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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.”

“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.

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.

Recently, representatives of St Luke’s clinical and non-clinical teams headed north for the annual Hospice UK Conference, the flagship event that brings together those involved in leading hospice care for adults, young people and children.

At the event in the heart of Liverpool city centre, close to the waterfront of the world-famous Mersey, our team joined hundreds of their peers from hospices up and down the country to hear the latest thinking on the key issues affecting the services we all provide.

With an increasing ageing population and people developing more complex conditions, standing still is not an option for hospices, which was reflected in the title of this year’s conference – Dying for Change.

Steve Statham, Chief Executive of St Luke’s, said: “The theme was not just evolving but revolutionising hospice care to meet the challenges ahead. The conference gave us the opportunity to focus on how we can develop what we do so that it meets the ever-changing and complex needs of a growing and ageing population.

“Sharing ideas and challenging current ways of working means the sector can develop radical new solutions to take hospice care forward. We need to evolve what we already do as well as being revolutionary.”

The conference also highlighted the public support for hospices, with £1.15billion raised: “We owe everything to the generous public. Last year 225,000 people were helped by hospices, up 8% year on year. We have also seen a vast increase in care at home.”

With an increasing ageing population, hospices like ours can’t reach everyone who needs our care and, for the majority of people it will be their GP, and their teams, that look after them at home at end of life.

When this care is high quality, planned and consistent, patients and their carers benefit, and – thanks to the Daffodil Standards, a free resource introduced earlier this year by the Royal College of General Practitioners and Marie Curie – there’s clear guidance with simple steps that are helping hardworking GPs and their practice teams of nurses, receptionists, healthcare assistants and pharmacists work more closely together and make simple yet effective changes that benefit people whose time is running short.

Experienced GPs and healthcare professionals helped to develop the standards, making sure they fit into the work these teams are already doing, rather than adding to their workload.

Quite simply, the Daffodil Standards help the whole practice team to spot areas for improvement and build on the good care they already provide.

It’s not about ticking boxes, but building the confidence of staff and a compassionate culture, recognising when someone needs support earlier, and sensitively involving patients and their families in their care.

Life is precious, and better support in this area for patients means they can focus on enjoying the time they have left rather than worrying about how to get the care and support they need.

Read more at the standards here.

When most people hear the word ‘hospice’, they picture the doctors and nurses who look after people at end of life, and – while it’s right these experts are prized for all they do for those in their care – working behind the scenes is an army of other hardworking staff, plus dedicated volunteers and of course the generous supporters, equally essential to delivering such a vital service.

With this being annual Hospice Care Week (7 – 13 October)*, St Luke’s Hospice Plymouth, which provides specialist care for people with terminal illness, is getting behind this year’s campaign theme, This is what it Takes, which celebrates the work of 200 hospices across the country who support and care for over 200,000 patients, carers and families every year.

Nationally, it takes 40,000 staff and more than 125,000 volunteers to provide this service, which most of us are likely to need one day. Locally, at St Luke’s, there are 300 staff from HR and Finance to Maintenance and Kitchen, supported by 900 volunteers, each one of them passionate about making a difference to those in the charity’s care and with their own personal reasons for working for Plymouth’s Employer of the Year*.

Hospice care is important and demanding, and those who give their time and skills to help provide it to the high standard for which St Luke’s is renowned go above and beyond daily to give patients and their families the care they deserve and need.

Among them is Tracey Chick, Cook at St Luke’s. While she enjoys creating delicious meals for patients, it is the interaction she has with them on the wards at the specialist unit at Turnchapel that gives her extra fulfilment.

Tracey said: “I love meeting our patients. Chatting with them you appreciate them as people rather than just seeing their condition. I take the time to find out about any special dietary requirements they have, such as avoiding lactose, as well as asking them about any particular treats they enjoy. It means I’m learning from them and its knowledge our team can use to help other patients in the future.

“I’m always glad that I’ve been able to connect with a patient, and it’s extra special when I’ve been able to surprise them by making something that triggers a happy memory for them. One lady mentioned she loved cherry and almond scones, so I made a batch for her. A month later, she died and it meant a lot to me that I’d been able to make that little bit of difference.

“When you work at St Luke’s, it’s not just a job. Little random acts of kindness happen on a daily basis and make it really special.”

As a compassionate organisation, St Luke’s recognises it is not just its clinical staff interacting with patients at end of life and feeling the inevitable toll this can sometimes take. People from all backgrounds are drawn to work for the charity because of their desire to make a difference, so there’s support in place to help look after their emotional well-being.

For experienced carpenter Kenny McDonagh, Maintenance Assistant, St Luke’s is world away from the grit and girders of the construction sites he has managed over the years. In a very different environment, he and his colleagues maintain the high standard of all St Luke’s facilities, including its 30-plus charity shops from Plymouth to Launceston and Kingsbridge.

Kenny said: “Since joining four years ago, my eyes have been opened to the difference St Luke’s makes to so many people. The variety of skills I’ve brought with me are really valued here, and in our team of staff and volunteers we can turn our hand to everything, from decorating and shop fit-outs to clearing blocked drains.

“The patients always come first so we are here to help things run smoothly every day, including over Christmas and New Year. While fixing a patient’s television might seem like a small thing, it’s rewarding to know we’ve played a part in helping them relax as much as possible while they’re receiving care. When a dear colleague was himself looked after by St Luke’s recently, it was comforting for me to know he was in the best of hands.”

This sentiment is echoed by Domestic Assistant Chris Smith, who’s been a familiar face at St Luke’s specialist unit at Turnchapel for nearly 20 years.

Chris said: “Working here so long, I’ve seen how St Luke’s has always moved with the times to ensure its facilities are keeping up with what patients need, and I’m proud to have a role in making sure everything is cleaned to the highest standards for them and everyone who works here or visits.

“When I’m cleaning the wards or gathering laundry, I’m more than happy to chat if a patient wants to – it doesn’t only brighten their day, but mine too. It’s lovely getting to know them and hard when they’ve gone, especially when it comes to clearing their room, but the lifelong friendships I’ve made with colleagues here mean there’s always someone to talk to. It’s  such a special place and there’s nowhere I would rather work.”

While hospice care is free for patients, it is not cheap, and in addition to the huge team effort of staff and volunteers, hospices in the UK rely on the public for two-thirds of the £1.4billion a year it costs to provide bespoke end of life care nationally.

For St Luke’s, last year £7.8million was raised by the caring community through donations and legacies, plus its retail outlets, lottery and events such as Tour de Moor and Men’s Day Out. It is only through the ongoing support of the community that the charity is able to continue giving its compassionate care to patients at home, in hospital and at its specialist unit.

Steve Statham, Chief Executive of St Luke’s, said: “We’re proud to support Hospice Care Week because it’s shining a light on just what it takes for hospices like St Luke’s to look after so many people who need us, and to such a high standard.

“Our charity would not be able to help as many people as we do, or as well as we do, without the many unsung staff and volunteers who work so tirelessly to help the families we come alongside. They do it because they’re passionate about making a difference, but we recognise they need support, too. It can be hard working in an environment where people are dying and that’s why we are committed to enhancing the well-being of all our workforce, which helps maintain resilience.

“We also know that without the ongoing support of our big-hearted community, our service simply could not continue. Their generosity is something we never take for granted and I want to say a huge thank you to them, too.”

Learn more about the varied roles at St Luke’s, www.stlukes-hospice.org.uk/jobs

*Hospice Care week is the annual awareness-raising campaign run by national charity Hospice UK

**Plymouth Business Awards 2019