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As we head towards the close of this extraordinary year, which has seen our clinical staff work so tirelessly to keep giving their compassionate care, members of our team based at University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust share their reflections on these past turbulent months, during which time the hospital’s ‘one big team’ ethos has been tested as never before.

Earlier this year, when the hospital was in the eye of the storm, Specialist Nurses Linzie Collins and Becky Harris were among the St Luke’s staff who joined forces with hospital doctors and nurses on the frontline, looking after seriously ill patients on the COVID red wards. As they stepped up to do this, working flat out, their colleagues at the hospital were also pulling out all the stops to ensure that the terminally ill patients nearing the end of their lives still received the specialist care they required.

Listening to Linzie and Becky talk about their experience then – and how things have been since – with admissions rising again more recently, it is clear that it is not just their expert hands-on care that has made such an important difference, ensuring patients are more comfortable and at ease. It is also the way they have communicated with patients’ families, combining sensitivity and kindness with the clarity that is so necessary to gaining relatives’ understanding of their loved one’s prognosis.

It is this same style of compassionate communication that they have used to help their hospital colleagues feel more confident in having these difficult conversations with patients’ families, including not only newly qualified nurses who suddenly found themselves on the frontline of COVID care, but more experienced staff, too.

Linzi said: “Before joining the team at Derriford I nursed patients at Turnchapel, where having these honest conversations with families happens on a very regular basis. It is never easy but you realise that in being open with them and, in a sensitive way, being clear about what they should expect is actually the kindest thing you can do because it helps prepare them – as much as possible – for what is going to happen. It gives them the opportunity to tell their loved one all that they feel they want to say before that person dies, which helps bring them comfort and more peace of mind.”

Preparing their hospital counterparts to have these open discussions wasn’t the only way Linzie and Becky helped them with communication, though. Recognising that UHP NHS Trust nurses often have difficulty finding the time to make calls to patients’ families, Linzie developed a ‘communication folder’ containing a simple form to record dates, times and brief notes of conversations that took place.. Thanks to the simplicity of the form, it can easily be updated no matter what the time of the day or night the call takes place, even if it’s at 3am.

Linzie said: “Nurses are so busy that they just don’t have time to be hunting around for information. I felt this was something simple I could do to help make things a little easier, with all key details about conversations with family and friends recorded in one central place.

“It was rewarding being able to help in this way to relieve some of the pressure on the hospital team, who have been so brave and are so exhausted, and they welcomed our suggestions and help with this.

“Something that it really brought home to Becky and me is that in working for St Luke’s we have the benefit of time to spend getting to know our patients – it’s all part of our holistic approach. Time is such a precious commodity at the hospital and there are always so many demands on the nurses – they have to prioritise giving clinical care above all else.”

Of course, we can’t mention communication without highlighting how Linzie, Becky and their colleagues had to think ‘outside the box’ to help dying patients – and the loved ones who couldn’t be with them in person because of the pandemic – feel as connected as possible, despite the physical distance between them. Technology had a big part to play here.

Becky said: “I’ll never forget witnessing a Zoom call we facilitated between a patient and his daughter. As you’d expect, she was devastated that she couldn’t be at his side to hold his hand, but she was at least able to tell him over and again how much she loved him. It was heart-breaking to see, but I’m so reassured that she was able to have that conversation with her dad. In time, knowing he heard her say how precious he was to her will – I hope – help heal her memories.”

“Normal grief patterns have been lost in COVID-19 because of how fast things have happened, the restrictions on families visiting their loved one and even funerals having to be done differently, so being able to help – even in small ways – feels very rewarding for us.”

The final word goes to Dr Doug Hooper, Consultant in Palliative Medicine in our team at Derriford. He said: “Although the virus means people have had to stay apart in a way we have never witnessed before, at the hospital we have seen how in another sense it has brought everyone closer together. It is not just our St Luke’s team who have gone over and above but colleagues right across the hospital. While this year has felt exhausting and relentless, we have all learned from each other and are stronger for it.”

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.