George Sultana sits on the sofa of his Birkirkara home sipping tea and nibbling one of his wife Irene’s delicious coconut macaroons, savouring every moment.
“Just six months ago I couldn’t even lift the mug, nor cut a fish finger with a knife,” he says, his eyes welling up as he recalled the paralytic state that a rare spinal tumour — Schwannoma — had reduced him to.
It all started in December 2017 when he was holidaying in Mont Blanc with his wife. That time he had lost sensation in his fingers, but he put it down to frostbite and didn’t give it a second thought.
The 58-year-old foreman of Palumbo Malta Shipyards mechanical division returned to work but he could feel his health deteriorating. Medical tests failed to reveal anything but he knew something was not right — he could barely climb the stairs and he had no strength.
Unbeknown to him, a tumour was growing and pressing on the nerves of his spine. His condition was diagnosed at the beginning of last year and a follow-up consultation with The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in the UK confirmed he had to undergo a major operation to have the tumour removed.
It was not something he was mentally prepared to face and as his strength continued to fail him, his fear took over and he started to lose his will to live.
His wife recalls: “I would lock the garage and hide the car keys from him to make sure he didn’t do anything stupid.”
George would lie to my mother about his condition not to worry her and secretly started to prepare for his eventual departure from this world, tightening up loose ends and putting aside money for his funeral.
“I think I must have cried more as a grown-up man than when I was a baby,” he says.
The previous year, George had worked long hours to save for the wedding ceremonies of his two children, Adrian and Marisa, so there was not much left in the family reserves when cancer came knocking.
“We donate to l-Istrina every year, but we never dreamt we would ever need to tap into their funds.”
Thankfully, the family received tremendous support from the Malta Community Chest Fund and the Puttinu Cares Foundation. But George reserves special praise for his boss, Mr Antonio Palumbo, who supports him financially to this day, even though he has been unable to return to work just yet.
“Mr Antonio invests a lot in his workforce and expects loyalty in return. He is a true gentleman.”
George underwent a major operation in the UK in August. It was a huge success and every day, thanks to therapy, he keeps regaining his strength.
“I’m still overcoming the trauma, but I feel reborn. I cannot wait to return to work,” he adds.
George joined the Malta Drydocks as an apprentice on September 8, 1980. He was one of just 100 apprentices who was chosen for the position that year.
The young man showed promise and after three years he became a fitter in the machine shop, and then a chargeman.
He was happy at the shipyard and when talk of liquidation surfaced in September 2008 he refused to let go, even though morale among the workers was at an all-time low and they felt mistreated by politicians from both sides wanting to score points.
“It was a very unhappy situation. Every week there would be a notice listing the names of workers who were leaving. It was very disheartening.
“We had also been promised we would keep our jobs and we had received a letter before the election from then Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi assuring us of this, so as you can imagine it was a big betrayal.”
George remained at the shipyard until the very end and when he finally had to bid farewell to his beloved workplace when it was sold to the Palumbo Group, he registered a willingness to stay.
“Each day was marked with uncertainty and fear. I was unemployed for three months and had no idea what to do. Our children were still studying and my wife didn’t work; we were living day by day.”
Thankfully his prayers to return were answered when the new management called George for an interview and he was re-employed with Palumbo Group on July 2, 2010, going on to be promoted as foreman of the mechanical section in July 2017.
“Today I am grateful for everything I have; for my family, for the shipyard, and for my second chance at life. My heart remains with my second family at the shipyard. I’d love to return but my fate rests in the doctors’ hands.”