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.

This being Hospice Care Week (5 – 11 October) – the annual Hospice UK campaign highlighting what it takes for hospices to provide high-quality end of life care at no cost to the patients they serve – St Luke’s Hospice Plymouth is shining a light on the vital difference its service made to a young family while in the midst of the pandemic.

When little Poppy Hammond of Tavistock had to forego cuddles with daddy Tom, 30, because the two-year-old’s suspected COVID-19 symptoms meant it wasn’t safe for her or her mother Jess to be at his bedside at St Luke’s Hospice Plymouth’s specialist unit, it felt devastating for them all. Already dealing with the heart-breaking news that Tom’s time was running short due to a brain tumour first diagnosed in his teens, the necessary separation dealt another cruel blow to the family, which includes Josh, Tom’s nine-year-old son from a previous relationship.

Jess, who married Tom in 2017 five years after they met at Plymouth’s Oceana nightclub, by which time he had undergone surgery and then further treatment for the tumour, said: “It was so hard realising Poppy and I had to isolate when all I wanted was for us to be with Tom at Turnchapel. He was so poorly by that point that I didn’t even know if we would see him again.”

As soon she and Poppy could safely emerge from isolation, Jess drove straight to Turnchapel. She said: “A nurse kindly arranged for us to see Tom through a big window in the building. The moment Poppy saw her daddy there, she ran straight up to him. She put her hand up to glass and Tom put his hand up as well. It was so lovely but also so hard because all we wanted to do was to give him a cuddle. I’m just so grateful though, that we even got that time.”

It was just a few weeks earlier that Tom has been transferred to the specialist unit following treatment at University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust.

Jess said: “When it was first explained to us that Tom needed specialist care at the hospice, it felt really scary. I thought it would be a really sad place, but it didn’t feel like that. Tom was very comfortable there and said it was like a retreat, with a sea-view room, lovely meals and even a drinks trolley so the patients can enjoy a tipple. In that week before the pandemic meant visiting had to be restricted, our family and friends would come to see him all the time, Tom and Josh would play on the X-box together and Poppy loved dressing-up in the playroom. It was a just nice place to be and even nicer that Tom loved it.”

“Being the lovely, funny person he was, Tom made the nurses laugh when he’d sneak to the cleaner’s cupboard in the night and help himself to her biscuits. They told me Tom made them smile at a time when they were all working under a lot of extra pressure because of the pandemic.”

Tom was then discharged home to Tavistock so that he could spend precious time there with his loved ones around him. His care at home was made possible thanks to St Luke’s team of highly trained nurses who visit patients across Plymouth and surrounding areas to ensure their comfort and maintain their dignity so that they can live well to the end of their lives.

Jess said: “Initially, St Luke’s came once a day and then more frequently as our needs changed. They did as much as they could to help, and it meant I got a little break from looking after Tom and could spend time one-on-one with Poppy. What they did for us gave us the most amazing three weeks together at home.”

When Tom’s condition worsened, it was St Luke’s End of Life Urgent Care team that stepped in, visiting four times a day.

Jess said: “They were so kind and so calm, and because of their training they were able to alert me when Tom was nearing his last hours.

“On Tom’s last day, we made it really positive with lots of family and friends around, just as he wanted. At the end though, it was just me with him that evening. I sat by his bed, simply saying to him the kind of things he’d say to Josh and Poppy at bedtime. Then he just fell asleep. It was like he’d waited for everyone else to go so that I could have those final precious moments alone with him.”

Reflecting on her husband’s character, Jess said: “Tom was loveliest, the most laidback person you could ever meet. We were always out having fun together, going to festivals or taking the children to Tavistock Park to feed the ducks. He was amazing with Josh and Poppy, always making them laugh, playing games and making dens.

Remembering Tom’s ‘guilty pleasure’ – rap and grime music – she said: “He was a huge fan of Stormzy, and we went to see him four times. He thought his own rapping was really good, too. It wasn’t, which always amused our friends!”

Paying tribute to her beloved husband, Jess said: “Tom was the best person in the world. All my family, all his family and all our friends said so. Throughout his illness he’d say, “I’m just glad it’s me” because he wouldn’t want to watch it happening to any of us. As a husband and as a dad, he couldn’t have loved us any more if he’d tried and we couldn’t have loved him more either.

Help more families in need | Donate today

St Luke’s Hospice Plymouth provides specialist palliative care to people with life threatening illnesses and support to their families and carers, in partnership with others. The care is not just medical and nursing but incorporates emotional, social and spiritual support as well.

We are always interested to hear from people with the knowledge, skills and motivation to help ensure that as St Luke’s evolves, we continue to make wise decisions that mean we can meet the challenges ahead, including reaching underrepresented groups who sometimes struggle to be heard.

Trustee, Charles Hackett, said: “Being a trustee at St Luke’s supports my personal development but more importantly allows me to use my skills to help, in some way, the community in which I live.”

Being a trustee with St Luke’s can be rewarding for many reasons, including a sense of making a difference with a well-respected charity that touches the lives of local families to gaining new experiences and forging new relationships. (For an insight into our recent work, take a look at our latest impact report.)

Fiona Field, who sits on the Organisational Risk and Audit Committee and chairs the Health & Safety Committee, said: “I give about one day per month on average, this is divided between being a member of the board, chairing the health and safety committee, visiting teams across St Luke’s and taking part in some of the fundraising activities. I have regularly attended the Open Gardens in the summertime, sold programmes on Plymouth Hoe at the Firework Championships and walked the Elmer Trail.

“I find the work interesting and rewarding and I am always proud to talk to others about the brilliant work that everyone at St Luke’s does for such a worthy cause. I am keen that the services St Luke’s offers continue to be of the highest quality possible for our patients and their families locally.”

For more information on getting involved, please contact us by e-mailing info@stlukes-hospice.org.uk

When your vital work caring for terminally ill people already takes its toll on you emotionally, how do you cope when it is made so much more challenging by the pandemic and its impact on not only the families St Luke’s serves, but the welfare of you and your own loved ones, too?

Selina Rogers and Becci Stafford are Healthcare Assistants (HCAs) with our End of Life Urgent Care Service, which runs seven days a week. In partnership with Marie Curie, it provides co-ordinated, bespoke end of life care and support to patients who need this at home during a time of crisis or change in their condition. The team’s remit extends across Plymouth and out as far as Salcombe, Tavistock and the moors, too.

As HCAs, Selina and Becci are central to the high-calibre care the team provides, ensuring our patients are as comfortable as possible – and their loved ones as at ease as possible – in the midst of very challenging circumstances. The ‘storm’ of the pandemic has meant that their sensitivity and compassion have been even more critical than ever, with the past few months seeing them pull out all the stops to remain the reassuring presence families desperately need, all while managing their own anxieties and concerns around COVID-19.

Selina said: “Helping to look after people who are dying is not an easy job, but we do it because we understand what a difference it makes to patients when their dignity is respected and they feel understood. We know how hard it is for their family members, too, who are often shouldering a lot of the caring responsibilities for the person who is terminally ill.

“That’s why we’ve been determined to maintain the outstanding service so many rely on, despite the many challenges of carrying out our work during the pandemic. As with NHS frontline staff, we’ve had to use all the necessary PPE and though we understand how essential it is, it has been very tough knowing patients can’t see our smiles, or feel the warmth of our hugs or the reassurance of our hand on their shoulder.

“It goes against our natures not to be tactile, so we’ve adapted by telling them when we’re smiling, and even saying to them, “It’s right now that I’d have given you a hug”, just to make sure they know how much we care.”

Even more difficult has been the shock of seeing their patients die much more quickly than in pre-pandemic times. Whereas normally patients live for up to around 40 days from the team’s initial visit, giving time for a comforting familiarity to build between them, many have sadly passed away within just one or two days.

Becci said: “It has felt really hard comprehend at times, especially seeing them looking reasonably healthy one day and finding out that sadly, they have died the next.

“We understand the reasons for this – many people have been getting referred to us much later than they normally would because of the difficulties they’ve had accessing their GP during lockdown, or deteriorating more rapidly due to the pandemic delaying their hospital treatment – but understanding it doesn’t take away the shock and sadness we feel.

“As a team we’ve all had to pull together more than ever to help each other through because every one of us has found it very hard-going.”

Of course, as well as their care and concern for their patients and the families around them, our clinical teams have also faced making tough personal sacrifices to reduce their own loved ones’ risk of contracting the virus.

Becci, who has young children, made the heart-wrenching decision to live separately from them for seven weeks, taking them to live with their father to help protect them while she cared for two patients diagnosed with COVID-19.

“I felt huge guilt in choosing to stay apart from my children, and although I knew it was the right thing to do, I struggled. It’s at times like that I appreciate the team around me even more. At various times, we’ve all been close to breaking point due to the fear of the virus, anxiety and fatigue, but we’ve got through by being there for one another, laughing and crying together. As a unit, we’re stronger than ever.”

Selina concurs: “It’s been an emotional rollercoaster, but we have so much empathy for each other and we’re like a family now. We’ve had superb leadership from Sharon Mayer throughout and all our nurses have been amazing, too. It gives you great faith in your team, knowing the resilience that’s been forged through what we’ve all been through.”

Listening to Becci and Selina, it’s clear from the emotion in their voices that they’ve been so tested in recent months yet remain completely dedicated to those in their care.

Becci said: “When a family thanks you for being alongside them from the very first visit to the last, saying how that continuity was made such a big difference to them, it’s incredibly fulfilling. It feels really special.”

For most people, changing jobs and joining the staff of a new organisation can be a time of trepidation as well as excitement – but what is it like when your arrival and induction happen to coincide with a global pandemic?  Claire Fisher, who joined us as Head of Finance in early June, shares the background that led to her joining our charity and reflects on her first six weeks in post during such an unprecedented time.

Claire said: “Being born and bred in Plymouth, the name of St Luke’s was very familiar to me and I’ve always known it to be synonymous with dignity, respect and compassion. So, when I heard about the opportunity to join as Head of Finance, it really sparked my interest and I wanted to find out more.

“My whole career has revolved around finance, which is not that surprising given that maths was my favourite subject at school, and it was joining Plymouth City Council at the age of 18 that gave me the chance to train and qualify as an accountant. Then, when Plymouth became a unitary authority, in 1998, I was promoted to the role of Group Accountant, leading a team providing technical accountancy support to the whole authority, on topics such as VAT and treasury management. I also took a lead role in the production and audit of the statutory accounts and submission of government returns.

“The council played a really important part in my life, and not simply because it’s where I spent the first 24 years of my career. It’s was also where I met my husband, but later – after we had our children – my perspective began to change and I found myself seeking a new professional direction where I could hopefully see more of a tangible positive impact for my efforts.  Teaching was a career I’d considered at school and, though I decided again not to take that path, the idea of broadening my horizons and working in a school remained attractive.

“It was the opportunity to join Lipson Co-operative Academy as Assistant Business Manager, in 2013, that saw me take the leap into a very different work environment. I had the autonomy to review and shape all aspects of the school’s financial activities, and I’m proud of the improvements I made during my seven years there.  I also managed other aspects of the school business activities, including main reception, which helped me to get involved in all aspects of school life.”

“I wasn’t actively seeking a change of job when the advert for the Head of Finance role at St Luke’s was pointed out to me by a friend.  However, the chance to develop professionally – while also making a valuable contribution to one of the charities I personally support – made it an opportunity not to be missed!  For me, part of the attraction of working for a charity is that rather than the focus being on expenditure, as in my previous roles, the key is to develop and sustain income streams.  Of course, the delivery of quality services to local people is at the heart of what we do here, and that has been an important aspect for me throughout my career.

“What no-one could have foreseen, of course, was the pandemic and the huge impact it would have on everyone’s lives, including at work. I won’t pretend that my induction period has been without its challenges, given the very unusual circumstances, but the warmth of the welcome I’ve received from everyone has been truly humbling and helped me to quickly feel part of the team. In particular, my Finance team colleagues have gone out of their way to help me settle in.

“I’ve really appreciated the friendliness and support, especially as I joined just a week before the main annual audit, an exceptionally busy time made all the more demanding by the additional workload brought about because of the COVID-19 situation, including the financial modelling that’s been urgently required to help our charity steer its way through these unchartered waters and keep providing such outstanding end of life care.

“This role and the organisation itself both feel a really good fit for me. My great auntie and my husband’s auntie were both cared for at Turnchapel, where I’m based (though currently doing some of my work from home), so I already knew it was an uplifting place, and I feel a real affinity with all that St Luke’s stands for.

“I only have to look as far as the messages that come in with some of the donations to sense the overwhelming love and respect our community has for St Luke’s and the fact there are so many ‘stories’ lying behind the £ signs I see in our accounts. For example, there was one just recently from a regular volunteer, who said she was making a donation in lieu of putting in her usual shifts – she wanted to continue contributing to the cause she holds so dear while she awaits the call to return to her voluntary role when it’s safe to do so.

“That sums it up for me. St Luke’s is the city’s best-loved and most respected charity, and I feel excited and proud to now be playing my part in helping to ensure a sustainable future for the vital service it provides.”

Written by Dr Jeff Stephenson, Consultant at St Luke’s Hospice Plymouth

I didn’t pay much attention to the news stories about Wuhan, and the Facebook posts from fellow Christians there asking for prayer. I probably said a few ‘arrow prayers’ but didn’t really engage. It was all far away, and it wouldn’t ever impact us. I’m challenged once again to widen my circle of concern and engagement.

COVID-19 is now here. Changes we have been talking about around our ways of working get a kick-start as staff move out of buildings and embrace technology. Skype and PPE intrude on working days. I dislike both of them. The very thing that brought me into hospice is the human contact. Presence and proximity and touch are fundamental to palliative care. It’s not the same caring for the dying from behind the barriers of mask and gloves.

I read of the experience of Italian colleagues who found that palliative care had to be “brutally” adapted. Early on in our own experience it is restrictions on visiting that injure most, both families and staff. Seemingly inhumane and rapidly changing guidance, in the name of safety. And common sense in applying the guidance for a while goes out of the window, a testimony to the prevalent fear. Thankfully, pragmatism and compassion soon prevail for those at the end of life.

I sense the fear all around. I sense it amongst some of our staff. Society’s new mantra is ‘Stay safe’. Precautions are necessary, but what are such messages doing to the collective psyche in a culture that already idolises safety? I reflect on the early Christians who stayed behind in Carthage and other cities across the Roman Empire to care for plague victims, and the fruit of their service and sacrifice.

Stories from London start to mirror those from Italy, and we begin to take seriously the possible impact on our region. There is talk of a local Nightingale unit. This is a defining hour. Inwardly I sense that it isn’t going to be as bad as they are predicting here. We are not London. I tell colleagues that, based on prophetic conviction rather than science. But I prepare for the worst and trust for the best. And we need to support the wider healthcare community in this crisis or else the credibility of hospices may be in doubt.

We adapt our community and hospital support, and we temporarily increase the number of our beds (all with precious piped oxygen) from twelve to eighteen. We offer to help out with the Nightingale. The option of us taking COVID patients comes to the table.

I meditate for several days on worship and sacrifice. I am genuinely not afraid for myself. I dwell in Psalm 91, reciting it aloud every morning when I arrive on the ward, declaring its truths over the hospice, staff and city. But I am burdened by the possibility of losing one of my nursing or medical colleagues. It seems a reasonable sacrifice to lay down one’s life while trying to save others. But almost all our patients are already dying. Laying down one’s life to enable them to have a better experience? If I died as a direct result of my work, wouldn’t that be a terrible waste? A life poured out in service and worship is never a waste. Greater love has no man than this…..

I recommend that we isolate part of the hospice to take patients dying with or from COVID. It is the right thing to do but it will put staff in harm’s way. I tell my team that I will personally attend any COVID patients admitted to the unit, even if it means coming in when I am not meant to be at work. Their response is humbling and inspiring. They won’t hear of it. In fact, they will preferentially protect me, as my age puts me at higher risk.

The kindness of strangers is all around us in this crisis. It makes me believe that great blessing will come out of it. That and of course the certain knowledge that God works all things for good to those who love him (Romans 8:28).

As the weeks go by it feels like a bit of a ‘phoney war’. There have been cases in the city, and some deaths and the heart-breaking stories surrounding those. But the expected surge hasn’t happened here.

A month on there has been no need for our eight designated COVID beds, so we open them up again to general palliative care. All our services have been strangely quiet. Where are all the ‘usual’ patients? We have had hundreds of empty hospital beds, everything gearing up for a deluge that thankfully never comes.

Three months on and we still haven’t had a patient in the hospice with confirmed COVID.

Now the talk is about the ‘even bigger’ second wave that is going to hit us over the winter. Here we go again. I refuse to buy into that kind of fear. But the toll on staff is showing. Call it ‘COVID fatigue’ if you like, but fatigue seems too bland a description. There is a pervading weariness, bordering on exhaustion in some.

The ‘usual’ patients are coming back, but are generally more poorly than before, often more advanced. The turnover for all teams is ‘brisk’. The emotional impact of the drip feed exposure to suffering is intensified by the post-adrenaline crash, and defences on the line between self-preservation and the need to embrace it in order to engage meaningfully can seem all the more fragile.

But there is hope. And learning. And blessing. Some incredible blessing – He floods the darkness with brightness, even the darkness of the shadow of death (Job 12:22). We talk about and plan for restoration. I am immensely proud of those I work with. Our services will never be the same again – and that for the better. We have shown ourselves to be agile and flexible and resilient. There have been tensions along the way, but we have a greater cohesiveness across clinical teams. We have collaborated effectively with external services. We stepped up to the plate and responded to the need and we will reap the benefits of that. And we have been given the opportunity and privilege of redefining who we are and what we do going forward.

by Dr Jeff Stephenson, Consultant at St Luke’s Hospice Plymouth
*end*

Other blogs we recommend
A response to COVID-19 in hospital

Have you watched?
Trainee GP in a hospice

Following official safety advice relating to mass participation events during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the city’s best-loved charities has announced the cancellation of two of its flagship fundraising events for this year.

Check your inbox… participants already signed up to Men’s Day Out or Midnight Walk have already been contacted by us via email to explain the cancellation process.

St Luke’s Hospice Plymouth is not letting lockdown restrictions dampen the community spirit of its many ardent supporters though. Quite the reverse! Having made the difficult decision to cancel the popular Men’s Day Out, sponsored by IU Energy, and ladies’ Midnight Walk events, after previously hoping to just postpone – and recognising the disappointment this will bring to the thousands who had signed up to take part – it is inviting local men and women to create their own fundraising challenge instead.

Sponsorship money raised by those who sign up for the charity’s Make your own Midnight Walk event this summer, in collaboration with Nash & Co Solicitors (24 July – 31 August), will help ensure the much-loved charity can continue to provide bespoke end of life care for terminally ill patients at home, in hospital and at its specialist unit at Turnchapel, and support them and their loved ones during these turbulent times.

Whether participants choose to walk, jog or run, and whether they take on the challenge solo, with members of their household – children are welcome – or friends (including the four-legged variety!), their personalised event will be an opportunity to have fun – safely – in the great outdoors. For the many who look forward to taking part in Men’s Day Out and Midnight Walk as a tribute to their lost loves ones, it is also a chance to keep the memory of that special person alive and celebrate their life.

Penny Hannah, Head of Fundraising at St Luke’s, said: “Over the years, Men’s Day Out and our ladies’ Midnight Walk have become legendary in our city with thousands taking part. They’ve done us proud, highlighting the need for local hospice care and raising hundreds of thousands of pounds to ensure our vital service continues.

“Cancelling both events for this year is disappointing for our supporters and us, but it’s the right thing to do to protect our community during the pandemic. It does mean though, that alternative ways of fundraising are key to our charity surviving in these uncertain times.

“That’s why we’re calling on existing supporters and new to sign up to Make your own Midnight Walk. Not only is registering easy and completely free of charge, there’s the flexibility to do everything from a gentle walk or jog to a full-on marathon distance. Stay close to your own doorstep or head to a favourite destination, as long as it is safe to do so.

“What counts is taking part because it’s the sponsorship raised by sharing your JustGiving page with family, friends and neighbours that will help keep St Luke’s doing what we do best, being the professional comfort blanket our patients and their families need now more than ever.

“This is a great opportunity for people of all ages to have fun while doing good in their community, before we can all come together again for our mass participation events in safer times.”

To sign up and to get more information to Make your own Midnight Walk, visit www.stlukesmidnightwalk.co.uk

Check your inbox… participants already signed up to Men’s Day Out or Midnight Walk have already been contacted by us via email to explain the cancellation process.

St Luke’s is continuing to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic closely. The charity will contact each person who registers an event to ensure they are aware of the latest official advice relating to social distancing before their event takes place.