Why Michelle Thompson BEM is passionate about standing up for patients

INSPIRED by her sister who died of cancer at the age of 18, epic Macmillan fundraiser Michelle Thompson is on a mission to ensure patient voices are at the heart of NHS decision making.

AS a tourist in London she used to hold onto the railings and crane her head to try and catch a glimpse inside Buckingham Palace and now, here she was, on the arm of her husband Mick being ushered through the golden gates as VIP guests of the Queen at her garden party in the summer of 2013 after being awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM).

“My challenges are always in memory of my beautiful, brave little sister, but also to prove to the thousands of people who hear those dreaded words “I’m afraid you’ve got cancer”, that you can get better and it can change your life in such a positive way.”

She is so proud of the recognition for her volunteer services to charity and the community in Darlington and County Durham that she wears the mini version of her accolade on her suit lapel everyday and her car even has a personalised BEM numberplate.

But memories of that magical day on the Queen’s sprawling lawns still brings tears to her eyes because they remind her of the loved one who inspired it all – her sister Jeanette, known as Jinny.

Michelle was an office manager with a toddler and a husband working away from home when her youngest sibling was given the shock news that she had bone cancer aged just 17.

MOTIVATION: Michelle Thompson's younger sister, Jinny, died of bone cancer as a teenager.

MOTIVATION: Michelle Thompson’s younger sister, Jinny, died of bone cancer as a teenager.

The last 12 months of Jinny’s life were traumatic – she was sectioned due to the effects of the chemotherapy drugs and Michelle suffered two miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy.

Following Jinny’s death Michelle put the needs of her family first and became a full-time mum to Emily, now 23, and Billy, 17, but was dealt another devastating blow when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer 11 years ago after finding a lump in her neck.

A friend of Macmillan Cancer Support since it had cared for her sister, Michelle has been approached by one of its nurses after a hospital appointment one day before she returned home to find the charity’s newsletter on the doormat promoting a trek along the Inca Trail in Peru.

She said: “I thought this is one way of saying “thank you” for looking after my sister. It was a goal to aim for because I did not know if I was going to live or die and it was a way of raising money to help people going through the same as me.”

What began as a “thank you” has led to her raising more than £200,000 for Macmillan and becoming one of its ambassadors, telling her moving story to thousands of people up and down the country. Her epic fundraising challenges have included eight Great North Runs, the London Marathon, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, cycling 500 miles across Vietnam and 450 miles across Africa.

“I remember standing at the top of Dead Woman’s Pass on the Inca Trail, looking across the Andes Mountains,”” she explained. “It was the most exhilarating thing and it made me realise that cancer had changed my life for the better.

“My sister used to say that she did not have a voice and no one would listen to her and that’s my motivation. I believe that everybody has the right for their voice to be listened to and that’s why I am at the heart of NHS decision making.”

“My challenges are always in memory of my beautiful, brave little sister, but also to prove to the thousands of people who hear those dreaded words “I’m afraid you’ve got cancer”, that you can get better and it can change your life in such a positive way.

“I’m passionate about raising funds for Macmillan Cancer Support who provide practical, medical, emotional and financial support to people affected by cancer. I know what it’s like to be on the outside looking in and also the inside looking out -they are two very different places.”

RECOGNITION: Michelle Thompson with her British Empire Medal for her volunteer services to charity and the community in Darlington and County Durham.

RECOGNITION: Michelle Thompson with her British Empire Medal for her volunteer services to charity and the community in Darlington and County Durham.

Quick questions with Michelle Thompson BEM

My favourite places to eat:

  • Robineaus Patisserie in Cockerton
  • The Bay Horse in Hurworth
  • Vesuvio’s in Darlington

Three people I’d like to work with:

  • Dolly Parton – hard working, family orientated, not afraid to be herself, stands up for what she believes in.
  • Hillary Clinton: Strong, ambitious and likes a challenge!
  • Nelson Mandela: Inspirational leader, courageous, passionate and made a difference to the world.

Underrated business skills:

  • Empathy – you have to stop, listen and understand the needs of the people who you come into contact with on an emotional level in order to make a difference to them and the service you provide.
  • “Service before self” is the Rotary International motto and as a member of The Rotary Club of Darlington, this resonates throughout my business and volunteering roles.
  • Integrity – underpins the morals and ethics of good business practice. People who practice these principles are honest and trustworthy and this is something I’m really passionate about both in my personal and business life.

Favourite quote:

“If you want what you’ve never had, you’ve got to do what you’ve never done”

With both children at school Michelle developed her leadership skills volunteering in Darlington as a PTA member at North Road Primary, chair of North Road Community Partnership and set up Darlington Fundraising Group.

She also became Lay Member for Patient and Public Involvement at Darlington Clinical Commissioning Group where she ensures that in the business of buying health services, patient voices are heard at the heart of decision making.

“There are so many volunteers who do an amazing job, they’re our unsung community heroes, that’s why I’m so proud of the awards I’ve received and I simply wouldn’t have been able to do it without the immense support of people along the way,” said Michelle who was presented with the prestigious Douglas Macmillan award, named after the cancer charity’s founder as well as being runner up in the Sun newspaper and ASDA Wondermum Awards.

She was also chair of Darlington LINk before being chair and director of Healthwatch Darlington which, after 11 years of charity and community volunteering across the town, gave her a salary when she was appointed as its part time CEO a year ago.

It was the first Healthwatch in the North-East to become an independent charity striving to shape and improve local health and social care with the mission statement “No matter who you are, where you live, or how old you are, you have a voice, and you have the right for that voice to be heard”.

“When we went to Buckingham Palace and we walked into the garden I was crying because I kept on thinking “I’m going to get found out because I shouldn’t be here”,” Michelle said.” I’m a country bumpkin from Appleton Wiske in North Yorkshire and Mick is from Newton Aycliffe! It was very emotional as we were there because of Jinny.

“During that year my sister was ill, my family entered into a nightmare world of chemotherapy, hospitals, doctors, heartbreak and hell. Jinny’s battle with cancer was the most inspiring, courageous fight I have ever seen and will never ever forget.

“My sister used to say that she did not have a voice and no one would listen to her and that’s my motivation. I believe that everybody has the right for their voice to be listened to and that’s why I am at the heart of NHS decision making.”

“It is vital for patients as well as their families and friends have a say. In meetings I am very professional but I’m not afraid to challenge.

“Whether I’m pushing myself to the limit doing fundraising challenges or challenging decision makers, Jinny is my motivation and the reason I will always be so passionate.”

CONTACT: 

Healthwatch Darlington : http://www.healthwatchdarlington.co.uk

Macmillan Cancer Support: http://macmillan.org.uk

 

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