I am always asked by people how I came to be the owner of Longcroft Luxury Cat Hotel in Pamber Heath. The answer is not a short one I’m afraid, but if you are interested, here’s a little story for you …
At the age of 26, having previously worked in a Psychiatric unit and then as a support worker for Mencap, I had moved from Hampshire to Wales with my partner and cats and was slogging through my final year of a Psychology degree at Swansea University. We were delighted when I discovered I was pregnant and agreed that we could just about make it work through my final year of uni, working around my partners’ shifts and my studies with a new baby.
Everything changed though when my 20 week scan revealed that my baby had a very serious congenital abdominal condition called Gastroschisis, which, as I quickly learned, meant that his small bowel was on the outside of his body. The shock of finding out such news is life-altering and devastating in equal measures. There was nothing I could do whilst pregnant except keep healthy and busy, so I continued my studies in between numerous scans and hospital check-ups. When I went into labour 6 weeks early, there were no special care baby beds available in Wales and I was taken by ambulance to Birmingham Women’s Hospital where my son Lucas was born by emergency caesarean.
He was immediately taken away from us and transferred to Birmingham Children’s Hospital, where he had his first operation of many at just a couple of hours old, his condition far worse than any of the scans had prepared us or the doctors for. To cut a very, very long story short, we spent the next 8 months living in hospital with Lucas while he battled for his life, enduring several operations, countless life-threatening infections and a desperate fight by the doctors to save his small bowel. He ultimately lost almost all but 10% of his small bowel and was fed intravenously, directly into his bloodstream via an intravenous line into a vein near his heart, thus totally bypassing his dysfunctional digestive system. Whilst fulfilling his complete nutritional needs intravenously, this method of nutrition (known as TPN) is also dangerous to other organs, and before long, Lucas was diagnosed with liver disease and several other complications.
And so it went on for 5 months at Birmingham Children’s Hospital before being transferred closer to our families to Great Ormond Street Hospital in London for another 3 months. Obviously, my degree was now a thing of the past – no longer either possible, or remotely important. During this time, Lucas’ health became more stable, and we were taught how to connect Lucas to his TPN machines at home. It was the most daunting, and wholly responsible thing I’ve ever had to learn, with life-threatening consequences for Lucas if either of us got it wrong, but by this stage, we just wanted to take him home, and I would have done anything! Living in a hospital for 8 months is a VERY long time! Luckily, our lovely neighbours in Wales had been looking after our cats, but I missed them terribly and was delighted to be reunited with them when we finally got out of hospital and moved back to Hampshire again.
When Lucas was a toddler, his dad and I parted ways, still the very best of friends, but the next several years coping, essentially as a single mum were very hard. Lucas and his health were the only priorities in my life and our lives pretty much revolved around Lucas’ healthcare regime, connecting him to his machines each night and traipsing to various different specialist hospitals during the day as well as more emergency situations than I could count. Lucas started school, but rarely made it through a week without missing days due to appointments or ill-health.
We were told by his consultants at Great Ormond Street that it was unlikely that the tiny scrap of small bowel that Lucas had left would ever adapt enough for him to absorb the nutrients from actual food enough to sustain him without the TPN. However, I wanted to try. I wanted Lucas to not give up and not limit the possibilities of his future without trying. So began a battle of wills for several years, with me encouraging Lucas to eat actual food, and Lucas resisting – not enjoying food – having missed out on that vital ‘critical period’ of learning to eat when he was a baby. It was a very slow burn, but Lucas eventually started to enjoy a very small selection of specific foods and we built on that, day-by-day, week-by-week and month-by-month until Lucas was able to eat enough food to enjoy the odd night TPN-free. It was this that spurred him on to keep trying to eat more and different foods. He loved the freedom of not being connected to a feeding pump at bedtime – being able to get up and go the loo without having to drag his rucksack containing his TPN and his pump behind him (it was too heavy for him to lift for years!) Not having to worry about whether his lines were going to get wrapped around his body or neck during the night when he turned over and risk pulling his line out of his heart.
Fast forward to an 11 year old Lucas. By this time I had met and married my wonderful husband Elliot, who totally supported Lucas and I in every way, and we had moved to Tadley, near Basingstoke. Lucas’ nights off TPN were becoming more the norm and we were managing weeks where he was only connected 2 or 3 nights. His consultant at Great Ormond Street was now very optimistic for his future, and wanted us to try and take him off of the TPN completely! I was scared. Really scared that it would all go wrong, but by now, Lucas was eating well and was still gaining weight despite only being connected a few times a week and he was keen to try as well. So we took the plunge and tried – and Lucas flew!
Lucas had done it and he had his permanent central line removed from his heart in time for starting secondary school. We hired a venue and had a huge ‘Line-Out’ party for him, joined by all of the amazing people that had supported us along the way. Nurses, teachers, friends and family all celebrated ‘the impossible’ with us. Lucas still suffered from some complications, and we came very close to losing him a year later when a routine operation to remove a kidney stone (another complication) went very wrong and he ended up back in intensive care in a coma for 3 days. Of course, Lucas being Lucas, he pulled through and within 2 weeks was running cross-country in P.E – ever the fighter!
I’m glad to say that Lucas, now 15 enjoys good health, eating us out of house and home (he needs twice the calories of an adult to keep him going) and is excelling at school. Having somehow caught up with all of his lost school time, he’s pursuing his dream of becoming a doctor! We couldn’t be prouder of the lovely, resilient and charming young man that he’s become. He is far and away, the bravest person I have ever known. It’s a really, truly happy ending, but one that left me with a real dilemma. After years of being Lucas’ carer, becoming an expert in all of his conditions, monitoring every aspect of his physical health and endlessly coordinating with several hospitals and healthcare practitioners at once – what on earth was I going to do now?
I’d always been sad that I had just missed out on completing my Psychology degree, so I enrolled with the Open University and embarked on doing that. However, so much time had lapsed since I’d left university that I wasn’t able to pick up where I left off, and I was facing a daunting 3 years of studying at home to complete my degree. For about 8 months I gave it my best shot, but I’d lost my passion for it and it all felt like a terrible chore that I just wasn’t enjoying. In June 2013, during the period where I was considering my options, I happened to watch a programme on Channel 4 called ‘Compare your life’ which featured Longcroft at Welwyn Garden City.
Elliot was at work when I was watching it, but it caught my attention immediately. I re-wound it and re-watched it several times. I looked it up on the internet and spent ages pouring over the lovely website. I was sold! Cats had always been an important part of my life and I had rescued several. My beloved cat Millie had my heart and I had always felt an affinity with cats that I probably don’t need to explain to you readers – you get it – you either totally love cats or you don’t – it’s hard to be ambiguous in any way about them. Longcroft had everything that any discerning cat-owner would wish for their precious cats, and I completely understood what they were about. When Elliot returned from work I excitedly showed it to him. He came up with lots of reasons why it might not be a great idea (we’d have to move house for a bigger garden etc. etc.) but I let the idea sit with him for a while. The summer passed and it was still on my mind all of the time, so I got in touch with the Longcroft team and we were invited to an Open Day at Welwyn Garden City in September 2013. I was already certain that this is what I wanted to do, but the visit convinced Elliot too, and after many, serious discussions with Elliot and the Longcroft team, we put our house on the market in October 2013 and began the search for another home suitable for us and for Longcroft.
Finally, in April 2014 we moved house, just a mile up the road from Tadley to Pamber Heath. It was a lovely property but needed complete renovations to modernise the house. Between April and September Elliot and I had never worked harder, renovating the house and preparing the garden for the Longcroft build. We wanted every detail to be just perfect. We were finally ready to open in September 2014 with a joyous, sunny open day and I’ve never looked back. Longcroft means the world to me. It symbolises my deep love of all things feline, as well as enabling me to be at home, supporting Lucas with anything he needs. More importantly, after years of being only ‘poor Lucas’ mum’ I felt that I had pretty much lost my own identity. Longcroft has brought me back out into the world and has given it back. I now proudly run my own business and every day I get to meet people that love cats like I do and I get to help them, to allay their fears, worries and guilt about leaving their beloved kitties behind while they have a holiday, move house, have renovations done etc. It is my perfect job, and how many people can say that?
You can find me most of the time at the end of my garden in my beautiful Cat Hotel, cuddling gorgeous cats and pinching myself that it’s all real. Sometimes, just occasionally…
Owner, Longcroft Luxury Cat Hotel Pamber Heath