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Rugby is renowned for being one of the toughest sports with players showing opponents no mercy, but in Plymouth there’s a ladies’ team proving that when it comes to one of their own, they’re all heart – and they’re even losing their locks for charity to show how much they care. 

Teammates of Plymstock Albion Oaks RFC player Maria Ashurst braved a sponsored head shave at the club last Saturday 19 October in aid of our charity. We provided expert care for Maria’s husband Paul, helping to make his last days as dignified and comfortable as possible as we looked after him at Derriford Hospital and at then at home in St Budeaux before sadly, he passed away in September.

It was an emotional day for Maria, who has been part of the ladies team for over eight years. Bus driver of 17 years and snooker fan Paul was her biggest supporter, even encouraging her to meet up with teammates while he was ill, and – joined by St Luke’s Healthcare Assistant, Penny – she made the first snips to the hair of fellow players, Gail Randall and Paula Sims of Lower Ham, as they went under the razor.

The duo have already smashed their target of raising £1,000 to help us continue our vital service caring for terminally ill people across the community and supporting their families.

It was following Paul’s diagnosis of cancer and admission to Derriford Hospital that our specialist team there cared for him, managing his symptoms, relieving his pain and providing emotional support for him and his family. With the team’s help – which included the installation of a hospital bed at the couple’s house – Paul was then able to return home, where he wanted to be.

Maria and Paul between them have five children, 13 grandchildren and two step-great grandchildren, the youngest of whom was born just three days before Paul died.

Maria said: “Paul was a wonderful man, who lived with several health conditions and was open about his mental health difficulties because he knew talking about it would help others. He was a huge Elvis fan and the way he sang his songs would make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

“Seeing him so ill was very hard, but I can’t thank St Luke’s enough for making it possible for him to be at home with me so I could look after him. As well as making sure all the right equipment was in place, from the doctors and nurses to the physios and occupational therapists, they were there at our door or at the end of the phone whenever we needed them.

“The way they explained everything and how quickly they responded was really reassuring – in fact the Urgent Care team came out seven times in 24 hours. Quite simply, they were just ‘on it’ and I couldn’t be more grateful. They made a massive difference right when we needed them most.”

Both throughout Paul’s illness and since he died, Maria has been uplifted by the unwavering support of her teammates, whom she calls her ‘second family’.

Teammate Gail Randall said, “It’s a really big commitment to have your head shaved. I have been told it changes your appearance quite a lot and it takes two years for our hair to grow back to the same length.”

Overseeing the head shave was Lacey Keating from Chameleons hair salon in Plymstock, with the hair donated to the Little Princess Trust who provide real hair wigs to children and young people with hair loss, and funding vital research into childhood cancer.

Gail reflected on the day. “It has been very emotional for us, knowing how much St Luke’s helped Maria and Paul in their time in need, we couldn’t be more thankful.”

As well as the sponsored head shave, the club is honouring Paul with a memorial rugby match at 2pm on Sunday 24 November, when the ladies team will take on their opponents from Devizes in a league match.

Maria said: “The girls have been amazing – they’re always there and I can always pick up the phone to them when I need to have a rant or a cry. The wider club has fantastic too, and the memorial match for Paul will be very special. It’s a chance for friends and family to come because he did not want a funeral.

“I didn’t know the club had chosen to raise money for St Luke’s but I’m so glad they have because they’ve done so much for Paul, me and the rest of the family.”

You can still donate online via the Plymstock Albion Oaks Facebook page.

Located on the eighth floor of Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, with offices just outside Brent Ward, is our busy Hospital Team providing bespoke care for patients at end of life and supporting the families around them. They are there seven days a week, across every ward, with the core team made up of two doctors, six nurses and administration support, while the extended team includes a chaplain, physiotherapist, occupational therapist and welfare rights officer.

Recently, the team has been joined by a new colleague, Specialist Nurse Becki Harris, so we spoke to her about her role, what it means to be part of the team, and what motivates her to want to make a difference at Derriford.

Becki, who is from Bristol, moved to Plymouth two years ago, attracted by our beautiful coastal location and the quality of life here. She worked as a Chemotherapy Nurse with Healthcare at Home, looking after private patients with cancer, which is when she first witnessed St Luke’s in action as our team is involved in the care of these patients at times of crisis. It was seeing the way they work and the positive difference this makes that fuelled her desire to work for our charity.

Becki said: “As part of my nursing degree I studied aspects of palliative care, and my dissertation looked at the different experiences of patients at end of life – those in hospital with no palliative care teams and the extent to which their dignity was maintained compared to those being cared for at home by a team with end of life expertise.

“Then, working as a hospital nurse, I saw for myself that when patients received bespoke end of life care it had such a positive impact, not just on them but on the loved ones around them, too. This is so important because a negative or traumatic experience can really stay with families long after, hampering them in all sorts of ways and making it more difficult for them to come to terms with their loss. Meanwhile, those who see their loved one receiving compassionate specialist care from a team that has the time to explain things and put them at ease find it incredibly reassuring have more peace of mind. This helps them, both at the time and going forward because their lasting memories are so much more positive.

“I was delighted to secure the job within the team at Derriford, and everyone has been so welcoming, from the doctors to the admin staff.

“The name St Luke’s is so loved and respected, and I feel incredibly privileged to be part of the team at the hospital, helping to remove some of the fear and anxiety people feel at such a challenging time.

“I love problem-solving and getting to the heart of what matters to those we look after. Sometimes, just a five-minute conversation with a patient or their relative can make the world of difference to them and it all helps to change their view of what it’s like to be in hospital.”

Becki is so enthusiastic about our charity and what we contribute to our community that she has been making things a family affair, enjoying Elmer’s Big Parade with her boyfriend’s young niece visiting from Leicester and giving her mum – who works in a hospital in Bristol – an pin badge to attach to her lanyard, which has sparked conversations with others.

This young nurse is also willing to quite literally go to great lengths to raise money for St Luke’s – she’s set to take the 15,000ft plunge from a plane when she skydives in aid of us next year!