A local charity that’s pulled out all the stops to continue its vital service for terminally ill patients and their families, despite the huge challenges of doing so during the pandemic, is calling on the community to support its annual Light up a Life appeal and are inviting people to dedicate a bauble in memory of their lost loved ones this festive season, which will also help ensure that people facing their last Christmas can make the most of every moment with their loved ones.

The appeal comes near the close of a year like no other, in which the charity has seen its income fall dramatically due to the pandemic forcing its charity shops shut temporarily as well as the postponement of its mass participation fundraising events, such as Midnight Walk and Men’s Day Out, until safer times next year. This is against a backdrop in which demand is growing for the specialist care and support St Luke’s provides, with people living longer and with more complex conditions.

Recognising that Christmas is a special time of celebration, St Luke’s is inviting people to dedicate a bauble in memory of their loved one, who once lit up their life. This can be done via the charity’s website at www.stlukes-hospice.org.uk/light regardless of whether or not your loved one was cared for by the charity.

Nina Wearne, Community & Events Fundraising Manager at St Luke’s, said: “If this year has taught us all anything, it is the importance of compassion and community spirit.

“We understand that for many people whose loved one has died, Christmas is a time of reflection and remembrance, and our Light up a Life appeal is an opportunity to pay tribute to that special person while helping St Luke’s reach more families who will need us this festive season.

“Christmas may look a bit different this year but it is still little kindnesses that make a big difference to people going through a very difficult time. It’s the support our charity receives from our community that enables us to give not only the high-quality care our patients need and deserve at the end of their lives but the comfort and reassurance that helps their families, too.”

As in previous years, St Luke’s is also inviting the community to come together to take part in its Light up a Life remembrance service. On Tuesday 15 December at 7.30pm, you can tune into the service live from The Minster of St Andrew’s in Plymouth while staying in the comfort of your own living room – simply visit www.stlukes-hospice.org.uk/light and follow the instructions on screen. This is an opportunity to join with others also reflecting on cherished memories of their lost loved ones while watching the dancing flames of hundreds of candles flickering in their memory.

Nina said: “There is something special about people coming together to celebrate the lives of those who have gone but are not forgotten, especially at Christmas. While we cannot do that in person this year, our virtual service will be no less uplifting.”

Working across the wards of University Hospitals Plymouth (UHP) NHS Trust 365 days a year, there’s a team small in number yet dynamic and consistently compassionate in the face of pressure, who swiftly stepped up to help strengthen the hospital’s emergency response when the pandemic hit hard earlier this year.

Now, with the number of COVID-19 patients on the rise locally as well as nationally, our hospital team is again giving its support to NHS colleagues, fortifying the frontline so that patients who are dying from complications of the virus receive the compassionate end of life care they need. As part of one big team at the hospital, our hospice staff are not only lending their expertise on the COVID red wards though – just as before, they’re pulling out all the stops to continue their usual work as well, ensuring that right across the hospital patients whose time is running short are as comfortable and at ease as possible.

Explaining how St Luke’s stepped up to help the hospital respond in the early months of the pandemic – and how it feels to be back supporting NHS colleagues dealing with the challenge of another influx of COVID-19 patients – St Luke’s nurse Julie Ayers said:

“Ordinarily, our team is involved in looking after up to 40 hospital patients at any one time, ensuring they receive the highest calibre care and giving emotional support to their families, too. While we are a small team, we are also flexible so when the gravity of the COVID-19 situation brought huge extra pressure to bear on the hospital, we were able to adapt quickly as part of its response to dealing with the emergency.

“It was about more than just providing specialist care and advice for patients with complex symptoms caused by the virus. We were also there supporting hospital staff who suddenly needed to have difficult but necessary conversations with patients’ families. This was especially hard for colleagues who’d never done it before, in some cases because they’d only very recently qualified as doctors and nurses. We drew on our experience to build their confidence and help them do this with kindness and sensitivity while not shying away from clarity because it’s so important to be open and honest with families in these situations.

“In addition, when inpatient and outpatient cancer treatment temporarily transferred to nearby Nuffield Hospital, we were there to provide specialist training for staff at the facility, many of whom were completely unused to looking after people with terminal illness because that’s not what their usual work involves. We continued to provide support for them until cancer care returned to UHP NHS Trust in August.”

“When I look back at that time now, which felt so relentless, I also recall how daunting it was, especially in those first few weeks because it was such an unprecedented time and none of us knew what to expect. I felt really anxious at first, especially with so many news reports about healthcare workers dying from COVID-19, but I think those fears are only natural.

“What’s really helped  – and what’s really stood out to me – is the level of support we’ve given each other. It’s been phenomenal, not just in our tightknit St Luke’s team but more widely across the whole hospital. We are really there for each other because we all recognise the importance of what do and at the same time empathise because we’re all juggling our work with the personal challenges everyone is experiencing due to the pandemic.

“We had to adapt the way we worked really quickly because things were changing not just daily but sometimes by the hour. We just got on with it though because that’s what we do. I’ve worked in palliative and end of life care for most of the past 20 years and have been back with the St Luke’s team for the past three – it’s simply where I feel I belong.”

Julie, who is married with two teenage daughters living at home, appreciates the unswerving support her family has given her as she’s continued to deliver vital care for patients week after week.

This time around, she feels she and the team are much better placed to meet the challenges of working on the frontline of hospital care, looking after patients who include those struggling with symptoms of COVID-19.

She said: “I think because of what we’ve already weathered, we know a lot more about what to expect as COVID cases continue to rise, though of course we can never get complacent.

“I still feel some trepidation – my biggest fear would be to have the virus, be symptomless and pass it on to one of my family – but with all the strict infection control measures in place, the hospital does feel a safe place to work.”

“I really want to emphasise the safety aspect because the rising number of deaths in the community points to people with terminal illness putting off hospital treatment because they’re afraid. I want to say to them, please keep your appointments. Or if you’re worried something might be wrong, don’t put off contacting your GP. It’s so important that people don’t delay what could turn out to be life-saving treatment.”

“Despite all the challenges and the emotional toll my work can take, I still love what I do. Although my role can be very sad at times, it is nevertheless really rewarding as I know I make such a difference to people’s lives.”

Taking up a post at St Luke’s is always going to be more than ‘just’ starting a new job.

What our charity does for patients and their families, uplifting them at a very challenging time, means that whether you have direct contact with them or are in a more behind-the-scenes role, there’s the reward of knowing you’re part of a very special team making a vital difference in your community. But it goes beyond that, too, because we invest in our staff and, as part of a package that also includes a generous annual leave allowance, pension and healthcare scheme, we offer them development opportunities as well

When Rachel Vosper was working as a Healthcare Assistant (HCA) at Turnchapel, where we look after our most vulnerable patients, she enjoyed learning all about the practical needs of people in our care, all the while nurturing her long-held dream of becoming a nurse. Now – thanks to an exciting opportunity for her to take a big step towards that goal by training as our first Nursing Associate – she’s feeling more fulfilled than ever.

Rachel said: “Working as an HCA was fantastic, but the longing to be a nurse never left me. It felt quite disheartening at times, really wanting to learn more about the clinical care patients need but feeling held back because I couldn’t afford to study for the degree you need to enter nursing. So I was over the moon when I found out about the opportunity to train as a Nursing Associate at St Luke’s. I’d never even heard the job title before and couldn’t wait to know more!”

The University of Plymouth’s Pre-registration Nursing Associate programme is an apprenticeship open to both new and existing healthcare staff, enabling them to study for a fully funded foundation degree and obtain a professional qualification and registration with the Nursing & Midwifery Council. Once qualified, Nursing Associates can work across a wide range of healthcare settings and clinical areas, including acute or community hospitals, community nursing teams, GP practices and hospices.

Rachel said: “As a mum of two, being able to earn while I learn is key for me. Training as a Nursing Associate at St Luke’s means I can work towards my qualification while being paid a salary, and the structure of working four days a week and studying at the Uni on the other day means I still get to enjoy time with my family on my days off. It’s working out really well – I always want to learn more and keep challenging myself, and being at St Luke’s I know I’m learning from the best.

“What helps, too, is the great support I get from colleagues, from our doctors, nurses and HCAs to the Education and Social Care teams. It isn’t just about the clinical skills I’m gaining – like taking blood, catheterisation of patients and giving them their medication – it’s learning more about how to have those sensitive conversations with families and giving the emotional support patients and their loved ones need.”

As part of their training, Rachel and her fellow University students spend time reflecting on their practice so that they continue to improve. She said: “It gives me the chance to really absorb new experiences and help me do my best – I want to feel I’m doing everything I possibly can to make sure patients receive excellent care.”

While the pandemic means that Rachel’s study has had to take place online in recent months, and that certain placements have been cancelled, she has benefited from spending time with district nurses, learning about their role, as well as from a placement at a local GP surgery.

She said: “All this means I’m getting a well-rounded experience that’s giving me greater understanding of other healthcare roles and how they work together.

“I’m excited about the future, especially working more closely with our doctors and nurses and having my own patients to look after. I hope I can help those who may take up the opportunity to train in the future. I’d really like to support them in achieving their goals, too.”

With an eye on the horizon, Rachel knows that qualifying as a Nursing Associate means she can, when she’s ready, get a faster track to achieving her ambition of becoming a nurse by entering direct to the second year of degree study at the University.

Nicola Pereira, Head of Inpatient Nursing Services at St Luke’s, said: “As an HCA, Rachel was already an asset to St Luke’s and now she’s a trailblazer as she works towards becoming our first qualified Nursing Associate. It is always rewarding seeing members of the team develop and fulfil their potential, so it’s brilliant seeing her go from strength to strength.”

For more on working with St Luke’s – and details of our current vacancies – click here.

“When I start my shift after two days off and realise all my patients’ names have already gone from our whiteboard, that’s when it really hits home how much more quickly people are dying now because of the pandemic. It’s utterly heart-breaking.”

With the country entering its second national lockdown this week, a healthcare professional from St Luke’s Hospice Plymouth, who knows first hand the impact the pandemic is having on not just lives but deaths too, has shared how it feels to be part of the local charity’s dedicated workforce carrying out their vital service for terminally ill patients and their families while cases of the virus continue to rise.

As a Healthcare Assistant with the Urgent Care Service run by St Luke’s in partnership with Marie Curie, Selina Rogers is used to dealing with death. She and her colleagues choose to work in the challenging environment of hospice care because they understand the difference their specialist skills, and their kindness and sensitivity, make to terminally ill people at the end of their lives. What has changed over recent months, though – and increased the emotional toll on this resilient team – is the speed at which their patients are dying.

Between them, Selina and the rest of the team, which as well as her fellow healthcare assistants includes doctors, nurses and bereavement support workers, cover Plymouth and surrounding areas and are out on the road seven days a week looking after patients at home during a period of change in their condition or a crisis. It is what they do to make the community a kinder place for people who are dying and for the loved ones around them. It also reduces unnecessary admissions to hospital, relieving pressure on the NHS.

This provision from St Luke’s, which is so essential to making their patients more comfortable – managing their symptoms and putting them and their loved ones as at ease as possible – is given by the charity at no cost to those who receive its personalised care and support. The Urgent Care team is continuing to meet the increasing demand for specialist end of life care at home, despite St Luke’s experiencing loss of income with its charity shops being forced into closure for much of this year and its popular mass participation events, such as Midnight Walk and Men’s Day Out, postponed until safer times, in accordance with government advice.

Selina said: “We see a lot of death in what we do, but during this last six to seven months there’s been more than ever. I don’t mean people who’ve died from COVID-19 but those with conditions such as cancer, motor neurone disease and heart failure.

“We can lose four patients just in one day – that’s around what we’d usually expect in a week. We can finish a shift and have our two days off, come back to work and see patients’ names that are all new because those we’d looked after on our previous shift have already died. I find that incredibly tough.

Explaining more, Selina said:  “I think it’s because we’re getting our referrals in later and people are dying a lot sooner. It’s almost like crisis intervention – in many cases, we’re going in the last 24 – 48 hours of their life and making sure they’re comfortable.

“We think it’s in part because many people haven’t been going for routine appointments at hospitals either because they’re scared it’s not safe during the pandemic or because they’ve not wanted the NHS to feel any more stretched than it already is.

“This time next year we’re likely to see even more deaths because people aren’t having the treatment they need. That’s why I want to echo what the NHS is telling everyone, reminding people just how important it is for them to keep their appointments, and if they feel unwell or notice anything out of the ordinary in terms of their health, to talk to their GP.”

As she and her colleagues brace themselves for working throughout another lockdown to reach the many people who need their compassionate care at home in their last days of life, Selina said: “It can feel really challenging looking after people who are so poorly, but we never shy away from it and the pandemic has not – and will not – change that.

“It is very special to be almost be part of a patient’s family during such a vulnerable time. I feel privileged that in my role I can give them not only practical support but be a reassuring presence that reminds they don’t have to go through it alone.

“Another important part of what we do is preparing them for what’s going to happen, getting the balance right between being gentle but not sugar-coating the truth because it’s crucial to be honest. These are not easy conversations to have but in my experience families appreciate that openness and feel relief that they can share whatever they’re feeling with us.

“What I do miss since the pandemic started though, is being able to give them a hug when they need it. We can’t because we all have to respect the safety measures that help keep everyone safe from the virus.

“Just this week, I was with a lady who sadly died while our team was there. Her husband was heartbroken yet I couldn’t put my arm around him the way I usually would – it’s instinctive when someone desperately needs that comfort and it feels really alien and frustrating not to. I just rested my hand on his shoulder and hoped he could see in my eyes how much I care because of course the masks we wear as part of our PPE make it harder for people to read our expressions.”

“What helps me at those times is feeling I’ve done all I can to make such a difficult time that little bit easier for families and knowing St Luke’s bereavement team will be there to support them as they grieve, the comfort blanket they need as they gradually come to terms with their loss.

“Going into this second lockdown is tough on everyone and particularly challenging for people affected by terminal illness because they might be feeling more isolated or anxious. I want to reassure our patients, their carers and their families that St Luke’s will continue to be there for them.

“I also want to thank everyone who supports our charity because it makes such a difference. I’ve been so touched by the way the community has kept us close to their hearts despite the pressures they themselves are facing.

“There doesn’t seem to be any slowing in the higher number of deaths at home and our service will be needed more than ever in the months ahead, so everyone’s kind words and thoughtful gestures really help all of us at St Luke’s dig that little bit deeper to keep going for our patients, whatever this pandemic throws at us.”

The Urgent Care Service is a partnership between charities St Luke’s Hospice Plymouth and Marie Curie.

Working closely with district nurses, GPs and health and social care agencies, the team ensures high-quality, co-ordinated and compassionate care and support for terminally ill patients who need a high level of specialised care at end of life and want to be looked after at home.

The service reaches across Plymouth and into the surrounding areas of South West Devon, including Salcombe, Kingsbridge, Ivybridge, Tavistock and the Moors.