Remembering Matt and reflecting on my own life path

Remembering Matt and reflecting on my own life path

IN 2014, having recently taken over as editor at The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, I identified the need for a restructure and decided to cast the net out for a News Editor.

Amanda Chalmers

I was strongly encouraged by a senior colleague who had worked with Matt Bates, to give him a shot at interview.

‘Encouragement’ was needed only because, on paper, Matt was not the obvious fit. He had only four years’ experience on a news desk.

When interview day arrived in walked this unassuming slip of a lad with a beaming smile and brimming over with enthusiasm, but just the right amount of nervous energy to demonstrate his desire to land the job. He was clearly hungry for this opportunity and, over the course of the next hour and a half, he proved it to me. I was left in no doubt about this candidate’s desire – and importantly – ability – to do the job. If he just managed the team by example alone, I reasoned, that would be enough to gain their respect.

In 30 years as a journalist – around 10 of those involved in recruitment – Matt stands out as one of that rarest of breeds – a true journo whose instinct and nose for news had no off switch. His appetite for a good story was voracious.

He threw creative ideas down on the table that no one who had been in a profession for just four years had the right to know. An understanding of how to find – and treat – a story was second nature to him. He showed empathy, curiosity or tenacity as the situation demanded and it was a pleasure to see his efforts – and results – play out day after day.

An affable nature also made him both approachable to interviewees and a quick hit with the news team. I was soon at ease with my leap of faith in making this appointment. This was a star waiting to shine its brightest. . . Unfortunately fate had other ideas.

Although at The Herald for just a few weeks, the impression he left is a lasting one. This raw talent was emerging – before being cruelly snatched away from the industry. Matt never gave up showing stoicism in the face of this horrendous disease – recognising the same resilient qualities he’d demonstrated daily in his job. Sadly though, in October 2016, he was taken from us.

Louise Bates

Surreal then that some five years on, I find Matt filling my thoughts again. Last week I met his mum Louise for the first time, in my new public relations capacity. – I left newspapers in November last year to launch my new business and it’s brought me back in touch with The Bates family to promote Louise’s new book, Letters To Matthew: Life After Loss. Bitter sweet of course. While it’s lovely to get to know this wonderful lady (who we’d heard so much about in the office), one wished it could have been under happier circumstances.

The heartfelt collection of letters she wrote to Matt during the year after his death was launched on what would have been Matt’s 30th birthday this month, and also includes inspirational quotes and insights into her journey of self-discovery.

Its contents brought a tear to my eye – but it is Louise’s hope that the book will leave a positive impact on those struggling to navigate their way through the pain of grief. It can be purchased here

And times like this leave us reflecting on our own life’s journey. In 2014 a bright young talent walks into my office and makes me excited for his future. Just five years on he is no longer with us, while my own future has also taken a very different turn. I no longer work on newspapers and am enjoying success with – meeting a host of inspirational business people, many of whom are also pursuing their dreams of a new start. None of this could have been predicted.

It’s also poignant occasions such as my recent meeting with Louise that reinforce the brevity of our time – and potential – in this life.

Matthew Bates
Matt at Warwick Hospital just eight days before he died.

It has been surreal to be referring to Matt in the past tense, let alone writing a press release about a book following his death. But I’m also proud to have been the one selected to do it.

Just like Matt, journalism will always be a part of what defines me. Three decades of my life in an industry I loved and grew up with, brings me no regrets. But, for a variety of reasons, the time was right to make a break. I am proud (and relieved) to report that I have not looked back – not for one solitary second.

Life is too short to put up with stress and/or unfulfillment and I have never felt so much respect for the entrepreneurs – and charity leaders – such as those I now work with.

What would Matt have made of me turning my back on the industry he adored as much as I did? I didn’t know him that well, but I like to think he’d understand.

Read Matt’s story here

Mum publishes book of heartfelt letters to son after he died

Mum publishes book of heartfelt letters to son after he died

A WARWICKSHIRE mum who lost her son to a rare kidney cancer has released a collection of heartfelt letters she penned in the months after his death, in a poignant new book.

Letters To Matthew: Life After Loss was launched this month on what would have marked Matthew Bates’ 30th birthday.

Matthew Bates
Matt at Warwick Hospital just eight days before he died.

The talented young journalist, who had recently graduated from Brighton University, was diagnosed with Type 2 Papillary Renal Cell Carcinoma in 2014, an extremely rare and aggressive tumour that affects only five per cent of kidney cancer sufferers.

But it was more than two years before the severity of the condition became known.

Mum Louise, 60, from Leamington, said: “I noticed when he came home from university he used to drink gallons of squash. I thought this isn’t right and he should go and see the doctor but he didn’t really have any other symptoms and, what with one thing and another, it was a couple of years before he actually went.

“He started going to see his local GP about three years later complaining about fatigue, weight loss, back pain and night sweats and even blood in his urine. They only tested him for diabetes and they put it down to a kidney infection and gave him antibiotics. We have since found out that blood in the urine can be a symptom of kidney cancer.

“In the end he went back to the doctors as he was losing weight and had a persistent cough. They finally ran some blood tests which flagged up something was wrong. He was immediately admitted to hospital where they ran a series of tests and a scan showed a large mass on his kidney.”

“We were in complete shock. The bottom of our world just fell out. But then a survival mechanism kicks in. It still feels unbelievable today that this happened to our family.

“When he was told, the consultant came in and held his hand. I knew this was going to be bad news. But we were given hope. We were told that he could survive with one kidney and an operation to remove it could be the cure.

“When the consultant left the room Matthew was shaking. You could feel the shock through him. For half an hour we just held each other and we both cried.”

June 2016 on one of the regular visits to the Christie Hospital in Manchester where he was undergoing experimental Nivolumab treatment.

Matt underwent surgery to remove his kidney and there was good news for the family when a scan a few weeks later revealed no evidence that the cancer had spread.

“Once his kidney was removed and he was on his new healthy eating plan, you could see him slowly getting stronger and stronger,” Louise said. Then the scan came out clear and we thought, that’s it. It’s over.”

But a further scan told a different story and, as the family tried to come to terms with the latest blow to their hopes, Matt was accepted on a new trial immunotherapy drug at The Christie Hospital in Manchester, Europe’s largest cancer centre. Unfortunately, his body did not respond to the treatment.

In a second trial, he was put on another targeted drug therapy, Nivolumab.

Louise said: “He responded to that and his soft tissue tumours were shrinking rapidly and some of them had even disappeared. But at that point we didn’t know he also had a tumour on his spine.”

 Cannabis oil

Desperate to seek a solution for her son, Louise, who runs a complementary therapy business, managed to source illegal cannabis oil, which, she learned, had showed positive effects for other cancer sufferers.

“I had read an article about a 14-year-old boy who had cancer. He was in a hospice with days to live and his mum started giving his cannabis oil and he started getting better. He got so well he had to leave the hospice and then over time his cancer was cured. She is quite a high profile person now in trying to legalise cannabis.

“Matthew took it for three weeks and it helped him sleep and boosted his appetite but he didn’t like how it made him feel. He was worried that if the hospital picked up drugs in his blood they would refuse him treatment so he wanted to come off it. I was always guided by him.”

“We thought he was doing really well, he was starting to feel better in himself, he was getting his appetite back and then he woke up on Bank Holiday Monday August 2016 and said: ‘Mum, my legs feel really wobbly and I can’t pee.’ So he phoned up the Christie’s 24-hour hotline and a five minutes later he had an ambulance outside the door. They recognised the symptoms of spinal compression from what he’d told them and he was whisked into Warwick Hospital. A scan showed the spinal tumour was getting bigger. We were just devastated.”

It was at this stage the disease really started to take hold and a subsequent operation on Matt’s spine led to a series of complications which left him paralysed and suffering from a severe infection.

Louise said: “I remember driving home from the hospital after the surgery a few weeks before he died and I am screaming at the top of my voice and banging the steering wheel. I think that was the moment when I finally realised I couldn’t control this. I couldn’t stop it.”

A makeshift hospital ward was set up at home but it was to be only two weeks before he returned to hospital after water developed in his lungs.

Louise said: “They took him in and he never came home again.

“But Matthew was so accepting of it all. He was in such a good place. When the doctors said to him 10 days before he died: ‘You’re not responding to the antibiotics and the cancer’s getting worse. There’s nothing else we can do for you now, we’re just looking at end of life care,’ he was just thanking them for everything they’d done. I thought, how can you be so calm? He was incredible. I don’t know how he did it.

 Bedside wedding

 “On his last night in Myton Hospice we witnessed his bedside wedding to his girlfriend of nine years. The hospice team were amazing. They made a sanctuary and put flowers everywhere. It looked beautiful. It was wonderful to see Matthew’s face. I’m so happy he got his last wish.

“I stayed with him that night. I stayed awake and I held him all night. It turned out to be his last night.”

Matt was passionate about music and wrote and recorded two CDs.

A keen sportsman, Matt played football for Norton Lindsey and Central Ajax, as well as proving to be a talented golfer and cricketer – playing for Stoneleigh Cricket Club and even being trialled for Warwickshire.

But when he became too ill to play it was his passion for music that had given him a new focus. He would spend hours in his dad Bill’s recording studio – a converted shed – in the back garden – learning to write and record his own songs. This resulted in two CDs, the second of which was released just a few days before he died, in October 2016.

It was very soon after Matt’s death that Louise sought solace penning letters to her son.

“Afterwards I didn’t know what to do with myself and I started journaling as a form of therapy and getting my emotions out of my head.

“One day I was peeling the vegetables and all of a sudden I was surrounded by this energy of Matthew and it was like he was there with me. It was the weirdest feeling, like he was giving me a virtual hug and saying he liked my letters. And I got a picture of a book in my head. It’s as if Matthew was saying this needs to be a book Mum.”

In Letters To Matthew: Life After Loss Louise also shares with readers inspirational quotes and insights into her journey of self-discovery’ It also includes heartfelt tributes from Matt’s father Bill, 61, and sister Sarah, 33.

Both a book and Kindle edition are available to buy on Amazon here

The Bates family during happier times in Mallorca 2013.

Louise’s blog, which complements the book, can be found at:

Louise said: “My wish is that my book helps people talk about grief in a much more comfortable way without all the awkwardness that comes with it. I want people to be okay about grief. I want to help other people understand what grief is. There’s also tips in the book about what to say and how to be. And hopefully, by reading the letters and sharing my experience of what it was like for me, it might help them in the future.

“This book is not about fixing people or forcing the healing process because, as the book explains, there is no cure for grief. Grief can only be absorbed, carried, experienced and cared for.

“You never get over loss, you just learn to grow around it and move on in a positive way. I’m still just taking it a day at a time.”

Read Amanda Chalmers’ blog here