Gerard Smith

RAF Officer Gerard was tragically diagnosed with a brain tumour after only a short time in the service. But thanks to the support of the RAF, his family and SSAFA's Norton House, he is on his way to a full recovery.

Gerard Smith was training as an RAF officer until a brain tumour ended his career and almost claimed his life. But after losing the ability to talk or walk, he is battling his way back to health at the military’s Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre (DMRC) Stanford Hall rehabilitation centre. And thanks to SSAFA’s Norton House, his family can be close by to support him.

“I wanted to be in the RAF since I was a wee boy,” says Gerard. “It was my dream.”

He tried to join up as a teenager but a recruiting officer in Glasgow told him: 'You're far too young. Go to university!’ So, he went to the University of the West of Scotland and joined Glasgow University Officers' Training Corps.

At 24, he became the first person in his family to join the military, graduating from RAF College, Cranwell in October 2019. He continued his officer training at RAF Honington but felt increasingly ill.

Headaches and numbness.

“Headaches and numbness,” says Gerard. “That's how it started.”

“He had this strange numbness in his back and at the top of his legs,” says his mum, Paula. “Would you ever put that down to a brain tumour? We were thinking, ‘He's out doing these exercises with heavy backpacks.’

“Before Gerard went onto his last exercise, they thought he had a vomiting bug. So, he joined it a few days late. He failed the exercise, and we now know why.”

He was posted temporarily to RAF Benson in Oxfordshire, where his symptoms worsened. Paula says: “The people there have been amazingly supportive to us, all the way through this.”

We knew there was something terribly wrong.

“We all knew there was something really terribly wrong,” says Paula, a former nurse. “It was becoming very obvious.”

Fearing a brain bleed, medical staff at RAF Benson sent Gerard to A&E.

“He was vomiting in the waiting area. But the doctor there wouldn't scan him, and said it sounded like a migraine,” recalls Paula.

“He said: “We can't rule out anything more serious like a tumour but come back in a few weeks if it doesn't settle.' It's mind blowing for us but that's exactly what happened!”

They sent him away with painkillers!

Several other hospitals also refused scans. “They sent him away with painkillers!” says Paula.

In December 2021, Gerard was on duty in Wales, helping to administer Covid vaccines but still suffering debilitating headaches.

On New Year’s Eve, he got his eyes tested by a local optician, who discovered pressure building up in his brain. She immediately referred him to a local eye casualty unit where he finally received a brain scan.

At 10pm, Gerard called home as medics prepared to blue light him to hospital in Liverpool.

Mum. I've got a tumour in my brain.

“Mum,” Gerard said, “I've got a tumour in my brain.”

“It was a massive shock. Indescribable,” remembers Paula.

“I kind of knew already,” says Gerard. “I knew there was something wrong. I wasn't surprised, at all, if I'm honest. But it was still devastating news to get.”

Paula says: “He said, 'I felt sorry for the young doctor who had to tell me that on New Year's Eve.' What a thing to say! But he's just faced it all so bravely and matter-of-factly."

The tumour was very rare and very large.

“The tumour was very rare and very large,” says Paula. “The size of a tangerine. We knew it was going to be difficult to get it out because of where it was. It was an intraventricular tumour, in the spaces in the middle of the brain -- called ventricles -- causing hydrocephalus, which is fluid on your brain."

Gerard, whose family live near Motherwell, was transferred to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow, Scotland’s neuroscience centre.

Everything that could go wrong, went wrong.

“We thought he might be in for a week, or a couple of weeks,” Paula remembers. “But eight brain surgeries later, everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong.”

Gerard was hospitalised for four months, undergoing operation after operation, not knowing if he would survive.

“He must have been terrified, going into that surgery for the first time,” says Paula.

“Yes, but I was very ill at that point,” says Gerard. “I’d got to the stage where I didn't really care. I just wanted it out.”

Fingers crossed; they've got it all.

“The tumour was difficult to get to, so they couldn't get all of it,” says Paula. “After his first surgery there was still quite a lot of it left, but they had to stop. They had to have several goes. He had three craniotomies for tumour removal. These are seven and eight-hour surgeries. Fingers crossed; they've got it all.

“He had another four surgeries for hydrocephalus because it kept building up again. And a final surgery to insert two shunts, which go in his head, right down into his abdomen and they permanently drain the cerebrospinal fluids.”

“Otherwise, the pressure would build up.” explains Gerard.

“For the first week when he was very bad in in intensive care, Covid restrictions meant we weren't allowed to visit at all,” says Paula. “We got a phone call after his first surgery, to say, 'Unfortunately Gerard's deteriorated and he's had a bleed,' and they had to sedate him and ventilate him. For most of his hospital stay he was only allowed one visitor for one hour a day."

He'd be in tears at us going away.

“Sometimes he'd be in tears at us going away. He's got very little recollection of all of that, which is probably just as well.

“He had a couple of episodes of hydrocephalus and two major central nervous system infections a bit like meningitis, called ventriculitis, which is extremely serious, and he was on some major antibiotics that were like flushing your system out with bleach.

“He spent his 27th birthday getting ready to go into theatre again, because he was extremely ill. His sister Erin and I went to visit him with a cake and the nurses had put up big birthday balloons. But I just took one look at him and thought, ‘Something is not right here.’

“He deteriorated again and had to go to theatre to drain fluid, because he had hydrocephalus again. So, CNS infection, hydrocephalus...Happy birthday!’ It was awful. We had to take the cake home and give it to the next-door neighbours. We gave all the chocolates to the nurses.

We thought we might lose Gerard.

“There were a few times where we thought we might lose Gerard and he knows that.” says Paula. “He was in hospital from January until May and basically lost everything. He lost his speech, he lost all the power in his right side, so he couldn't walk or use his right arm.”

Bit by bit, it gradually started to come back. Gerard stood up unaided for the first time on 3 May and the following day began three months of rehabilitation at a local centre.

In August, Gerard was admitted to the DMRC Stanford Hall, near Loughborough, for three months.

“If it hadn't been for Gerard's boss at RAF Benson, who told us about it, we probably would never have heard of Stanford Hall,” says Paula.

“I really did make a nuisance of myself on a regular basis, trying to get him in there, because I knew that's where he wanted to go. And finally, I think they just thought, 'Let's get this boy down here.'

“It's all rehabilitation now,” says Paula. “Lots of physiotherapy, lots of speech and language therapy, occupational therapy. He's doing some gardening, he's been doing some metal work, he's been swimming. He gets neuropsychology as well, the whole shebang."

Extremely driven.

“He's been extremely driven. The local rehab had never seen determination like it. I suppose that's a military thing, you know, to be pushing yourself and he has, the whole way through.

“He's constantly trying to improve and just be the best he can be. And that makes for good rehab, because it makes them work hard for you, when they know you will give it your best shot. When I think about how in January and February and March, Gerard couldn't speak or move his right side or even sit up in the bed unaided, to see him out walking for miles in the woods at Stanford Hall and up and down stairs is just nothing short of miraculous.

“His intelligence is all there, but it's just his cognition and finding the words sometimes,” says Paula.

“Yes, the memory,” says Gerard, “It's weird, I can't describe it.”

Already seeing a huge improvement, Gerard, now 28, says: “I'm good now. I'm better. Not even on medication. it's weird, how sharp I am. Just, I'm noticing things I wouldn't have noticed before.”

Sadly, however, Gerard knows his illness will end his RAF career.

It's a shame, but I'm alive.

“It's a shame, but I'm alive. I’m just concentrating on the here and now, really,” he says.

“He's facing a medical discharge, obviously and wants to get as much treatment as he can before that,” says Paula. “Gerard's been referred to the SSAFA mentoring service to support him through the discharge process and beyond.

“While he's very stoical about it, and stiff upper lip, this was his dream.  And he worked so hard to get there.

“He'll say to me, 'But I'm alive, Mum, and I might not have been.' And that's true, but it still will be hard to say, 'Well, I'm not going to do that now, I'm going to have to do something else.' So, to get support through all that will be really useful.”

SSAFA’s Norton House, which provides free, safe and supportive accommodation to families whose loved ones are receiving treatment at DMRC, proved a vital haven for Gerard and his family.

“Because we live so far away, they had booked us in to stay there when Gerard was first admitted; the three of us, and then my husband and I for a few days while he settled down."

A home from home.

“Norton House has been fabulous for us. It's a home from home,” says Paula. “The very first time we went down there, it was the first time in eight months that we, as a family, were just able to relax and switch off. It just made it so easy for us, at a time where everything else was so difficult.

“It's just so quiet and you can come and go, you're getting a good night's rest. We got to know the staff so well. They're just lovely. I say to them, 'I just feel as if I can come in, kick my shoes off, put the kettle on.'

“I tell them, 'It's like putting on an old pair of slippers,' and they laugh and say, 'I hope not too old.' Yes, that's what it's been like for us and other families, I'm sure, are the same. It's just like a big family home.”

‘It's just so good,” agrees Gerard.

“And the main thing is, we were just so close to Gerard,” Paula says. “Knowing he was just four minutes away, it was fine. We were all together. We were nearby.

“Now we stay there every time we go down to visit him. Or, if it's the night before his admission, he'll stay with us. It would just have been a whole different story without them.

The worst year of our lives.

“It has been the worst year of our lives," says Paula. "We're only a wee family: myself and my husband, Gerard and his younger sister Erin, who's a physio; she actually started her very first job working across the corridor from Gerard's ward when he was in Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

“We are so grateful for everything SSAFA does. We made a donation to Norton House instead of doing Christmas cards this year. I put a lot of posts up about it and our neighbour said, ‘Who's that, I want to make a donation too.’ So, we're trying to get it out there.

“No-one ever thinks that they'll need something like that, but unfortunately people do. And how good it is to have it there when you do need it!”