With the current crisis meaning that sadly, more people are dying – and often more quickly – we’re extending the reach of our bereavement support service to anyone who has lost a loved one to COVID-19 or is anticipating this heartbreak.

As part of our city’s response to help individuals and families affected by loss due to the pandemic – and working in partnership with University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust, Plymouth City Council, Livewell Southwest and our networks of Compassionate Friends – our charity has stepped up to co-ordinate support for both pre and post bereavement in Plymouth and surrounding areas.

We know how hard it is when someone close to you dies. We also know that COVID-19 has made loss even more complex for so many people. You might not have been able to visit your loved one in a care home or hospital, or perhaps you’ve had to make extraordinarily tough decisions on who could attend the funeral.

If you need help, there’s no need to wait – you don’t need a referral. Just pick up the phone and call our friendly, experienced and sensitive team on 01752 964200. Whatever you’re feeling, we will listen and support you. You are not alone.

We’re also here for health and social care teams, recognising the toll the pandemic is taking on those working in hospitals and care homes. You’ve been getting on, carrying on and keeping on – we’ll give you the space and support you need to reflect, de-brief, release some emotion and signpost you to the most appropriate support. After all, you’re humans, too.

Talented local Plymouth band SuperXLs have been supporting St Luke’s for the past 3 years, by showcasing their musical tribute to the late, great, David Bowie every January. To date the band has raised almost £2000 from those shows alone. The band is made up of five great local fundraising heroes called Ben, Mark, Leo, Jon and Phin.

On the 3 May, the SuperXLs premiered their isolation video to thank frontline workers fighting covid-19. The song titled ‘Heroes for Heroes’ has raised just under £2000 for St Luke’s, ensuring local families get the care and support that they need at end of life.

Mark Trewin from SuperXLs said, “We had to do something as a tribute to all the frontline heroes working so hard in our community during these challenging times” Mark continued “St Luke’s was the obvious choice to raise money for. One of the band members has a family member being currently cared for by the hospice, so it has a personal connection too and is even more meaningful to gift our time and raise much needed funds.”

The band are urging people to watch their video on YouTube and make a donation of support.

Penny Hannah, Head of Fundraising at St Luke’s, said “The video is best enjoyed with a drink in hand and the sound up loud, the emotional introduction had me and my family in tears, so much passion shared by the band. The words of the song are very powerful and thought provoking, and the images shared of our incredible nurses. I know the challenges our nurses and doctors are faced in these unprecedented times to care for over 300 families in and around our City, it really is heart touching.

“I would like to thank the band for their support and everyone who has donated to the JustGiving page and throughout the pandemic. We really need your support and we are so very grateful, thank you for caring.”

In the past few months, death has become a greater part of public life, with so many families sadly losing loved ones and with the media focus firmly on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But are we getting better at talking more openly about the ‘taboo’ subject of death or do we still hold back because although we’re comfortable with it, we fear others aren’t?

We’re firmly behind the national annual Dying Matters Awareness Week campaign (11 – 17 May) to encourage more honest talk about death, dying and grief, recognising that this helps those affected feel listened to and understood.

To mark this year’s campaign – Dying to be Heard – national charity Hospice UK has revealed new findings from Savanta ComRes that show that 72% of those bereaved in the last five years would rather friends and colleagues said the wrong thing than nothing at all, and 62% say that being happy to listen was one of the top three most useful things someone did after they were bereaved.

Meanwhile, a recent local survey carried out on behalf of St Luke’s, found that just 24% of those polled said they felt ‘very comfortable’ talking about death.

With many people facing the unexpected death of loved ones due to COVID-19, Hospice UK is calling for people to take courage and speak to people about death and bereavement to support those in our society who are dying or grieving.

Tracey Bleakley, CEO of Hospice UK, said “What these findings show is just how important it is for us all to talk about death and grief, particularly when as a nation we are facing higher numbers of unexpected deaths as a result of COVID-19. These issues sadly have a taboo about them, which is unhealthy and can leave people suffering in silence. We owe it to each other to take part in these conversations. So many people are dying to be heard, and we all need to listen.”

In an additional new poll from Opinium on the public’s reaction to COVID-19, while 71% of people agree with the lockdown restrictions, nearly half (48%) said that not being able to see someone before they died or attend a funeral would make it harder to accept the reality of the death. This poll also found that 62% said that not being able to see a dying person before they died would cause a lasting sadness, and one in six (59%) said that they would want a celebration of the person’s life after the lockdown is lifted.

In addition, the survey found that more than 11 million people – 1 in 5 UK adults – have put in place advanced care plans (ACPs) in case they fall ill because of COVID-19, or plan to do so.

As part of our service, we encourage people to create an ACP, a personal statement of wishes that can ensure – as far as is practically possible – that their wishes are respected and acted upon should they be too ill to speak up for themselves in their last days. Having an ACP can bring increased peace of mind not just for the person concerned but for the loved ones around them, too, making a very stressful time that little bit easier.

We also provide emotional, practical and spiritual support for those whose loved one had links to our service before they died.

Jutta Widlake, Head of Social Care at St Luke’s, said: “As a society, we don’t discuss death openly, and because people are living longer most of us don’t experience the loss of someone close to us until we’re well into midlife. Death is a normal part of life though, and we shouldn’t feel held back from talking about it because we fear others might feel uncomfortable if we do.

“As the national survey results show, silence isn’t always golden because most bereaved people welcome friends’ and colleagues’ efforts to help, even if those people are afraid of saying the wrong thing. So, taking that step to express your support – and being there to listen – are among the most important things you can do.”

You can pledge to take part in a conversation about dying, death or grief, either initiating it or taking part if someone else starts it. An online pledge wall and other ways for people to share their pledges can be found here.

For more information www.dyingmatters.org or www.stlukes-hospice.org.uk/acp

This Thursday night, we’ll be clapping for these heroes in helmets!

A huge shout out to all the amazing volunteers behind South West Blood Bikes, a local charity which literally goes the extra mile delivering blood samples between organisations including UHP NHS Trust and St Luke’s, saving our own precious resources.

More than that, these big-hearted bikers who give their time for free have really stepped up during the current crisis, picking up prescriptions from pharmacies and delivering them to people isolating at home.

From one charity to another, we want to say we couldn’t be more grateful for the vital service they provide. When ‘normal’ life resumes, you’ll see them fundraising at all sorts of public events, so please dig deep to show your support!

Scott Medical College

Students of Scott Medical and Healthcare College are not only proving they’re as well motivated as ever despite lockdown, learning from home via lessons online, they’ve shown that when it comes to kindness they’re also top of the form, fundraising for local hospice care.

The specialist mainstream school for 13 to 19 year-olds, where students study towards careers in medicine and healthcare, chose to get behind our charity, recognising that now more than ever our charity needs support from the community to continue providing our vital service for local families. So, ditching their usual lockdown attire of casualwear, students from every year group dressed in their school uniforms for a ‘reverse mufti day’, raising £250 for St Luke’s in the process.

Being a partner of our Compassionate Schools initiative, which helps school staff better support students who are facing bereavement or have already lost someone close to them, the College was so determined to show its support that even the teachers dressed in school uniform to enter into the spirit of the occasion.

But that’s not all because during one online lesson, students received a special surprise when St Luke’s healthcare assistant Samm and nurse Theresa ‘gatecrashed’ to thank them for their support and take part in an online question and answer session, providing an insight into their work looking after terminally ill people who are dying. As part of the session, our specialist unit carers explained how they are coping with the changes brought about by the COVID-19.

St Luke’s healthcare assistant Samm said: “We are used to being there for our patients at a very difficult time so we are resilient, but it is hard not being able to hug them or hold their hand because it is second nature to us to show them that compassion. We still provide lots of reassurance for them though, and we’re doing lots to help them keep in touch with their families, recognising how very hard it is for them not to be together at this time.”

Headteacher of Scott Medical and Healthcare College Martyn Cox said: “As a specialist school, we place great emphasis on equipping our students with the vocational skills they need for exciting careers in healthcare, so it was hugely valuable to them to hear from the St Luke’s nurses about the challenges – and rewards – of working in hospice care.“I’m very proud of the way our students and staff embraced the idea of the reverse mufti day to show their support for the service St Luke’s provides, which we should never take for granted.”

Penny Hannah, Head of Fundraising at St Luke’s, said: “It’s heart-warming that these students preparing for their careers and adult lives have made such an effort to show people who are at the end of their lives that they haven’t been forgotten. We’re very grateful for their fantastic fundraising, which will help us be there for more local families who need us.”

Learn more about becoming a compassionate school to better support bereaved students.

Small in number yet dynamic and consistently compassionate in the face of unprecedented pressure, the St Luke’s team at University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust (UHP) is making a vital contribution to the hospital’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr Doug Hooper, Consultant in Palliative Medicine, is part of our team there, which also includes team leader Martin Thomas, nurses James Mills, Linzie Collins, Julie Ayres, Julia Pugh, Becky Harris, Julie Thesinger and Dr Hannah Gregson and Dr Roger Smith, and their Clinical Admin colleagues Jenny Francis and Jenny Brooks. Here, Doug shares how he and his colleagues have rallied, helping to fortify the frontline during this time of crisis.

“Ordinarily, we’re involved in looking after up to 40 patients at any one time, working alongside the hospital doctors and nurses across the wards so that people with terminal illness receive the highest calibre care as they near the end of their lives. We’re also here for their families, providing much-needed emotional support.

“Given the tremendous gravity of the COVID-19 situation and the huge additional pressure it’s putting on the NHS, we’ve naturally pulled out all the stops to adapt what we do really quickly so that the hospital is as well prepared as possible to manage the influx of people admitted with complications from the virus.

“Now several weeks in, UHP is relatively quiet due to much of the non-urgent inpatient and outpatient care being postponed, but the situation can change by the hour. There are ‘red wards’ dedicated to people struggling with COVID-19 symptoms and sadly, some of them have died. That’s why our team is embedded on these wards, supporting the doctors, nurses and healthcare assistants so that they have a better understanding of each individual patient’s needs.

“Crucially, we’re providing emotional support for the hospital staff who need us, some of whom are relatively inexperienced nurses. Understandably, the enormity of the situation can take a toll on them so we are there to listen and help however we can.

“With both patients and their relatives in mind we’ve helped the hospital’s Patient Advice and Liaison Service access iPads for each ward so that families can keep in touch. While it’s heart-breaking that people can’t usually visit their loved one due to current restrictions, it’s really moving to see how Zoom and social media have helped bring people together so powerfully at such a challenging time. These human connections are vital to the relief of suffering.

“We’ve also worked closely with the hospital communications team and Annie Charles from the Mustard Tree Cancer Macmillan Support Centre so that family can be offered more in-depth support and be able to send uplifting personalised messages to their loved ones.

“When it is clear that a patient is not going to survive COVID-19, doctors and nurses need to have brave, honest and realistic but kind conversations with families. This is far from easy even when you have worked in end of life care for years, but the pandemic means some staff are facing this for the first time, having to break the hardest of news to those who can’t be there to hold their loved one’s hand.

“We’ve used our experience to produce advice packs for staff to help them feel better prepared to have these conversations with truth and clarity but gentleness and kindness, too.

“Part of relieving pressure on the NHS is the private sector lending its support, so our team has been busy providing specialist training to those working at the Nuffield Health Plymouth Hospital as the organisation is lending its facility and workforce to UHP by temporarily providing both inpatient and outpatient cancer treatment. It’s heartening to see them getting behind the NHS like this in the interest of public health.

“In the toughest of circumstances so many positive changes have been made, and I hope many of them will continue to benefit healthcare in the future. Our team will remain agile as this situation unfolds, working shoulder to shoulder with our NHS colleagues to meet the challenge. And I know we’ll continue to support each other – the camaraderie between us is second to none.”

Learn more about St Luke’s at Derriford.