The family and colleagues of a nurse who championed mental health issues before her death have launched an award in her memory.

Jilly Wilcox-Jones, who supported cancer patients with their psychological wellbeing, died in April after developing acute lymphoblastic leukaemia – a cancer of the blood more often seen in children than adults.

The mum-of-three and registered mental health nurse from Nantglyn, near Denbigh, had undergone a stem cell transplant and chemotherapy at Manchester’s Christie’s Hospital, but contracted flu and pneumonia, which her fragile immune system was unable to fight.

Her long career with mental health services saw her welcome Prime Minister Tony Blair and Conservative Party leader William Hague to Mold Community Hospital’s Rehabilitation Department, where she was manager, to show them the unit as a “model of best practice”.

She went on to become principal psychological therapist with Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board (BCUHB), based at Rhyl’s Royal Alexandra Hospital but covering the whole of North Wales.

Thanks to her former colleague Jill Timmins, BCUHB has worked with Jilly’s family to create an award in the 55-year-old’s memory, which will honour the unsung heroes in mental health services

The Jilly Wilcox-Jones Award is one of 15 awards that will be handed out to BCUHB staff at a glittering ceremony at Venue Cymru, Llandudno, on Wednesday 16 November.

Jilly’s husband Andy, a former mental health nurse, said: “I believe acknowledging the dedication and hard work of those who work in health care settings is essential.

“Before the funeral, Jill approached me to discuss having an award in Jilly’s name, and asked how did we feel about it, as a family. My immediate response was that we felt very humble and proud that it was being considered.

“What is really important for our family is that we keep Jilly’s legacy alive. My children and I encourage our grandchildren to talk about her and we regularly look at pictures of her.

“Anything we can do to ensure her memory is maintained is important. So we are very grateful that Jill has worked on this award to make it a reality – probably more grateful than she knows.”

The couple first met as teenagers in Denbigh, where they grew up, and married in 1978. They went on to have three children  – Ben, now 36 and working as a senior engineer with Denbighshire Council, Katy, 34, a business analyst in Manchester, and Tom, an associate director of an independent financial planning company in London.

Jilly and Andy both began their nursing careers at Denbigh’s North Wales Hospital, where they first met Jill. The two women worked together on a ward providing physical care of those with mental health problems.

Andy, now 59, said: “Jilly left school with just two O levels, trained as a State Enrolled Nurse and then did further training to become a Registered Mental Nurse.

“She went on to gain a first class honours degree in Community Mental Health Nursing at Bangor University, and latterly was  working on a PhD, though she had to give that up due to a series of health problems.

“She loved being a mum, and took a short career break when the children were young, and she really enjoyed being a grandparent as well.

“I retired four years ago from my job managing the community health team at Colwyn Bay, and Jilly was also looking forward to her retirement. The tragedy is that she had applied for her retirement, unaware that she was ill, and on the day she formally retired she was receiving treatment at the North Wales Cancer Centre at Ysbyty Glan Clwyd in Bodelwyddan.

“Her illness probably began in autumn 2014, when she started getting breathless. She had a chest infection and felt unwell but because of the pressure of work and the impending retirement, she just thought she needed to push herself harder.

“Eventually she saw her GP, who was concerned and referred her to a haematologist. Her haemoglobin level was very low and within 48 hours they had diagnosed an aggressive form of leukaemia, which is quite unusual in adults. It is much more common in children.

“She had a very good response to treatment initially and the cancer was in remission – we hoped it would stay away. The medical team asked her to consider stem cell treatment and we went to Christie’s Hospital in August 2015.

“She was in isolation for a month because the transplant process leaves you extremely vulnerable to infection. The conditioning chemotherapy wipes out your own stem cells so your body can accommodate the donor’s cells.”

Those donated cells came via the Anthony Nolan Trust and Andy has since written to the donor to thank her for everything she did.

“The Anthony Nolan Trust has become our chosen charity and we aim to raise as much money as possible for it. Jill has also run the Manchester half-marathon in Jilly’s memory, raising money for the Christie Hospital, which is an extremely generous thing to have done,” said Andy.

“In Jilly’s memory we also have a number of events planned – next year we have 33 runners in the 2017 Manchester 10k for the Anthony Nolan trust, all family and friends. Jilly and I ran it together three years ago, for St Kentigern’s Hospice, in memory of Jilly’s mum Vivian, who was cared for there, before her death.

“Last year, after her stem cell treatment, Jilly told the consultant that she was going to run the Manchester 10k this year. He smiled knowingly, and said ‘Maybe you will be ready by the year after’.”

After the stem cell transplant Jilly suffered complications and needed further treatment, before she contracted flu and pneumonia.

“We were, as a family, able to have clear proper discussions about the situation, and we knew that the journey was precarious – Jilly knew that. It was only in the last few days that it looked likely that she wouldn’t survive. Until then, we were still hoping, although it was a critical moment.”

Her funeral saw Denbigh’s St Mary’s church packed out with mourners, and the family was overwhelmed by the huge number of cards of condolences,

Andy added: “Some cards and message were from former patients, who said she had ‘saved their lives’ and had a real impact on them – I have written to them to say thank you.

“Her specific remit at work was providing psychological services within cancer care, across North Wales. She developed that service and initially it was just her, working at Ysbyty Gwynedd, Nightingale House in Wrexham and St Kentigern’s, plus St David’s in Llandudno. Many, many people have told me how well regarded the service was.

“It is ironic that she worked in cancer services, and then developed it herself. Jilly wasn’t one for feeling sorry for herself, she never said ‘Why me?’  In fact, it was more like, ‘Why not me?’

“She desperately wanted to live, and she was a real fighter – she fought like a lion to live, but didn’t have the luck she needed.”

Jill, now a senior manager in BCUHB’s mental health services, said she was moved to suggest the Jilly Wilcox-Jones Award because of her colleague’s commitment to working holistically with patients,  ensuring both their psychological and physical needs were met and her absolute commitment to mental health nursing and lifelong learning.

The criteria for the award is “a Registered Mental Health nurse who has either demonstrated their commitment to lifelong learning or a nurse who has developed services to improve the physical health of mental health patients.”

Jill said: “It is such a sad end for both Jilly and Andy, who should be enjoying their retirement together. I felt it was really important that we as a health board acknowledged their many, many years of service.

“The first time I met Jilly was at North Wales Hospital, looking after the physical health of people with mental health issues.  Jilly ended her career by coming full circle, ensuring that the psychological health of people who were physically very ill, was paid equal attention.

“I thought about the award and then approached the health board’s chairman, Peter Higson, who gave his backing, before I spoke to Andy.

“It’s been progressed by the health board, and we’ve had a number of excellent nominations. Our hope is that this award will grow, and as more people become aware of it, more nominations will be made in future years.

“It is important that the contribution and specialist skills and dedication of those working with people with mental health issues is recognised by the board”

The awards ceremony, which will involve a three-course meal plus live music, will be attended by 350 fellow health professionals, members of staff and guests including BCUHB board members, volunteers and representatives from the Community Health Council.

Winners from the 14 categories will be presented with an engraved glass trophy by Chief Executive Gary Doherty and Chairman Peter Higson.

The health board received more than 100 nominations across the 15 award categories. Entries were judged by a selection board comprising Chairman Dr Peter Higson, Chief Executive Gary Doherty, Director of Workforce and Organisational Development Martin Jones, Independent Board Member and former midwife Jenie Dean and Director of Finance Russ Favager.

Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board Chief Executive Gary Doherty said: “These awards celebrate the hard work, commitment and success of our staff and volunteers.

“The death of Jilly was a sad loss to her family and to the health community of North Wales. I hope that the Jilly Wilcox-Jones Award will be a fitting legacy for her commitment to improving mental health services and to life-long learning, and will ensure her name lives on.

“Improving our support to staff is one of the key objectives for myself, as Chief Executive, and the Board.  We believe these awards will help to show how much we value our dedicated colleagues across the organisation.

“It was wonderful to read all the nominations, which have come from colleagues and from patients. It was a difficult task to shortlist three for each award – and even harder to decide on the winners.

“I am looking forward to meeting all the nominees on the evening and thanking them personally for helping deliver excellence in patients in North Wales.”