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Forty years of compassionate care in the community

A local charity occupying a special place in the heart of the community is getting ready to mark a special milestone this year. 

On 25 January 2022, it will be 40 years since St Luke’s Hospice Plymouth welcomed its first patients. St Luke’s heralded the arrival of a completely new concept for the city - specialist care for terminally ill people as in-patients in a home-from-home environment, rather than in hospital, to ensure their comfort and dignity at the end of their lives. From this, grew the St Luke’s of today, looking after the majority of its patients at home and at University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust, with only those with the most complex symptoms needing admission to Turnchapel.

What has not changed since its beginnings though, is the charity’s need to rely on support from individuals and businesses in the community to keep providing its specialist services at no cost to patients or their families. That’s why, as well as reflecting on four decades of compassionate care that has touched the lives of so many, St Luke’s is using its 40th anniversary to express heartfelt thanks to all its supporters for their ceaseless volunteering and fundraising, plus the legacies that play such an important part in helping the charity plan for its future.

From participating in its weekly lottery to donating to its charity shops and taking on sponsored challenges like Midnight Walk and Men’s Day Out, such commitment from the community has enabled St Luke’s to survive despite the ever-increasing costs of running its 24-hour service 365 days a year. In addition to expert, hands-on medical care, its teams provide not only practical advice to patients and their families but vital emotional support, too - warmth, sensitivity and kindness that make an important difference to them at the most difficult time of their lives.

Chief Executive of St Luke’s, Steve Statham, said: “What started in the early 1980s as the idea of a small group of parishioners led by the Rev John Watson of St Andrew’s Church in Plymouth grew to become what St Luke’s is today, the main provider of end of life care for the city and its surroundings areas, looking after around 300 patients on any one day.

“Quite simply though, we would never have come into existence – let alone still be helping local families four decades on – without the unstinting support we receive from the community around us.

“All who give to the hospice, whether as volunteers or through donations and fundraising, do so in the knowledge that they are supporting something of priceless value, the highly skilled, compassionate care people need at the end of their lives so that they can feel as at ease as possible and make precious memories with loved ones.

“A huge thank-you to all our supporters. Please keep doing what you do because we are going to need you more than ever as we strive to meet the increasing demand on our services.”

Key statistics

It is predicted that the number of people requiring palliative care will increase by 42% by 2040.

We are an ageing population. The number of people aged over 85 years in Devon will increase by 29% by 2025.

In the last six years demand for St Luke’s care has increased by 37%.

Over 50% of hospice care is delivered at home with the remaining in hospital. Only 5% of care is delivered in a traditional hospice building.

From its humble beginnings in a converted suburban house to the widely known and greatly respected service it provides today, it is hard to imagine our community without St Luke’s. Some of the innovators from its early days, who were central to shaping the high-calibre local hospice care we have forty years on, share their reflections.

Dr Sheila Cassidy, Medical Director from 1981 to 1991
For many, Dr Sheila Cassidy is the name most synonymous with the history of St Luke’s. A trained doctor with experience in looking after people with cancer, she was appointed its first Medical Director in 1981, spending the next ten years leading the small team devoted to looking after local people with terminal illness as inpatients at Syrena House in Plymstock. This was the large house that – thanks to huge community spirit – had been purchased and converted to enable the new concept of specialised, 24-hour care for patients in a safe yet homely environment.

Building on her medical knowledge, and learning as she went, Sheila observed the marked difference bespoke, holistic care made to the quality of these patients’ lives. Inspired to advocate for the hospice movement, she gave lectures to fellow healthcare professionals locally and nationally as well as overseas, combining long shifts at the hospice with tireless campaigning so that organisations far and wide got to hear about the pioneering work of St Luke’s and were motivated to follow its example.

Sheila worked with St Luke’s for ten years before moving to Derriford Hospital, joining the radiotherapy department and setting up the Mustard Tree drop-in centre for people receiving cancer treatment. She said: “As a young doctor based at the radiotherapy department at Freedom Fields Hospital in Plymouth, I came to realise dying people need more than just treatment for their physical symptoms. Since I lived at the hospital and had free time in the evenings, I’d sit and hold their hands, just listening and asking questions. I saw the difference it made to them to be accepted how they were, whatever they were feeling.

“Our work at Syrena House was palliative care plus psychotherapy. It was highly skilled as well as different. Whereas, traditionally, hospital doctors had shielded terminally ill people from the reality of their prognosis, our approach was to work with the truth, coupled with kindness. Once we established that they really were in the last stages of their life, we helped them understand what was happening to them and gradually come to a place of acceptance.

“Families saw what we were doing and word spread, driving up support for all the fundraising needed to keep the hospice going.

“All of us working there were like a family. I was close to everyone, from the nurses to the office and kitchen staff. We were a community, putting patients and their families at ease, despite our very cramped quarters.

“The move to the purpose-built unit at Turnchapel doubled our beds to 20. We had loads more space and extra nurses, too, but though it was larger, it was no less loving. I feel very proud to have been part of the hospice. Being Medical Director was something I just got on with because that was my work, but I do realise what a great privilege that was.”

Dr Mary Nugent, Medical Director of St Luke’s from 1985 to 2013
“Very early on in my career in general practice, I was asked to provide cover at St Luke’s, which was still very new. As a young doctor, I could barely even spell palliative care so I was in at the deep end, and that’s how my journey with the hospice began.

“I found my niche at the hospice because we had the time to love and look after our patients. The team camaraderie was tremendous, too. We were friends working together, all to help people who were in the last stages of life. I was quickly building on my basic medical knowledge, learning about the anatomy of being very sick and effects and benefits of new drugs, then taking to the road to teach young doctors around the country about our pioneering work.

“You have to remember that palliative care wasn’t recognised as a medical specialism until the early 1990s, so in those early years we were all just seen as ‘doctors at the hospice’.

“When the move to Turnchapel came, it was a joy. Twenty beds, plenty of bathrooms and wonderful new gadgets. We created the very best hospice environment we could, enabling people with terminal illness to be themselves and be looked after as themselves.

“There was great excitement when Prince Charles performed the official opening, in 1988, with crowds gathering outside the building all waving their flags. He was well informed about the hospice movement and generous in his attitude, spending time talking to patients, volunteers and staff.

“It was such a great privilege to look after the many other people who needed our care.”

Read more on St Luke's website

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