George Tomes Junior is not your average 15-year-old. With both parents and his little sister living with debilitating physical conditions, George acts as the carer for his family, assisting with tasks around the house and some elements of personal care for each member of his family.
“I worry someday something will happen to them and I won’t be there,” says George. “But I try to hide this feeling and just get on with things. I just have to hope that if something happens, I can get there for them.”
For his father, George Senior, a former retained firefighter with the Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service, this is not the life he had planned for his teenage son.
“I worry someday something will happen to them and I won’t be there”
George Tomes Jr
“I’m really glad he’s here to help us, but I hate the fact that he has to,” says George Snr. “I want him to be out having fun, but he does a lot for us, around the house, coming to appointments with us, even silly things like helping us put on socks.”
When he was healthy, George Sr split his time between being on call, working in a factory, and helping his father’s carpet-fitting business. Like many firefighters, disease and disability were the last things on his mind. Then in 2003 and in his mid 30s, he received a diagnosis that would change his life, when his doctor told him he had the degenerative disease, Multiple sclerosis, more commonly known as MS.
“I was in denial for a long time,” he admits. “The MS developed quickly, affecting me both mentally and physically, and the fatigue would hit me like a rock. It became impossible for me to work, and I lost all my jobs. I didn’t want any help and refused to go onto the benefit system, but with no money coming in, we lost our house and car, and I just couldn’t do anything.”
Hoping for a fresh start and some healing sea air, the family moved from their home in Coventry down to Bournemouth. By this point George’s wife had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which had also impaired her mobility. But the reality was very different from how they’d imagined, and the family quickly felt isolated in an unfamiliar community. George Jr was bullied at his school for being different, frequently being chased and picked on by his class.
“They didn’t like me because I had a northern accent and because of my family’s illnesses,” he says. “I’d do anything to try and please someone, but they just didn’t like me. I just used to hate hearing people say they didn’t do anything to help at home; I found it upsetting to think they won’t help their parents and take them for granted. But you don’t know what’s going on in their homes, so I tried to be empathetic.”
On top of living with all of this disruption to their family, a few years ago, their daughter, Jade, was diagnosed with renal failure and was placed on the transplant list for a new kidney. Now aged 11, she’s still on that list.
“People saw us as a disabled family on benefits, so we were stigmatised.”
George Tomes Sr
“It felt like we had nothing,” says George. “No one down there would help us. We had to keep taking Jade to London for appointments, but it hurt to drive, and the little help we did receive at first soon stopped. People saw us as a disabled family on benefits, so we were stigmatised. We knew we had to leave and come back to the Midlands where we had more family and friends, but we had no money left to make the move and were stranded there.”
It was at this point where the Tomes family was handed a lifeline. A family friend suggested contacting the Welfare Services team in The Fire Fighters Charity, to see if we could help.
“Right away, I felt taken care of,” says George. “I explained what was going on and they asked a lot of questions, wanting to know the full picture. Then they took it from there.”
Not long after reaching out for help, George and his family were told the Charity could fund their move back to the Midlands, putting them back among their network and much closer to hospital for Jade’s appointments.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I hadn’t been a wholetime firefighter, and by the time I spoke to the Charity, I hadn’t set foot in a fire station in years. But that didn’t matter.”
In December, with the Charity’s help, the family moved back home to Coventry. George says he dreads to think where his family would be without The Fire Fighters Charity.
“My wife and I would probably have got divorced, because of the impact of the stress,” he says. “I’m a typical bloke, I don’t like to admit stuff. But being down there, it really hurt a lot and I couldn’t cope. I was struggling to keep my family together and we were in pieces. This whole thing has taken its toll on us, physically, mentally and financially.”
“I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t been a wholetime firefighter, and by the time I spoke to the Charity, I hadn’t set foot in a fire station in years. But that didn’t matter.”
George Tomes Jnr
Despite the difficulties his family has faced, George is not bitter: “In my eyes, it’s just life,” he says. “You have to play the cards you’ve been dealt. Everyone has good and bad in their life, and you just have to deal with what’s going on at the time.”
He admits one of the hardest parts of the whole thing is being unable to work, and feeling like he can’t provide for his family in the way he’d like to.
“I wish someone could cure this disease, because I hate not working,” he says. “MS smashes everything about you, from cognitive skills to physical and mental ability. It affects everything. But you just have to try and have a strong mind and crack on. Coming home was exactly the right thing to do, and as soon as we got out of the car, it felt right. We knew there would still be bumps and hurdles, but the biggest one had been managed, so everything else could be as well. I am so grateful to The Fire Fighters Charity for helping us when they did. I never thought I’d be able to benefit from their help, but it really has saved my family.”
George Junior is also hopeful for the future. He is still waiting for paperwork to be filed so he can go back to school, where he says he wants to study to become a self-employed builder, having completed a course as part of his GCSEs and enjoying it. Mainly, he says, he wants to be able to get back some of the childhood he has missed out on while living as a carer for the rest of his family.
“My grandparents are round the corner again, so I can go and stay with them more for a bit of a break,” he says. “I don’t really know where I find the strength to keep going, I just do. Part of the burden definitely feels like it has been lifted in coming back home, because I hated it down there, being bullied for being different. My biggest hopes for the future are that I can get back to school, make some more friends and that my little sister gets her transplant and it makes her better.”
“We knew there would still be bumps and hurdles, but the biggest one has been managed, so everything else can as well.”
George Tomes Sr
According to The Carers Trust, there are around seven million carers in the UK, which is one in ten people, and this number is rising. Around half a million children and young people in the UK act as carers for someone they love. Of this number, 68% of young carers are bullied in schools, and an average of 48 school days are missed each year because of their caring role.
If you are caring for someone – or a member of your family is caring you – and would like support from The Fire Fighters Charity, get in touch with us to see how you could benefit. Contact the Support Line on 0800 3898820.