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If the past turbulent year has taught us anything, it’s just how quickly life can change and the dramatic impact this can have on us and the people we hold dear. That’s why as well as reminding people about the importance of having a will, we’re stressing how crucial it is to keep its content updated so that your loved ones will be protected after you’ve gone.

Launching our Make a Will Month campaign (1 – 31 May) in partnership with local solicitors, St Luke’s is highlighting the good sense of making sure your will keeps pace with the significant changes in your life, such as buying a home, getting married, starting a family, getting divorced or the death of your partner.

In support of the campaign, which raises vital funds to help our charity continue providing compassionate care for terminally ill people across Plymouth and surrounding areas, 10 community-spirited solicitors are waiving the fee they would normally charge for making and updating wills in return for a donation to St Luke’s. We give our specialist care and support free of charge to the many local families who rely on our service, but with less than a third of our funding coming from the NHS we are reliant on the generosity of supporters to continue our vital role.

Spearheading St Luke’s Make a Will Month campaign is our Head of Fundraising Penny Hannah, who knows first-hand how life can change overnight and how keeping your will current can help bring peace of mind.

Penny said: “I think it was learning at an early age that nothing in life is certain that made me feel I always want to be as prepared as I can be for whatever lies ahead. I was just 14 when my father died suddenly, and I had to grow up fast. Losing dad was incredibly hard, and my older siblings and I became a rock for my mum.

“I started work as soon as I could so that there was enough money coming in, taking a cleaning job after school at 14 and going into the world of retail, where I quickly worked my way up. By the age of 23 I was a store manager for a national retail chain and had my own home, but it was marriage and the birth of my first daughter, Amber, that was the catalyst for me deciding to get organised and make a will. I remember, very clearly, wanting to know she would be provided for if history repeated itself and she lost me young in life the way I lost my dad. When my then-husband and I made our wills, we included our choice of legal guardians for her, something we updated a few years later when our second daughter, Ruby, was born.

“Since then, life has taken many unexpected twists and turns, as it does for most people. Following the breakdown of my marriage and subsequent divorce, which led to a new chapter in my life, I knew it was important that I should rewrite my will. The next part of my story is a fairytale. I met my prince, Andrew, and when we married our two families became one bigger one of seven. We have shifted careers and moved home, and as a couple we have agreed to keep our wills current so that our loved ones are provided for, no matter what happens.

“Before the pandemic we enjoyed foreign holidays, and we hope to again when it’s safe to travel. Every time we go away, we feel we can truly relax because we know our affairs are in order should the worst happen. We’ve recently become grandparents for the first time, so life has shifted again in another wonderful way.

“While I understand that it may not be uppermost in people’s minds at the moment with everything else that is going on, I can’t stress enough how having an up-to-date will can help free you to enjoy living in the moment. It is one of the kindest things you can do for the people who matter most to you, making what can be a traumatic time for them that bit easier.”

Details of the solicitors taking part in St Luke’s Make a Will Month can be found here, or call 01752 492626 for more information. Appointments can be made for May or for later in the year, and there is the option to meet with a solicitor online or in person.

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.

When friends would visit his wife Jeanette, “I’m just going upstairs” was the phrase Jim Tozer had a habit of using after he’d said hello and before he’d slip away to write, record or simply listen to his beloved music. It was typically low-key of the talented yet modest man his family remember with such deep affection.

It was following the return of oesophageal cancer and his choice not to undergo further treatment that Jim came under the care of St Luke’s, with nurse Sonja Pritchard visiting him at home in the last weeks of his life. Home was where he wanted to receive treatment so he could be with Jeanette and daughter Suzy as well as enjoying regular visits from his son and grandchildren.

Sadly, Jim died last October, aged 68, but as Jeanette and Suzy explained on a recent visit to Turnchapel, where they were joined by Sonja and Alison Beavers, the Bereavement Support Volunteer who has been alongside them, it comforts them to know Jim passed away peacefully at home, surrounded by love.

Jeanette said: “Being a nurse meant I was able to care for Jim at home, but when his condition deteriorated and he required specialist help, Sonja was amazing. She was a reassuring presence for us all.”

Listening to Jeanette speak about her husband of 31 years, and hearing from Suzy too, it is clear to see their love for Jim and the depth of loss they feel as they navigate life without him.

While she knew losing Jim would be challenging, Jeanette anticipated that her nursing career would help her cope and that she would be able to return to work shortly after his funeral, which – understandably – has not been the case. She said: “Jim was terminally ill so I knew what was coming, but losing him has been devastating. I miss him so very much.”

Fortunately, thanks to our community’s support for our charity, we are able to offer more than hands-on medical care. We provide emotional, practical and spiritual help that can make an important difference to bereaved people.

So, ever since Jeanette reached out, Alison has been there as a friendly listening ear, giving her the space to share her feelings at the pace that’s right for her.

The two have developed an easy rapport with Alison visiting Jeanette regularly and listening when Suzy needs to talk, too.

Alison said: “Our service is for anyone whose loved one was cared for by St Luke’s whether the death is recent or happened several years ago. People aren’t themselves when they’re bereaved and emotions can sometimes be confusing and distressing. Getting these feelings out into the open is important in helping them come to terms with their loss and move forward. They have the reassurance of knowing everything they tell us will remain confidential, even if we are there to support other members of the family, too.

“It’s been a privilege getting to know Jeanette and Suzy and hearing their memories of Jim. I feel almost as if I knew him.”

These memories include DIY enthusiast Jim using his skills to give Suzy’s bedroom an impressive makeover to welcome the comedian home after she’d been working away, and giving granddaughter Amy a keyboard to nurture her musical talents. Perhaps most moving of all is the memory of Jim’s sheer determination, despite his diminishing health, to make a ‘secret mission’ into town to buy his wife a diamond ring as a sign of his love and gratitude for her devotion to him.

Jeanette said: “Talking with Alison never feels hurried and it helps me remember all the happy times. We’ve listened to Jim’s music, too, which was such a huge part of his life. There are lots of tears but laughter, too, especially remembering his humour. Even when he was really ill, Jim was still joking with the nurses.”

Suzy, too, finds comfort in her precious memories of the man came who into the lives of her and her brother as ‘Uncle Jim’ but very quickly became a loving father. She said: “It was dad who bought me my first joke book, so it’s his fault my career is in comedy. And when I went abroad to work he put his own lyrics to an Elton John track for me – it was so personal and funny that I still sing it in my head.

“I felt so sad when dad was ill, but things would have been so much harder then – and now – without St Luke’s. You can’t put a price on what they provide but it’s why we’re fundraising to give something back. We’ve been so touched at people’s generosity and dad would have been, too.”

Suzy’s Just Giving page has raised £2,300 to date, for which we are very grateful. Thank you to the whole family and everyone else who has shown their support.

With people living longer and developing more complex conditions, having GPs who understand end of life care, and do not shy away from difficult but necessary conversations with patients about death and dying, is more important than ever.

Given this, you may be surprised to hear that it is not mandatory for GPs to gain experience within hospice care as part of their training. Rather, it is an option they can select as one of the three rotations they are required to complete on their way to becoming qualified.

Recently, we spoke to Dr Malik Dinata, a trainee GP who has chosen to spend four months on rotation with St Luke’s, to see our service through his eyes and find out how his experience with us will help to prepare him for his career in general practice.

Based within our multidisciplinary clinical team at Turnchapel, Dr Malik has been particularly struck that the time he spends with patients on the ward is unhurried. This means he is able to focus on more than their physical symptoms, getting to know them and their history and finding out about their hopes, expectations and concerns – something that would not be possible within the very pressured environment of acute care.

Dr Malik said: “It is very precious to be able to work with St Luke’s. I get to sit with my patient and practice medicine as it is supposed to be.”

Dealing with death, dying and someone’s last days of life can be one of the most stressful parts of a doctor’s role, and Dr Malik credits the support he receives from his supervisor,

St Luke’s Lead Consultant Dr Jeff Stephenson, and other colleagues, for ensuring he feels ‘safe and comforted’ in a setting many would find very challenging.

He said: “We always touch base before I see a patient so that we can discuss the approach that’s most appropriate for them, and then afterwards colleagues check in with me to ask how it went and how the patient responded.”

On average, a GP surgery has 2,000 patients, with around 20 of them – one per cent – living with terminal illness. To help them be as comfortable and as at ease as possible as they approach the end of their lives, they need the specialist care and support of hospices like St Luke’s, where the help they receive is holistic and tailored specifically to them.

Trainee GPs like Dr Malik, who spend time gaining valuable experience in a hospice setting, are not only more equipped to diagnose accurately and prescribe accordingly, they are more confident having the sensitive yet necessary open conversations about death and dying that help their patient fulfil their wishes about their last months, weeks and days of life.

Dr Jeff said: “Being on rotation with us is a wonderful opportunity for future GPs to gain intensive exposure to looking after people who are terminally ill.

“Importantly, while they’re with us, trainees also learn when to admit a patient to hospital and when it’s more appropriate for them to receive care at home, which is key to avoiding unnecessary admissions.”

Listening to Dr Malik, it is clear that our organisation has made a positive and lasting impression on him that he will carry forward into practice.

He said: “St Luke’s is such a unique environment where people, including the patients themselves, learn to become more accepting of their mortality.

“It’s so important for GPs to know how things should be done. At St Luke’s I’ve seen the ‘gold standard’ and it will benefit my future practice – it will be my point of reference and remind me what I need to do for my patients.

“You don’t gain this type of valuable experience from reading about it in textbooks or hearing about it in lectures. You get it from practice at St Luke’s.”