm tumour in her anal canal that had spread to the lymph nodes in the groin.
Catherine immediately stepped in to support her sister, taking her to medical appointments and looking after Emily’s two children, Roxanna and Sapphire, aged one and six at the time, all while fulfilling her demanding 2,300 placement hours and juggling her responsibilities as a student and parent.
“Everyone used to say, ‘I don’t know how you’re doing it. You must be shattered’, but at the time, I wasn’t. I think it was the adrenaline,” said Catherine.
“Before she got sick, Emily was always the one looking after me. I didn’t realise how spoilt I was until she became poorly, and I had to become the ‘big sister’.”
Sadly, Emily’s condition quickly deteriorated, and she was moved to a hospice in Llanelli, where, in June, at the age of 33, she died surrounded by her loved ones.
Despite the immense personal loss, Catherine was determined to honour Emily’s wishes.
“It was important to her that I not give up on my degree, but it wasn’t easy, and I couldn’t have done it without the support I received from the University, especially from my academic tutor, Sara Newell.
“If I needed to sort placements or extensions, she was there to help, knowing what I needed before I did,” said Catherine. “If I hadn’t had Sara in my corner, I would have deferred and not come back.”
Sara Newell, a lecturer in Nursing from the School of Health and Social Care, said:
“Cath has remained extremely professional and positive during her time at Swansea University. She has reflected on her own and Emily’s very difficult experiences with a determination to be the best nurse she can be.
“She is passionate about advocating for those people and their families who may not be able to do this for themselves. I and all the teaching team at St David’s Park campus are so very proud of her.”
Realising she wouldn’t be there to celebrate in person, Emily wanted to make sure her little sister would know how proud she was.
“She wrote me a card to read after I finished my studies,” said Catherine. “It means the world to me because, at the point in which she wrote it, she was happy knowing one day I would graduate.
“If she were still here, she would have been cheering the loudest, more excited than if it was her graduation.”
Catherine, who is in the process of becoming the legal guardian of her nieces, is now working at Surehaven Pembroke Dock, a mental health unit.
“I love my job, and if there is a positive to what my family has had to go through, it is my commitment to advocating the best way I can for my patients, ensuring others don’t endure the challenges my sister had to face.”