“Hospice care is thinking outside the box”

Categories: Care, Featured, and People & Places.

We take a look at how Willow Burn Hospice is delivering vital care to their local community in the North East of England.

“To deliver good hospice care you have to put yourself in the patient’s shoes, and you’ve got to think, if that was me, how would I like to be treated? It’s about thinking outside the box” explains Judith Plews. As well as her official title as Head Cook and Caretaker at Willow Burn Hospice in Lanchester, Judith covers night shifts for the nursing healthcare team when needed, supports families of patients and runs a weekly tea room which raised over £11k for the hospice in the space of one year. A few years ago she even returned from holiday with a cheque for several hundred pounds, after telling people about the work they do.

This selfless attitude is typical of all the members of staff at Willow Burn, who don’t think twice about going over and above their roles to care for patients and their families. Many have worked here for well over a decade; in the case of Alison Jackson she has been a nurse here for 24 years. The only thing that has changed in that time is the building, she says. “The care for patients is still the same, just now we’re able to deliver it in a better environment. We worried when we moved into this building that we would lose our homely feel but we didn’t, and I think that the key to that is the fact that we’re a very close-knit team and we take pride in the care we give.”

“All the staff are engaged in wanting to do their best” says Carol Hagri, Clinical Lead. “They’re all part of the community too and I think there’s some comfort in that as well, that patients are being looked after by people that they’re connected with.”

Willow Burn opened in 1989, conceived by two retired nurses who saw the need for a dedicated end-of-life care facility in the village. It started out as a day hospice, until it expanded in 1991 to include a four-bed inpatient unit.

In 2014 they began the first phase of an ambitious project to expand the premises with funding from local businessman Sir Tom Cowie, the former president of the Arriva transport company. The second phase culminated at the end of last year with the opening of a new wing thanks to a £1.5 million donation from Helen McArdle CBE, an entrepreneur known for establishing a number of care homes in the region.

The new wing joined together what were two separate buildings, adding an extra two beds, a spa bathroom, and design that looks suited to an upmarket hotel. Wood is a key feature, along with natural light from large floor-to-ceiling windows that offer spectacular views of the green hills that surround the hospice. In the patient rooms there’s no clinical equipment in sight, and there are homely touches like carpets and plenty of storage space for personal belongings.

The rooms also make good use of the scenery, each with its own balcony, and beds can be wheeled out when requested. Carol explains that one patient, nearing death, asked her family to be brought to the hospice just so she could enjoy the view. Once she was taken out to the balcony she closed her eyes and died, having achieved her wish.

“We’ve always had a very good reputation” says Paul Jackson, Chair of the Board of Trustees. “People have said it’s very homely and very friendly. Families were at ease and relaxed when they came here, and it was a lovely environment. It just needed a new building to match.”

“We’re trying to be different” he adds. “We try to cater to people and their families, it’s a big thing for us. I’ve got to say the population are really very supportive of Willow Burn. I personally go collecting in supermarkets at Christmas, and it’s quite uplifting to see everyone from young children to retired people handing you money.”

Each year Willow Burn host a Light up a Life event and a summer ball; additionally the nurses host their own Christmas fair, which helps raise funds but is primarily a get-together with the patients. “It’s a really nice event because people want to come back and see the nurses, and chat to them. The nurses make it their business to hold the event themselves.”

However the bulk of the fundraising is done by individuals who take it upon themselves to go out and ask for donations, in many cases only letting hospice staff know after the event. “We’re really well supported” Carol says.

Many of the volunteers at the hospice are relatives of patients who have received care here and want to give something back. “The hospice’s care has meant an awful lot to me, my husband and my family” says Irene Nattrass, who helps out with admin work. “It’s a really wonderful place, offering 24-hour care. There should be a lot more places for people to go to like this hospice, unfortunately a lot of them are struggling with money, so everyone who comes here tries their best to give back for them to continue all their good work.”

Despite the fact that people experience the serious illness or death of a loved one here, they are often happy to keep coming back, whether to volunteer or attend events. Three years ago, several of the attendees of the hospice’s bereavement programme formed their own self-supporting group, calling themselves the Bereavement Buddies. They’ve grown over time as more and more people join when they stop attending the sessions.

“We know there’s always this delay when you’ve lost someone, it doesn’t instantly affect you” Paul explains. “But three, six, 12 months later, it’s surprising how people just need to talk to someone. That’s a big thing, to realise they can  come here and we’ll arrange something for them.”

The area Willow Burn covers is largely rural, with the nearest hospital located in Durham, eight miles away. Historically the economy depended on steel and coal industries, now long gone. Max Gillespie, therapist and Head of Bereavement Services, explains that the loss of these industries has led to a number of socioeconomic problems that have a knock-on effect when it comes to bereavement counselling.

“When I first came into post we got some funding to look at the needs of young people in the general area of bereavement. We contacted Macmillan nurses, GPs, and other services, and we found there was next to nothing whatsoever in this area for children” he says.

The findings were put into an application for a grant from Hospice UK and the Masonic Charitable Foundation; this is now funding a pathway worker to provide support in schools, GP surgeries, youth centres and hospitals.

Another big area of work is their mens’ group. Max explains that there is a tough, masculine stereotype local men feel they need to live up to which inhibits their emotions, until they see a therapist who allows them to open up.

“It’s all about stigmas” Judy says. “We’ve had guys come in here who are six foot odd, saying they can’t see the person who’s ill, and asking all these questions. So you tell them to sit down and have a cup of tea, that we’ve been looking after Fred all week and he’s absolutely as he should be, though he might have lost weight and might not remember them. You get hold of these big blokes by the hand, take them down the ward and sit them on the chair beside the patient’s bed. I’ll sit on the other chair, and just wait for about five minutes till they’ve either cried or smiled, and are a lot happier. Then I just leave them to enjoy their time together.”

She says knowing how to handle these situations is a mixture of intuition and reading people’s body language. “It’s all about not being too gushy but also understanding people.”

“We might have three patients who have very similar symptoms, but we treat them all as individuals” she adds. “And remembering to look after the patient’s family as well. We do a lot of crisis intervention work on the ward. We’ll say, “look, you’re absolutely shattered, sit down and let us take the strain now.”

“Hospices are much needed. We get patients in from the local hospitals who are very tense and are asking what’s happening and where they are. This is different. You don’t have to have a meal at five o’clock if you want to sleep, you can have that meal at half past three. Or if you want a bacon sandwich at two o’clock in the morning you can have it. This is what end of life care is about.”

For more information visit Willow Burn Hospice