A Bradford doctor has recently spent time as a volunteer medic with Dame Ellen MacArthur’s cancer charity.
Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust’s Renal Consultant, Dr Russell Roberts, spent time on a flotilla of yachts in the Solent, helping the charity which aims to inspire young people, aged between eight-to-24-years-old, who have had cancer to see that there is a brighter future through sailing and outdoor adventure.
Dr Roberts explained: “When treatment ends, that’s when the work of the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust begins as the charity takes children and young adults, who have experienced cancer, on sailing trips as a strategy to help them believe in a better future.
“It’s not just about sailing, it’s about bringing the young people together.
“The more I learnt about their work, the more inspired I was. It was very moving being with the children – initially, I thought it would be something fun – but I was very moved by the young people on the trip, their stories and their treatment.”
For Dr Roberts, who is married to recently-retired Bradford Royal Infirmary (BRI) Elderly Care Consultant, ELiz Brierley, it was a deeply personal and rewarding trip as their son Mark, now 23 years old, was treated for lymphoma during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021. Mark underwent chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant at St James’s Hospital in Leeds.
He also spent a month as an inpatient in ward 33(haematology) at the BRI. The couple also have a daughter, Alice, who is a junior doctor in London.
“I first heard about the charity after Mark, following a visit to Leeds, came home with information explaining how they took young people who had survived cancer off on these yachting trips,” continued Dr Roberts.
“Mark is now in remission and graduated from Cambridge University in 2022 with a degree in maths. He starts work in London for a software development company this September.
“He’s been on a trip with the charity as a young person getting over cancer himself.
Sailing is in my blood – I was brought up south of Blackpool and we still sail regularly, mainly in Scotland where we charter a small yacht for a West Coast cruise most years.
“I wanted to volunteer with the charity as I thought, as a doctor who enjoys sailing I would be a good fit and it would be a way to give something back.”
So in late May, during the half-term holidays, Dr Roberts travelled to the Isle of Wight where he joined a flotilla of six yachts with 30 children, aged between nine and 17 years old, on board.
Dr Roberts added: “The charity makes two kinds of the trip – one for eight-to-17-year-olds and the second for 18-to-24-year-olds – so I was on a children’s four-day trip which sailed from Cowes (where the charity headquarters are) to Yarmouth, then across the Solent to Lymington and on to Southampton.
“Five young people were on my boat, aged 12 to 14 years old, who had suffered from a whole range of cancers.
“I was on what they call a ‘return trip’ as the young people can come on as many trips as they like. Two girls on my flotilla knew each other from their first trip and it was lovely to witness their friendship and bond.”
Once the children reach adulthood they can return as ‘graduate volunteers’ which, Dr Roberts said was a “nice bridge between the old fogies like me and the skippers, and the young people, as the graduate volunteers have been through the same cancer journey as the children.”
Each boat in the flotilla has a skipper, a volunteer mate and a crew leader, with at least two medics spread across the six boats.
“Some of the children had mobility issues so the boats have adaptations to accommodate this and on my trip we carried a wheelchair with us,” continued Russell.
“A lot of them were still on medication, so as a doctor I supervised this, carried emergency medicines and if anything medical cropped up, we were there to help the young people, but mainly it was just about reminding them to stay hydrated and use sunblock.
“It was very emotional at times seeing and hearing how sick some of the children had been but also inspiring to spend time with them and to see and hear their determination.
“What’s great about these trips is that they allow the young people to see a better future. By just being together, with people the same age who have shared that common experience, they can talk about what they’ve been through with their peers and this can be incredibly liberating.
“I know that from my son Mark – it wasn’t about the sailing but the chat and to be among people who had similar experiences to talk and process what they had all been through.”
Dr Roberts is keen for other medics to volunteer. After an online interview, rigorous safeguarding and child protection training takes place, volunteers are also asked to attend one training day in person per year.
He added that everyone was able to enjoy the voyage and fitted in no matter what they had been through physically.
Dr Roberts is already booked on another sailing trip which begins on September 5 and will take him to Largs, Scotland, which is the charity’s other sailing base, for a shorter trip of three days for new recruits. After that, he’s aiming for at least one trip a year.
He’s also keen that Bradford and West Yorkshire children with cancer get the opportunity to learn about these sailing trips so they can have new adventures once their treatment is over.
“The thing that motivated me to tell this story is to spread awareness of the charity among children and young people who have survived cancer,” he explained. “I’d love to talk to clinician colleagues who come into contact with these children and young adults so that their patients can secure a place on a boat as it’s a wonderful, healing experience.
“The Trust has evidence that this is beneficial for the well-being of the young people involved and is ambitious to reach out to all children and young people in the UK who have been affected by cancer.
“It would not be a surprise if the more deprived populations that we serve in Bradford are not accessing this opportunity so I would like to generate awareness so that clinicians, working at the Trust, can spread the word about this brilliant opportunity for their young patients.”
Frank Fletcher, Chief Executive Officer of the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust, said: “We couldn’t do what we do without people like Dr Roberts. Our amazing community of medic volunteers make sure young people have fun and feel safe on trips, which are essential for inspiring them to believe in a brighter future.
“If you would love to join Dr Roberts and make a difference in young lives on Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust adventures, we want to hear from you.”