How one devoted couple found love while working at the hospice…

How one devoted couple found love while working at the hospice…

FOR years, the fates appeared to be conspiring against Michael and Jen Plews ever finding each other.

Despite growing up in the same close-knit community, going to the same college, and even applying for the same job, they kept missing each other.

But they finally met when they started working together at Butterwick Children’s Hospice…and ended up marrying on a Florida beach.

“It just felt right – like it was all meant to be,” says Michael, bringing tears to the eyes of Jen as he speaks in the Stockton hospice building where their love blossomed.

Both were born in Billingham and went to the same college in the Teesside town. Further down the line, they even applied for the same manager’s job in the “Wacky Warehouse” at the Horse and Jockey pub in Stockton. When Mike turned it down, Jen was appointed – but still their paths didn’t cross.

That all changed when Michael, a qualified nursery nurse, with a background in health care, became one of the six original members of staff at the newly opened children’s wing at the Butterwick Hospice in September, 1998.

What he didn’t know was that his soulmate, Jen, was to join the team as a health care assistant the following April.

“A few of us used to go to the karaoke at The Merlin pub in Billingham after work and, one day, I said Michael ‘why don’t you come along’. He turned up, we had a nice time, and that’s how it started,” she recalls.

That first night out took place on October 23 2002, and the couple had their first child, Phoenix, on the same date four years later. Another son, Macaulay, came along in March 2009.

With their family established, Michael decided it was time to pop the question on Phoenix’s fourth birthday. He proposed in a poem during a holiday in Whitby and Jen burst into tears of joy.

They were married on Cocoa Beach, Florida, on October 5, 2011. Jen’s son, Tom – from a previous relationship – walked Jen down the aisle and she remembers it as “a perfect day”.

“We’ve both gone through tough times in our lives, but we got there in the end – and it was all down to the Butterwick Hospice,” smiles Michael.

Nine years on from their idyllic wedding, the couple remain committed to their work as nursery nurses at the children’s hospice that brought them together.

“Jen just has a really caring, kind nature – we’ve never had a single argument in the 17 years since we met,” says Michael. “It’s uncanny how close we are – we even finish each other’s sentences. She’s definitely my one in a million.”

Their jobs involve the daily care of hospice patients up to 25 years old, including managing medication, helping with sleep problems, and playing with them.

“People have a certain perception of what goes on in a hospice, but we also have all kinds of fun playing games,” says Jen.

She cites the time a teenage girl wanted to give Michael a “makeover” which involved him being fitted with a red wig, applied with make-up, having his nails done, and wearing a fetching kimono.

“It’s the little things that make the job rewarding,” explains Michael. “There was once a little girl who never laughed. In the end, it was the screeching noise made with rubbing a balloon that made her smile. That was such a breakthrough.”

“You can be yourself at work, let your hair down, and no-one judges you,” adds Jen. “The satisfaction is knowing you’ve taken some of the weight off the shoulders of parents and played a small part in a family’s journey.”

But, of course, it’s far from easy. Mike and Jen have chosen a career that inevitably comes with sadness when a child passes away.

“It’s something you have to get used to but it’s a different type of grief,” says Michael. “It’s not your child but it’s been a privilege to have been part of their lives.”

The couple’s dedication to their jobs has meant them becoming “ships that pass in the night”. Mike works days shifts – from 7.45am to 8.15pm. Meanwhile, Jen is on nights – starting at 7.45pm and finishing at 8.15 the following morning.

“It can be difficult at times but it’s what we do,” she says.

Whatever the pressures, the couple remain passionate and proud of their working lives. When times get tough, they remind themselves of the sacrifice of Stockton mum-of-four Mary Butterwick, who responded to the death of her husband, John in 1979 by selling her home to launch the hospice movement.

“For us, it’s all about Mary’s legacy,” says Mike. “She was willing to risk everything to set this place up and that’s what we all have to remember.”

They are a couple devoted to their children in their care – and each other. In the end, it comes down to love…and Mike and Jen Plews have lots to give.

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