Dawn's story

10 years ago Dawn's life was very different.

At 35, I was medically retired and told I could never work again. It seemed like my life was over. I felt like I’d been written off – I’d written myself off.

When I arrived at Thistle it was very, very scary. I’d been bedridden with severe back pain for so long – I needed a wheelchair to leave the house. Thistle asked what my hopes were for the future and I didn’t know how to answer. But I took a deep breath and told them my wildest, most unrealistic dream: to start swimming again. It had been my big passion. But I never really imagined that my dream could come true.

I expected the Thistle wellbeing practitioner to write the idea off. Instead she listened, focused on me and what I needed and together we talked about what it would take for me to be able to rebuild my physical strength and get in a pool.

With small steps, I started to develop my physical and emotional health, joining one of Thistle’s Lifestyle Management courses. I tried a swimming class in the local pool. Slowly I rediscovered my love for the water.

In 2016 after 7 years of being medically retired, I went back to work. Now I’m a Health and Wellbeing practitioner at Thistle. It means so much to me to be able to support people who are struggling with their own health. I’ll never forget my first meeting, the relief at being listened to was overwhelming. It gave me hope. Now I can give that to others. It makes me so excited to start work every morning.

Then three years ago, I discovered wild swimming and it changed my life. I swim every week without fail, in lochs, reservoirs and the sea. I still have back problems and always will, but I am able to do what I love and when I’m in pain the water helps. Last year, I applied to swim the English Channel as part of a relay team and I couldn’t believe it when in December 2019, I received word that I had been accepted for summer 2020!

As lockdown came in this year we had to stop our face-to-face work and move to providing remote support. At first I found working from home really hard. It brought back memories of being housebound and reliant on my wheelchair. But after the first few weeks I adjusted, I’m so proud of how the wellbeing team adapted to lockdown and so grateful that we were able to providing much-needed support for people who are struggling to take back control of their lives. I even managed to keep training for the Channel swim!

Then one afternoon in July, I started to feel unwell. It happened very quickly and I was taken to the hospital. I had Covid-19. All I could think was “this can’t happen, I need to swim the Channel!” Then I received a phone call telling me our Channel slot was confirmed and asking if I was ready. I told them what had happened.

I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to let this stop me. They agreed to move the swim back by a month. I thought back to Thistle’s support from when I first arrived and I started using the techniques again. I looked for small indications of change, noticed signs of improvement, even the tiny things like managing a little more soup each day. I built myself up and after 6 weeks, I got back in the water. It was freezing and I didn’t know if it was a good idea, but I felt amazing afterwards.

On the 1st September, eight weeks after becoming ill with Covid, I achieved the goal of a lifetime. I swam the English Channel. My first swim was at 3am, jumping off the boat into the darkness of the sea. The conditions were perfect and water was 3 degrees warmer than back home in Scotland. I worried about the strict rules – don’t touch the boat, look for the signal for the next swimmer – but it went okay and my first stretch was done.

For my 9am swim the weather was gorgeous. I knew I had to swim this stretch quite quickly, before the tide changed, and I did what I had to do. But inside, I was getting quite emotional. It hit me just as I made my way into the water – I was so close. I had hung onto this goal my whole life and instead of feeling elated, I felt like I was losing something.

When I first said I wanted to swim the Channel it represented me getting back to being me. It represented me being active, out doing the things I love, having a buzz for life. But I had already achieved that before the swim. It was a flag at the top of a hill I had already climbed. At that moment I had the strange realisation that this was never really about the swim.

We touched a toe on French land and then swam back to the boat. I had never seen my daughter so emotional before, she was recording our progress on the swim on social media and keeping everyone updated. That set me off. My Dad couldn’t stop hugging me, telling me that Mum would’ve been proud. I received so much support – over 4000 messages of support and congratulations on social media, including people who had last seen me in a wheelchair.

I feel proud reading those messages, reading people saying that they are inspired by what I have done. I don’t think I’m special or different to anyone else, I was just really lucky to find the support I needed when I did. If my swim gives someone the hope to contact Thistle or to believe that they can achieve something ‘impossible,’ that makes me happy.

You can help us ensure support is available for people who, like Dawn, want to regain control and live the life they want with a long term health condition:


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