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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.

In the past few months, death has become a greater part of public life, with so many families sadly losing loved ones and with the media focus firmly on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But are we getting better at talking more openly about the ‘taboo’ subject of death or do we still hold back because although we’re comfortable with it, we fear others aren’t?

We’re firmly behind the national annual Dying Matters Awareness Week campaign (11 – 17 May) to encourage more honest talk about death, dying and grief, recognising that this helps those affected feel listened to and understood.

To mark this year’s campaign – Dying to be Heard – national charity Hospice UK has revealed new findings from Savanta ComRes that show that 72% of those bereaved in the last five years would rather friends and colleagues said the wrong thing than nothing at all, and 62% say that being happy to listen was one of the top three most useful things someone did after they were bereaved.

Meanwhile, a recent local survey carried out on behalf of St Luke’s, found that just 24% of those polled said they felt ‘very comfortable’ talking about death.

With many people facing the unexpected death of loved ones due to COVID-19, Hospice UK is calling for people to take courage and speak to people about death and bereavement to support those in our society who are dying or grieving.

Tracey Bleakley, CEO of Hospice UK, said “What these findings show is just how important it is for us all to talk about death and grief, particularly when as a nation we are facing higher numbers of unexpected deaths as a result of COVID-19. These issues sadly have a taboo about them, which is unhealthy and can leave people suffering in silence. We owe it to each other to take part in these conversations. So many people are dying to be heard, and we all need to listen.”

In an additional new poll from Opinium on the public’s reaction to COVID-19, while 71% of people agree with the lockdown restrictions, nearly half (48%) said that not being able to see someone before they died or attend a funeral would make it harder to accept the reality of the death. This poll also found that 62% said that not being able to see a dying person before they died would cause a lasting sadness, and one in six (59%) said that they would want a celebration of the person’s life after the lockdown is lifted.

In addition, the survey found that more than 11 million people – 1 in 5 UK adults – have put in place advanced care plans (ACPs) in case they fall ill because of COVID-19, or plan to do so.

As part of our service, we encourage people to create an ACP, a personal statement of wishes that can ensure – as far as is practically possible – that their wishes are respected and acted upon should they be too ill to speak up for themselves in their last days. Having an ACP can bring increased peace of mind not just for the person concerned but for the loved ones around them, too, making a very stressful time that little bit easier.

We also provide emotional, practical and spiritual support for those whose loved one had links to our service before they died.

Jutta Widlake, Head of Social Care at St Luke’s, said: “As a society, we don’t discuss death openly, and because people are living longer most of us don’t experience the loss of someone close to us until we’re well into midlife. Death is a normal part of life though, and we shouldn’t feel held back from talking about it because we fear others might feel uncomfortable if we do.

“As the national survey results show, silence isn’t always golden because most bereaved people welcome friends’ and colleagues’ efforts to help, even if those people are afraid of saying the wrong thing. So, taking that step to express your support – and being there to listen – are among the most important things you can do.”

You can pledge to take part in a conversation about dying, death or grief, either initiating it or taking part if someone else starts it. An online pledge wall and other ways for people to share their pledges can be found here.

For more information www.dyingmatters.org or www.stlukes-hospice.org.uk/acp

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.”

Did you know that nationally, 64% of charity trustees are men and that the average age of a trustee is 61? (Source)

We’re pleased to say our board is more diverse, but we’re striving to ensure it is truly representative of the community St Luke’s serves. That’s why – with it being national Trustees’ Week (4 – 8 November) – we not only want to thank the dedicated men and women who kindly give their skills and time free of charge to govern and guide our charity, but also highlight the opportunity for you to join them.

With the recent launch of our five-year strategy setting out our ambitious goals for the next half-decade, it’s a particularly exciting time to get involved as part of our Board of Trustees.

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 am also the named trustee for both the Launceston and Tavistock retail shops so visit them both periodically, usually buying something on every visit as well!

“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.”

We’re seeking 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.

As well as contributing to board meetings, you’ll have the opportunity to use your skills with a sub-committee that makes best use of your specific area of expertise. There’ll also be opportunities to further your experience through hearing from guest speakers and attending national conferences.

If you have a background in community development, including education, or in HR, we’re particularly keen to hear from you.

For more information, please contact Sarah Gore at sgore@stlukes-hospice.org.uk.

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.

First impressions matter and at our specialist unit at Turnchapel, there’s a team member who not only makes sure everyone who walks through our door receives a friendly welcome when they visit a loved one in the evening, or stay overnight, but can empathise with our hardworking clinical team, too.

When Andy Campbell first joined St Luke’s 32 years ago it was as a Healthcare Assistant, a role he later combined with his job as Support Officer with our charity until two years ago when he decided to focus on the latter, securing the building after the ‘day’ staff have gone home and doing much more besides.

Not only does Andy cover reception duties at Turnchapel during his regular 6.30 – 10.30pm shift, taking calls and greeting visitors, he ensures that both individuals and entire families spending time with their loved ones are comfortable, recognising that it’s often the ‘small’ things that can make a big difference to them at such a sad time.

Andy said: “I know our patients are looked after impeccably, so I see my role as keeping an eye out for those visiting them, who are often struggling even if they seem pretty calm on the surface.

“Whether they’re at Turnchapel for an hour or staying consecutive nights, there’s always something we can do to make them feel as relaxed as possible. Sometimes, just a friendly chat and a bit of banter is all it takes to show them they matter, while at others it’s about being practical and ordering their favourite takeaway so they can eat what they like while they’re here.”

So, from laying the tables ready for a family to enjoy a meal together to making up z-beds so they can stay close to their loved one through the night, Andy’s shifts revolve around the needs of our visitors so that they leave feeling better than when they arrived. Of all the families he has met in his many years with St Luke’s, it’s a particular mother and daughter who stand out in his memory.

Andy explains: “When a young woman who’d been receiving care was approaching the end of her life, she kept saying how much she desperately wanted to get a particular tattoo. Despite lots of phone calls, no local tattooists came forward to help so I contacted a friend of mine who’s properly qualified. He responded quickly and expertly created the exact tattoo she wanted, waiving his usual fee.

“Seeing how much it meant to this lady, who passed away just three days later, is something I’ve never forgotten. I know getting her wish helped her pass away peacefully and it gave her mum a lot of comfort, too.

“Being thoughtful and kind doesn’t cost us anything, but it can be priceless to the families we help. That’s why I always want to work for St Luke’s.”

Collaborating with our partners, other healthcare professionals, and our staff and volunteers has enabled us to set out a strategy to help us meet the significant challenges facing us as a charity. We are proud of the progress we have made over the last five years and that really is down to our hard-working, dedicated staff and volunteers and the continued backing of the community. There has been unwavering support for our organisation and we hope that the next five years will see the same level of incredible engagement.

To read our strategy for 2019-24, please click here.