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Paddy and his "labradorable" canine partner

“Melvin would vigorously lick me 30 minutes before I had a seizure. Melvin and I haven’t just bonded, we are welded together. Life is so much better now.”

Former RAF Pilot Paddy Blair was partnered with his new best friend Melvin in 2015, thanks to a partnership between military charity Help for Heroes and Canine Partners.

This is Paddy's story:

I flew Tornado F3 fighters in the Royal Air Force until I had a severe traumatic brain injury whilst on operations.  Unfortunately this left me with uncontrolled epilepsy, as well as poor balance and co-ordination.  This and the myriad of other brain injury problems, led to me being medically discharged from the job that I loved.

Paddy And Melvin

Suddenly, life had dramatically changed for the worse. I had only seconds of warning before a seizure, which didn’t give enough time for emergency medication to take effect.  I was constantly injuring myself in falls, resulting in a dislocated shoulder a number of times and my vision and hearing suffered permanent damage.  My wife works full-time and she hated leaving me alone, having previously returned home to find me in status epilepticus – a life-threatening series of seizures.

I struggled with my loss of independence and hated being reliant upon others, yet found day-to-day tasks very difficult to do on my own.  I walk with a stick and my injury is invisible, so people naturally assume I am mobile and have little wrong with me.  I therefore found it difficult to go anywhere with lots of people as my wonky brain found the multiple visual and audio inputs overwhelming.  Getting out became a nightmare for me and life really wasn’t good.

I first heard of Canine Partners during a stay at one of the Help for Heroes Recovery Centres.  I was relaxing with fellow injured veterans one evening when up drove a colourful van containing a team of very friendly and enthusiastic people.  Even more friendly and enthusiastic were the Canine Partners demonstration dogs that followed!  I will never forget that evening - not only was I enthralled by what these dogs could do but also the obvious joy they got from doing it.  Having a huge doggy cuddle later might just have bought a tear to my eye and I applied to Canine Partners the next day.

As the number of dogs that Canine Partners can train is dictated by fundraising and the number of applicants is high, the application process inevitably took some time. I was really impressed by how much detail the assessment team went into, ensuring that a canine partner would not only benefit me, but also that I and my family were capable of looking after such a valuable and amazing dog. However, eventually I got THAT call – Canine Partners thought they had a dog that would be a good partner for me and wanted to bring him to meet me. As our ‘first date’ approached, I really was quite nervous – what would we think of each other, how would the dog react to me, what would the trainer think of me?

The day arrived and went fantastically well from the minute a gangly black dog carefully jumped out of the car on command and sat beside his trainer.  This was Melvin, a Labrador x golden retriever and we hit it off straight away.  His trainer had us carry out some basic manoeuvres together to see how we worked as a team and then we had some fun playing in the garden. He was very relaxed yet careful, almost as if he knew he had to be good. I noticed that every time I asked him to do something, he would do it straight away but always glance to his trainer to check this was okay. I wondered if I would ever have such a bond with this handsome boy. Thankfully, the trainer thought we were a great match and booked us on a residential training course at Canine Partners Southern Centre.

Residential training was challenging, tiring, busy and hard work, yet one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Melvin’s trainer and the whole team at Canine Partners were utterly focused on forming the best possible bond and working partnership between us. What’s more, the other new partnerships on the course inspired, encouraged and helped each other.

We were taught how to handle our dogs in a variety of situations and places, how to look after their health and wellbeing as well as the best way to give them the right amount of exercise. We worked on tasks specific to our disabilities, in my case Melvin had been taught how to set off our home alert system, bring my meds bag, retrieve things I had dropped, bring the phone and tug me upright after falling. His general behaviour was impeccable and he quickly enjoyed having fun and cuddles with me, despite the fact he was going through huge changes in his own life.

Although Canine Partners do not train seizure detection dogs, their training procedures form a very strong bond between dog and human.  I quickly noticed that Melvin vigorously licked me about 30 minutes before I had a seizure during the course, an action that was encouraged and greatly rewarded.  After those two weeks, I felt ready and prepared to take my canine partner home.

This was a time of change for all of us as a family. Having an assistance dog brings huge benefits but also a heavy sense of responsibility and I wanted to get it right. Canine Partners use aftercare trainers to help you establish your partnership at home and continue to train together. Hearing that we were doing things right and that Melvin was settling in well really boosted my confidence.

Since then our relationship has gone from strength to strength and my wife recently commented that Melvin and I aren’t just bonded, we are welded together! Melvin continues to alert me to seizures, crucially allowing my emergency meds to work and enabling me to get to safety and privacy before they strike. This has meant much less damage to myself during seizures and I am safe in the knowledge he can set off our home alert system if the need arises.

Melvin has given me a new sense of independence.  We go out together by ourselves and have even flown to see family alone.  My wife knows absolutely that Melvin will look after me after when she is not there.  Melvin’s presence in his smart Canine Partners purple jacket has changed my outlook to public busy places.  He seems to clear a path ahead of us and as I am concentrating on him, my brain is affected by the stimuli much less. 

Life is so much better now – it is easier, less stressful and a whole lot more fun. I look after Melvin and Melvin looks after me; we are a partnership, a canine partnership.

Grant Funding from Help for Heroes has allowed Canine Partners to successfully pair up 9 injured Servicemen and women with dogs who have had a remarkable impact on their lives. Since 2010, Help for Heroes have grant funded £156,500 to Canine Partners.

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Injured veterans perform in Shakespearian Play

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A group of injured veterans will be swapping military uniform for Shakespearian costumes when they perform in the production of Richard III in Leicester Square next month. Help for Heroes has awarded a £20,000 grant to support this production.

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Formed in 2011, the Combat Veterans Players’ Company (CVP) is a theatre company composed of a diverse range of ex-Service personnel from different branches of the military who have come together to overcome mental trauma, injury and related difficulties through immersion in drama, the development of acting skills and vital performances of Shakespeare’s plays.

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In a production part-funded by Help for Heroes, the CVP will be performing in Leicester square on Thursday 7 July at 1845. They also performed in Stratford-upon-Avon last week which was a roaring success.

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Shaun Johnson, who plays Richard, saw action in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles of the 1980s. Formerly with the Royal Artillery, Shaun served eight years with a field regiment and three years with a ceremonial mounted regiment. He now suffers from PTSD but says being a member of the cast is helping him with his PTSD and hypervigilance.

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He said: “I was a very different person when I left the military. I drifted, failed to connect, drank and became very depressed. After two suicide attempts and spending 10 weeks in a secure hospital, I finally began to live again. My wife Joan played a crucial role in my recovery and stayed with me through all the struggles: without her, I doubt I would be here today. She made me open up and face my mental health problems. I joined the CVP in 2010 and have literally taken off in a different direction. Confident, safe and in love with life again.”

He said he felt a special affinity with this play due to similarities with his own experiences.

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“The fact that Shakespeare wrote at a time of great religious division resonated with me too,” he explained. “As a Catholic myself, I struggled to make sense of the religious divide when on tours of duty in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s. My mental battle started even before I  left England to fly to Belfast, since my grandmother was of Irish Catholic descent and often scolded me for “fighting my own”, as she put it. I wasn’t the only one affected by such pressures; some soldiers I knew were completely cut off by their families when they returned from their tours of duty in Northern Ireland.”

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They play will feature 20 wounded, injured and sick veterans.

To watch the performance at Leicester Square, call 020 7734 2222 or click here. Tickets cost £15. 

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Archery has given me back my life

Lee Patmore Preparing To Shoot From A Longbow . Image Darren Raymond Photography

When Navy veteran Lee Patmore picks up an archery bow all his problems disappear. Not only is the 40 year old, from Basildon, celebrating becoming a GB archery instructor after Help for Heroes supported Lee with grant funding for his equipment and training but he is also succeeding in his new role as an Inclusion Co-ordinator for The Brentwood Centre and encouraging others living with disabilities to take up sport.

It's a million miles away from Lee’s previous career prior to becoming ill; Growing up, he had set his heart on following his grandfather’s footsteps by joining the Armed  Forces. His grandad was in the RAF so Lee joined the Air Cadets as a boy but decided a life at sea was more appealing and proudly joined the Navy in 1996.

Lee, a father of three and lives with his partner and three step children, served on HMS Gloucester (a Type 42 Destroyer) as an Operator Maintainer Above Water Warfare (first class) (OMAWW) and enjoyed his life on the waves. When the opportunity to join his younger brother on HMS Edinburgh presented itself, Lee was excited at the chance, and the two brothers were looking forward to serving together. It was while Lee was on his OM 1 course before embarking on HMS Edinburgh that he got injured. His back buckled under the pressure of the intense training. Along with back pain he had other symptoms which have recently been diagnosed as ME and Fibromyalgia, a long-term condition that causes pain all over the body. Lee tried to carry on but the pain made it impossible, meaning he would not have the chance to serve with his brother.

The timing could not have been worse. Lee had just got married, was living in married quarters and expecting his first son. A medical discharge loomed over his head but Lee desperately wanted to stay doing the job he loved. He had no choice, however, and left the Navy, his job and colleagues in 1999.

A difficult transition

Lee found the transition from military life to civilian life incredibly hard. It was such a big adjustment. Not only had he left the job he had set his heart on but was in constant pain to the point he was prescribed morphine to dull it. Lee, who before getting ill was active and sporty, had given up all his hobbies including rock climbing.  He became angry and verbally aggressive as his frustrations and the chronic illnesses grew and grew.

Lee retreated and sat at home for three years playing computer games due to pain, tiredness and finding that at the time it was all he could cope with.  

However, this was not a life that Lee envisaged for himself and he knew he had to do something to change it.

Lee recalls: “I had always loved archery as a child so I decided I would join a local archery club and try it. Picking up the bow relaxed me and I felt at peace again for the first time in a very long time. I never experienced anything like it.”

Just as Lee had found something to focus on he quickly discovered a problem. Walking to pick up the arrows gave him searing, unbearable pain despite walking with crutches and he began to think that even this sport was out of bounds for him.

“I realised at that moment I had a choice; either accept I needed a wheelchair, continue archery and being active in life or go back to sitting in my bedroom. I chose the wheelchair. Archery had to come first before my personal fears.”

Help for Heroes grant funded Lee’s wheelchair but adapting to life as a wheelchair user was another challenge he faced: “I was conscious of the chair and I felt everyone was staring at me so I taught myself how to wheelie. I thought somehow it would make me look cool. It’s a bad habit which I still do but now I don’t mind people looking.”

H4H grant funds and new qualifications 

Lee discovered he was a natural at archery and began a plan to get fit. After failing to find a trained disability gym instructor in his area Lee applied for further H4H funding to become one himself via the InstructAbility Scheme and completed the Help for Heroes Personal Trainer diploma too. These new qualifications landed him a new job at The Brentwood Centre as an Inclusion Co-ordinator and Lee is proud to be able to support others living with disabilities to get involved in sport.

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But it is archery that gets Lee out of bed each day and he has recently qualified as a GB Archery instructor: “My journey has been unbelievable. It has been a bad road; but archery gave me my life back." Lee added, “Sport is a key to recovery. It doesn’t matter how I’m feeling or what has recently happened, it’s all gone when I pick up my bow and reach for my next arrow to load onto the bowstring.” Lee will be the first to admit, that since the start of his recovery, everything is linked to archery in one way or another. Lee also works at Now Strike Archery, where he has learnt the skills to make traditional Longbows and to hand make traditional Medieval style Arrows.

Giving back - Lee's next challenge!

To give back to Help for Heroes Lee and two fellow Veterans one who is also another H4H Band of Brothers will cycle over 1300 miles from John o Groats to Land’s End next year. Lee will complete the challenge in a recumbent handcycle using only his arms to power the bike for the whole journey and will visit all of the Help for Heroes Recovery Centres on route.  If you would like to support Lee or read more about this cycle you can visit the JustGiving page

There are many more wounded injured and sick veterans like Lee who may need support in the years to come. In a recent study launched in January 2016 by Help for Heroes and King’s College London found of the 750,000 men and women who served as Regulars between 1991 and 2014, at least 66,000 need long term support. To find out what support is available visit our Get Support pages.

Fisher House has now provided the equivalent of 11,000 nights of accommodation for military families.

When Military Nurse Elisabeth Burns undertook fundraising for Fisher House back in 2012, she had no way of knowing that only three years later the house would be there in her own family’s time of need.

Since opening in April 2013, Fisher House UK has provided the equivalent of over 11,000 nights of accommodation for military patients being treated at the Queen Elizabeth (QE) Hospital Birmingham and their loved ones. The house, a ‘home away from home’ for military patients and families, stands on the same site as the QE, which is home to the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine and is the primary receiving hospital for UK military personnel when they are injured or fall ill anywhere around the world.

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Over the years, Fisher House has accommodated over two thousand military patients and their families, allowing family members to be close by to their loved ones whilst they are in hospital. For most of the people staying, it is the serving member of the Armed Forces who is the patient, but sometimes, when space allows, it can be the military personnel staying in Fisher House whilst their family member is being treated.

That’s what happened for Elisabeth Burns, an RAF Emergency Nurse Specialist, who was able to stay in Fisher House for two months when her mother, Janice, received treatment at the QE following a heart attack in September 2015.

Elisabeth was in Germany with the RAF when she received news that her mother had suffered a heart attack and had been taken to the QE to undergo and recover from bypass surgery.

Elisabeth rushed back to England, and whilst her mum was at the QE, Elisabeth was able to stay at Fisher House, a five minute walk from the hospital. This meant she could be with her mum whenever possible, visiting the Critical Care and Cardiac wards where her mum was treated. She was able to visit at least four times a day during the two months she stayed in the house.

Fisher House Exterior

Elisabeth said: “It was in the aftermath of Mum’s surgery that Fisher House really helped me. My mum became quite unwell and was in Critical Care for over two weeks. Being at Fisher House meant I could be there for her 24/7. As she started on the road to recovery, it was so helpful being able to see her multiple times a day and it meant I could be there whenever she needed anything. I spent some time working clinically in the hospital as Mum’s recovery progressed, and being at Fisher House meant that I could visit her every lunchtime and at the end of my shift as well as going back in the evening.

“The team at Fisher House were there for me right from the start, supporting both my mum and me.

“It was such a relief not to have to worry about the day-to-day things. When you’re going through something so mentally and emotionally draining, you don’t realise until it happens how challenging life becomes. This is when Fisher House and its staff are key to the whole process. The staff are always there with a listening ear, or a shoulder to cry on when things get tough. There are many times when you’re on an emotional rollercoaster and they are always there for you. The support of the other families staying at Fisher House is also significant to your wellbeing, especially when you’re going through a bad day or week as each family supports the other families through it, which is unparalleled, knowing you are not alone in your experience.”

Fisher House - Living Area

The relief that Fisher House was able to provide for Elisabeth and her family was all the more significant given that only three years previously, as so many other Armed Forces personnel had done, she participated in fundraising for Fisher House along with friends and colleagues whilst it was still being built!

“Back in 2012 I took part in a stretcher run, transporting a lifelike dummy which weighed approximately 60kg on a stretcher, all the way from Birmingham Airport to the QE - the journey that most military patients follow - a total distance of 12 miles,” Elisabeth said of her fundraising efforts. “Obviously, I had no idea that one day I would need Fisher House myself.”

Elisabeth’s mum left the hospital in mid-November 2015. At this point Elisabeth had been staying in Fisher House for two months, and had also started volunteering to assist in welcoming people to the house, saying fondly that she almost became “part of the furniture” by the end.

“I can’t emphasise enough how important Fisher House is to the families, in terms of the support they provide and the closeness of its proximity to the hospital. Whilst it is not a situation you would ever choose to be in, the house certainly provided me with the best place for me to be able to look after my mum.

“Please consider giving your support to Fisher House, which relies entirely on charitable donations, and the military families that depend on it.”

Over two thousand people have stayed in Fisher House since it opened in 2013. The house has eighteen fully-accessible en-suite bedrooms, designed with families in mind and each large enough to accommodate at least four people if need be. It is completely free to use for military patients and families, and has taken residents ranging in age from one month to 96 years.

Fisher House - Family Room

Fisher House recently achieved an important milestone, and QEHB Charity is proud to say the house has now provided the equivalent of 11,000 nights of accommodation for the hundreds of guests who have stayed; the house’s longest-serving resident was there for 18 months!

Mike Hammond, Chief Executive of QEHB Charity, said: “Enabling families to stay together whilst one of them is in hospital, potentially for an extended period of time, is really important. The last thing we want is for people to have to worry about paying for a hotel or travelling regularly from across the country to visit their loved ones. Normally, it is the patient who is from the military, with the family able to stay in Fisher House. For Elisabeth, we were delighted to have space to allow a military nurse to stay at Fisher House whilst her loved one was being treated. Donations to help keep Fisher House going are vital, and I want to thank everyone who had given so far – we couldn’t do it without you.”

Bryn Parry, CEO and Co-Founder of Help for Heroes, said: “Families have a hugely important part to play in the recovery process and we recognise how essential it is that they receive tangible support. Medical treatment is still ongoing for those who have suffered life-changing injuries and we always knew Fisher House was a facility that needed long term support. To reach the 11,000 nights landmark is testament to this ongoing need. Fisher House is helping to alleviate the burdens that Britain’s military families face and long may it continue.”

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Jo Butterfield thanks H4H staff following selection for ParalympicsGB

Jo Butterfield will represent her country following selection in Athletics for ParalympicsGB at Rio 2016, with support from Help for Heroes.

“I just want to say a big thank you to everybody that does everything behind the scenes.  There’s no glory in sitting at your computer but actually, without what you do, I’ll never be able to do what I do, so thank you very much.”

Jo worked alongside the British Army; it was in January 2010 that she discovered that she had a tumour on her spinal cord.  After a scan Jo was taken for surgery where she was told there was a 0.01% chance of paralysis, she woke up paralysed from the waist down.

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“I’m paralysed kind of from the chest down, so it affects all four limbs.  I have a little bit of movement in my thumbs but not really anything much more than that.  I have very weak triceps.  So it does kind of affect everything that I do, but I am independent and able to live a pretty normal life to be honest.  I do everything that I did before and a whole lot more, so I can’t complain.”

Jo began her rehab in hospital.

“You don’t want to be in hospital for six months, but through it we did sport every Wednesday.  And I was one to try everything.  It was a chance to be able to not sit and do stretches on the physio bed, it was to actually do something fun.”

She went to the Spinal Games which takes place every year where every spinal unit in the country competes against each other at a variety of sports. There Jo made it her mission to try every single sport from pool to bowling to swimming. 

“I just loved the experience and realised that I could still have fun.  And there was one day in the spinal unit where we had a group of volunteers to do wheelchair rugby.  And I think that I knew I would love wheelchair rugby.”

After a particularly bad day of pain and spasms, Jo was persuaded into a wheelchair to try wheelchair rugby.

“Eventually I got in and within 10 seconds my face was beaming.  I absolutely loved it, I fell in love with it there and then.  I think that was the first moment that I realised that I could do something dangerous; I could do something exciting and I didn’t have to be wrapped up in cotton wool; I didn’t’ have to be protected all the time and I could do something aggressive and actually competitive.”

Six months later and after leaving hospital, Jo joined a local wheelchair rugby team and later became their Vice-Captain.

“I met a guy called Michael Kerr who plays for Great Britain and we started training every day.  And I realised that I was enjoying the training more than actually the work I was doing.  It was him that said to me “this could be your profession”.  To cut a long story short, I got accepted on a Girls4Gold programme with UK Sport and British Athletics and they looked at a talent transfer to British Athletics for seating throwing and very quickly I sort of realised that this was something I was quite good at and within 18 months I was sort of competing at world level.”

In 2014 Jo was classified as a F51 athlete and began competing in regional meets in both the discus and club throw events. In August that year she was selected for the Great Britain team to compete at the 2014 IPC Athletics European Championships. There she competed in the F32/51 club throw, and set a new European record winning gold.

The following year Jo travelled to Dubai to take part in the Fazaa International. She won the F32/33/51 discus beating the previous F51 European record by 27 centimetres. She also improved on her European record in the club with a throw of 19.69 which saw her take gold. In July Butterfield competed in her third IPC Grand Prix of the year, held at the Olympic Park in London where she won both the discus and club throw.

Earlier this month (June 2016) she reclaimed her European title in the F32/51 club throw at the IPC European Championships in Grosseto, Italy where she threw a World Record.

The support provided to Jo forms part of Help for Heroes’ partnership with The British Paralympic Association and UK Sport to introduce military personnel to Paralympic Sport.

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