A community radio presenter who lost his ability to project his voice for four years due to a rare brain tumour has made an emotional return to the airwaves after intensive specialist neuro-rehab therapy allowed him to regain his voice.
Joshua Donlon, a 26-year-old broadcaster, recently got back behind the mic for the first time in almost half a decade when he appeared on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire to share his challenging and courageous journey in an emotionally-charged interview with presenter Chris Mann.
Josh was diagnosed with a brain stem glioma at the age of two, which affected his central nervous system and left him a permanent wheelchair user at the age of 12.
As his condition worsened throughout his adolescent years, his passion for radio grew, working as a presenter on his university’s radio station in addition to other local broadcast roles.
After becoming a radio presenter on a local community station in 2011, Josh’s tumour caused respiratory complications, resulting in him having to step away from presenting and move into a producing role.
This was also short-lived, when in 2018, Josh caught pneumonia, which left him needing six months of intensive care.
Having been shielded during the pandemic, Josh was finally able to access a rehabilitation programme in September 2021, and was admitted to Askham Rehab, a specialist neuro-rehab community, near Doddington, Cambridgeshire.
On entry, he found it challenging to talk at length and to articulate words due to becoming breathless, and could only sit independently outside the constraints of his wheelchair for five seconds before needing assistance.
The prolonged time spent in intensive care had caused Josh to suffer with global deconditioning – a rapid deterioration of the muscles, bones, and mental state due to being bed-bound.
Sara Neaves, clinical lead and outpatients service manager at Askham Rehab, said: “When Josh arrived at Askham, his condition was quite severe, having had issues with taking deep breaths, which affected his ability to speak, and decreased exercise tolerance – all caused by the tumour that impacts the messages from the brain to the spinal cord and then the nerves that innovate all the body’s muscles.
“He was assessed by all four of our multidisciplinary teams; clinical psychology, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, and speech and language therapy, before working with them to design an individualised and holistic therapy programme.”
Treatment included several oral motor exercises to help improve his breathing and ability to swallow.
Due to Josh’s sheer determination, it wasn’t long before he could enjoy tasting food for the first time in four years – having been exclusively fed through a tube into his stomach.
Josh also made use of Askham Rehab’s robotics and sensor assisted technology, thanks to it being one of a very small number of providers in the UK to offer a specialist robotic-led rehabilitation service.
He used the AMADEO, a sensor-based device for hand therapy to help work on his left arm – which had been stuck at an almost 90-degree angle due to his neurological condition.
Slowly but surely, Askham’s speech and language team’s breathing techniques allowed Josh to regain and increase the power of his voice, a moment Josh describes as “absolutely fantastic”.
And after almost four months of structured, high-quality person-centred care, Josh returned to the airwaves for the first time in over four years in a raw and powerful interview on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire – where he shared his story to thousands of listeners across the region and beyond.
“I’ve always been passionate about radio so having to step away from presenting due to my condition was extremely hard to accept, but the rehab I’ve received at Askham has allowed me to regain my voice and enabled me to achieve my pursuit of getting back on the radio,” said Josh.
“It’s been a long journey, and not always an easy one, so my long-awaited return to live radio was a special moment, and quite overwhelming actually.
“It has played such a huge part of my life – through both the good and not so good times. I can’t thank the station enough for having me on.”
Summarising his experience at Askham, Josh said: “Overall, I’ve made progress in all areas of my rehab. I can now talk longer and for louder thanks to the therapists, which has given me a newfound confidence.
“The position I was in two to three years ago to where I am now is just a huge difference, both physically and mentally. It just shows that hard work can pay off.”
Sara added: “After several unsuccessful attempts at rehab, Josh came to us with the hope of being able to project his voice and be heard, so this has been a huge achievement for him.
“In fact, he’s done incredibly well and much better than people initially anticipated due to the fact he was so deconditioned on arrival.
“In addition to improving his speech, his left arm is now just off full extension, and he can sit independently for almost five minutes – this drastic improvement is down to the hard work Josh has put in and we’re delighted to see such significant improvements to his quality of life.
“Getting back on the radio was always a key milestone for Josh and while we played our part in helping him achieve that goal, it’s completely down to his extraordinary willpower. This is hopefully just the start of the next chapter of Josh’s incredible journey.”
Helping John to play football again after brain injury
Specialist support from Dearnvale, an Exemplar Health Care home, has made his goal possible
Following a serious fall, John had a brain injury that led him to experience reduced mobility, poor vision and difficulties communicating.
Four years later, with the support of the nurse-led team at Exemplar Health Care’s outstanding-rated care home, Dearnevale, John lives a fulfilling life and has recently joined his local football team.
In 2018, John experienced a thin acute subdural hematoma and contusion following a fall. This led to an acquired brain injury, dysphasia, poor short-term memory, epilepsy, poor vision and Bell’s palsy.
Following his injury, John experienced reduced mobility, poor vision, difficulties with communication and swallowing, and he developed behaviours of concern.
Before John’s fall, he owned a building business and worked seven days a week – his only rest time was Sunday afternoon when he went to his local working men’s club for a rest and a pint. John’s spare time was spent with his young daughter or playing football. He also coached the local pub football team.
With one-to-one support from the care team and input from the life skills team at Dearnevale, John has made great progress in his recovery. He is now able to mobilise independently, has had his PEG feeding tube removed, and enjoys living a fulfilled life.
Behaviours of concern
After his injury, John started to display behaviours of concern.
The trained team at Dearnevale has helped him to develop strategies to recognise when he is experiencing periods of agitation that could escalate to behaviours of concern.
Our high staffing levels enable John to progress at his own pace and build trust with the care team.
He is now able to vocalise to staff when he’s feeling agitated or the sensation that he’s becoming agitated. He recognises when he’s about to experience seizure activity and will seek assistance and take time out to enable these symptoms to be managed before escalation.
During his time at Dearnevale, the number and duration of incidents of behaviours of concern have reduced dramatically.
At Dearnevale, the team has supported John to rebuild his mobility.
When John first moved to Dearnevale, he was at high risk of falls and received one-to-one support to support him to mobilise safely.
Over the past few years, John has enjoyed sessions with the in-house Physiotherapy Team to build his body strength and range of movement.
Now, he’s able to mobilise independently, only requiring verbal prompts when he’s tired.
John enjoys walking in the local community and goes to football training and plays on a local team. He’s just started jogging with a coach to build his fitness.
Specialist care from a trained team
At Dearnevale, John receives person-centred care to support his complex holistic needs.
John has received input from Dieticians and Speech and Language Therapists (SALT). He stated that he preferred to receive support from Dearnevale colleagues, and since doing so, he’s had his PEG feeding tube removed and he’s able to eat and drink orally.
Developing life skills
At Dearnevale, the team has encouraged John to develop his life skills and build his independence.
He enjoys regular sessions with the in-house life skills team at Dearnevale. These sessions focused on improving his independent living skills and social integration.
John has developed his hand and eye co-ordination and enjoys completing the Rubix cube. He asks staff to mix the cube for him and has successfully completed the puzzle 423 times!
John has also developed his level of concentration and has begun playing the keyboard, as he did before his injury. He is completing self-taught lessons that he accesses online, with the aim of performing at the Christmas talent show.
With the support of the team, John has begun preparing his own meals in the therapy kitchen.
He loves helping out in any way he can, and volunteers to clean the therapy kitchen and hoover the training every Monday.
Over the next 12 months, John has expressed that he hopes to continue building his independent living skills.
Hear from John
“I’ll tell you the truth, Dearnevale is fantastic. The people here are always here for me, they’re fantastic. They did this for me and I am gobsmacked I have got so far.”
Dearnevale, part of Exemplar Health Care, is a specialist care home that supports adults living with complex and high acuity needs.
The home, located in Grimethorpe near Barnsley, is rated ‘Outstanding’ with CQC and is quality assured by the Huntington’s Disease Association.
Visit the website to find out more: www.exemplarhc.com
The secret of a successful rehab service? Happy, supported staff
Askham Rehab shares stories of progression and development from its team
Meet Bonnie, Lisa, Shainy and Stacey from Askham Rehab, as they share their journeys to working for one of the leading neuro-rehab providers in East Anglia.
One thing they share is that when they first started working with Askham, they did not think they would be working in rehab.
However, over time and with the support of a management team committed to person-centered empowerment for staff as well as residents, they have flourished. Each of them now contribute directly to quality of life improvements of the rehab patients at Askham.
Every member of the Askham team has a story to tell – one that involves self-development, professional ambition, and personal drive to be the best they can be, and in so doing bring this out in their rehab patients too.
Askham is always looking for motivated individuals to join their team – if you could see yourself working alongside Bonnie, Lisa, Shainy, Stacey or their colleagues, get in touch with the Askham team.
‘I moved from the kitchen into speech therapy’
For Bonnie Nelson, her 14-year career at Askham has been varied, and through her initial role as a kitchen assistant, she saw first-hand the impact speech therapy had.
“I saw the speech therapists at work and thought that’s something I’d really like to do,” she says.
“I loved working in the kitchen but wanted to be more involved with the residents and their rehab, so wondered whether I could be a speech therapy assistant. I started helping out at first, but it was too much to do alongside my job.
“Askham were really supportive and gave me the option to choose – I jumped at the chance to work in speech therapy.”
Now, having made the move in 2013, Bonnie is loving her role as a speech therapy assistant.
“It’s such a valuable and rewarding role, and of course it’s not just about speech, it’s about swallowing, eating and drinking, really vital parts of their lives,” she says.
“There are some very special moments, such as when you work with someone and they regain the ability to say their children’s names, or someone is able to follow a normal diet after having to have pureed food. It’s lovely to share that with them.
“It is lovely to feel like you’ve made a difference to people’s lives and to see their progress.”
She remains grateful to Askham for the opportunity to re-train and move to a rehab role.
“Askham were great and supported me with training on the job, and giving me the opportunity to complete some courses in speech therapy, which I did in my own time,” says Bonnie.
“I’m so pleased it’s a move I’ve made, and Askham is a lovely place to work.”
‘I became a carer during the COVID pandemic’
Having resumed her career at Askham after taking a break to raise her family, Lisa Keel took on a role as a weekend kitchen assistant in 2018. After realising the work/life balance worked for her, with Askham accommodating her need for childcare-friendly hours, she took on a role working Monday to Friday.
But having already progressed at Askham through her kitchen role, Lisa realised she would love to move again during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’d spent my time at Askham watching the carers at work and wishing I could do more to help,” she says.
“I couldn’t mix two jobs, so I decided I wanted to challenge myself and move into care.
“Although it was during a very difficult time, I was already working within a care home setting and just felt I wanted to support the care team, and especially the residents. I knew I wanted to put all I’ve got into it.”
So in September 2020, Lisa, with support and training from Askham – including specialist brain injury training – moved to become a carer. She recalls how difficult yet rewarding that challenging time was.
“This was at a time when residents couldn’t see their families, which was heartbreaking, but we as the care team effectively became their families during that period,” says Lisa.
“Just being there for them was so important, to support them with their physical and emotional needs. When a resident had COVID, I was put in the isolation team, which meant that one resident needed even more support during what was a particularly difficult time.
“You were so conscious of that fact that you were the only people our residents were seeing and you wanted to do all you could. It’s your job to make sure they’re safe and happy, and that was never more important than during that time.”
Through the dedication of Lisa and her colleagues during the pandemic, Askham’s care and rehab regime was able to continue, and residents progressed despite the challenges.
“We do get a lot of appreciation and ‘thank yous’ from residents, and their families too, many of whom we were able to keep in touch with their loved ones through using tablets and screens during isolation,” says Lisa.
“It’s very hard to say goodbye, as much as you also want them to leave and move on in their lives, but you do establish a strong bond. It does make you feel very proud to be a carer and to know the contribution you have made.”
‘I was supported in relocating from India’
Shainy Mathew was living in India in 2011 when an opportunity to relocate to England and work in nursing came up. Initially working to complete her adaptation programme having moved from overseas, Shainy became a registered nurse around eight months later.
Initially moving to Cambridgeshire alone, leaving her husband and baby in India, they joined her shortly afterwards, at which point Askham offered their assistance in supporting the family.
“My husband had to work too, so I was able to do my hours around his, which worked well for our childcare. My flexible shifts meant we could organise this,” says Shainy.
“If my son was ill or I had problems with childcare, I would call the lead nurse and was told not to worry, they would support me. Although we were here on our own with no family support, Askham felt like our extended family.
“The transition process in moving to a new country for the first time was often challenging, but I have been supported in every way. I have never felt pressured or unsupported because of childcare and I’m so grateful for the help I have been given over the years.
“The management and my colleagues were fantastic and so supportive. It made moving to a new country and being able to work a really good experience.”
Through Shainy’s dedication to her role in nursing, on the retirement of the long-serving lead nurse, she was offered the position.
“I was delighted to be offered the role as lead nurse, it was the service I knew and loved working in, but just with more responsibility. It was a great opportunity for me,” she says.
“Askham gave me the time to spend with the lead nurse before he retired, to work with him and learn more about the position I was about to take over. I was also given extra shifts to ensure I was fully prepared. That meant it was a very smooth transition for everyone.
“I got the chance to speak with one of Askham’s directors, Aliyyah-Begum Nasser, and the management team about the promotion and they were all confident that I could do it – and I am really loving it.
“As lead nurse, you have two days where you work on the admin, which is very different, but is very responsible in reviewing care plans, medication records and funding matters. It is a vital role and one I really do enjoy – and I still get plenty of opportunity to be with the patients.”
And it is the interaction with the patients that continues to inspire Shainy as a nurse.
“You see what they go through and the progress they make, and it is lovely to feel you play some role in that,” she says.
“You feel very much valued, there is a lot of happiness and job satisfaction in what we do. This is a great environment and a very positive working environment, and I love my work with the patients.
“I’m very grateful for the support I’ve had since I came here, and the opportunity for promotion. Askham is a great place to be.”
‘A secondment made me want to pursue a rehab career’
Having joined Askham in November 2018, initially in a part-time care assistance role, Stacey Hawkins was keen to progress – particularly after seeing the power of rehab through a secondment opportunity.
“I was offered a four-month secondment, where I worked with all four disciplines – physiotherapy, psychology, speech and language and occupational therapy,” she says.
“I learned a lot from this and really enjoyed it. I got so much insight into the sessions. A position came up for a rehab assistant, and having seen how much I loved working in rehab, I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
Stacey was successful in her rehab assistant application, which she took up in September 2021, being given full training on-site to equip her for her new role.
“I read all the assignments for each Individual and look at what their goals are, we then work on these and build exercise plans and explain the treatment we feel is right for them,” she says.
“This is different for everyone, as everyone will have different needs and outcomes, so we work on finding the best and safest equipment and ways to do it. We often have to demonstrate to patients what we would like them to try, and we have to be calm, understanding and always listen.”
And the role is giving Stacey new levels of job satisfaction.
“I love being able to make a difference to people’s lives and seeing them achieve all they can in their rehab goals,” she says.
“Seeing the gratitude on the people’s faces, and their family members too, is priceless. The feeling is unreal to see people progress in their own ways and give someone their independence back.
“But while I absolutely love this role, I feel just as valued on the rehab team as I did when I was working on the care floor. Askham is one big family, and I’d say thank you to everyone here who has helped me on this journey.”
PJ Care marks 21 years of neurological care
The provider opened its first centre, Bluebirds, in 2001
Neurological care provider PJ Care has marked 21 years of providing its specialist services with an event to mark the anniversary of opening its first care centre.
PJ Care, which offers care for adults with progressive neurological conditions, was established in 2001 by former nurse, Jan Flawn CBE, who identified the need for an age-appropriate environment for people with young onset dementia.
Until then, the only option for people who developed neurological conditions before the age of 65 was to be cared for in hospital or alongside the elderly in a care home.
After a long battle both for respect and funding for her proposition, Bluebirds care centre opened in Milton Keynes, offering 22 beds, all of which were filled within a matter of months.
Since then, PJ Care has gone on to open Mallard House in the city and the Eagle Wood care centre in Peterborough.
The centres also provide care and rehabilitation for people with acquired brain injuries and employ close to 600 staff.
To mark the landmark anniversary for Bluebirds, families and residents, staff, invited guests and the Mayor of Milton Keynes, Amanda Marlow, gathered in the gardens of the Bluebirds care centre together with founder Jan.
Jan retired from the business five years ago and PJ Care is now run by her son, Neil Russell.
“It’s been the most wonderful event,” said Jan. “I can’t believe it’s been 21 years since I started PJ Care.
“Neil and the entire team have done the most wonderful job in keeping our original values of care, compassion and commitment, not just towards the residents but the staff, too. We are like one big family.”
Jan started PJ Care because of the frustrations of not being able to provide the care she felt her patients needed.
“We didn’t have time to look after them properly,” she remembered.
“They didn’t just need us to care for their physical needs, they needed us emotionally. That was especially true of people with neurological conditions; they were just people in beds and that wasn’t good enough for me.
To have been able to do it myself and create centres where people have time to care, time to talk and give people the quality of life they deserve, is wonderful.
“I still remember welcoming our first resident. I was nursing at the time so I was hands on and my son, Neil, left the Diplomatic Service to come to work with me.”
Neil has since expanded the service to its current three centres, with plans to create a new care centre at Eagle Wood later this year, and another planned for Northamptonshire.
“I am incredibly proud of Mum and what she’s achieved,” he said.
“We worked side by side in the beginning. I would help out with personal care, covering shifts in the kitchen, even cleaning toilets if that’s what was needed to get the job done.
“She knew there was a need for this kind of specialist service and demand is growing and growing. I am thrilled to be able to carry on what she created and although she’s retired now, I still discuss board papers with her and ask her opinion.”
Current and former managers at the home were presented with bouquets of flowers and Jan was reunited with one of her very first nurses at Bluebirds, Linda Matthews.
Jan said it was a perfect celebration but feels there is still much support needed for the care sector.
“I would have thought that COVID might have got the message through, but sadly not,” she said.
“No government has yet had the courage to develop a strategy for the care sector that works. But I feel proud of what we’ve achieved as a company and the efforts we make for our staff and I’m excited to see where Neil takes the business in the future.”
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