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Forty years of compassionate care in the community

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Forty years of compassionate care in the community

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A local charity occupying a special place in the heart of the community is marking a special milestone this year.  

25 January 2022, marked 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. 

St Luke's CEO Steve Statham

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.”

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.”

Rosie Morgan, Nursing Sister and Matron from 1982 to 2010

Arriving in Devon as a nursing sister, Rosie Morgan joined St Luke’s at its beginning and went on to become Matron of the hospice, remaining with the charity 28 years.

She said: “I always thought the hospice concept was something I’d like to explore. Generally speaking, in those days I felt that terminally ill patients needed more care than was possible in a busy hospital setting. They still needed to be thought of as people – people with families, careers and hobbies, not just as an ill or dying patient. 

We were inspired by St Christopher’s Hospice in London, and the books of its founder Cecily Saunders were our blueprint. Most of our training was gained working alongside Sheila Cassidy, who was so gifted in speaking to hospital consultants to share our vision of how we thought death and dying should be. She knew just how to talk to lay people about it, too, gathering their support.

“When St Luke’s opened, we had very little money to keep running, and at one point only enough reserves to pay the salaries. Our first Matron, Valerie Oliver, worked tirelessly to raise awareness of hospice care, giving talks to public and professional groups most evenings and weekends. This resulted in funds coming so that we remained solvent.”

“We were all learning together on the job and it was very professional environment. We knew we were doing a good job for our patients, making life comfortable for them by managing their symptoms and relieving their pain. Their wellbeing was our priority and we made sure nutrition was good, as well as providing services such as chiropody, and we welcomed their visitors. There was the now-famous drinks trolley, too, because a little alcohol stimulates the appetite. 

Nothing was too much trouble if it helped the patients, and that’s still the same at St Luke’s today. I remember Dr Mary somehow arranging for a helicopter to be scrambled at very short notice when a lady from Wales, who was very poorly, said how she longed to die in her homeland. 

It was challenging work but just so rewarding looking after patients and seeing them look better. There’s no feeling like it. There was such a close bond between the staff and volunteers - it felt like a family because we all drew strength from each other. A group of us still meet up regularly today. 

Much may have changed over the years but the community’s support for St Luke’s is as strong as ever, and the team’s commitment to giving superb care never wavers.”

Christine Costin, Medical Secretary from 1982 to 2010

Having been with the charity from the start as its Volunteer Co-ordinator, Christine Costin went on to become its Medical Secretary.

She said: “Everyone was just so happy and proud to be working for St Luke’s, and it was very humbling seeing it grow from the seed of an idea to being overwhelmed with volunteers who wanted to help. Word spread quickly, partly because Sheila, who already had a media profile, was writing about what we were doing as well as giving presentations. 

‘While most in the community thought the hospice was a marvellous development and embraced it, some took a while to be convinced. Once they realised the work that was being done, though, we had their full support. Some of the consultants and GPs who lived in the area even offered to include the hospice when they were ‘on call’ overnight.  They did this free of charge to St Luke’s, which saved us a tremendous amount of money.”

“It was exciting when the first patients arrived at Syrena House in Plymstock, but we quickly ran out of space and needed an extension so that we could accommodate three more patients, making ten in all. And the demand did not stop there!

When the city council granted St Luke’s the land for the specialist unit at Turnchapel, we could all see the potential, though the area was a mass of brambles at the time. Then there was the ‘Buy a Brick’ campaign to raise money for the building, which attracted so much support. 

“People were donating good-quality clothing for us to sell, too, which helped raise more funds. That’s what led to the opening of the first St Luke’s charity shop, which was in New George Street. It went from there and we never looked back!” 

Sally Taylor, Chief Executive from 1994 to 2015
“When I took the helm at St Luke’s I could see what a fantastic job everyone was doing for patients and their families. In getting to know how things worked, I recognised how important it would be for St Luke’s to evolve to keep pace with the changing needs of the people we served.

“We expanded to include lymphoedema care and occupational therapy, but it was becoming increasingly clear that we really needed to think of patients as patients even after they returned home because we’d got their symptoms under control and they were feeling better, not just while they were at Turnchapel.

“Taking a more joined-up approach would be essential if we were going to ensure that whether a patient was at home, in hospital or at St Luke’s specialist unit, their care was well co-ordinated as well as bespoke. This idea was new though, and would never succeed unless I could secure the full co-operation of local GPs, the hospital and community services to work with us. 

“It took time but thankfully, there were those who understood the value of what we were trying to achieve. What gradually emerged by the late 90s was the one-system approach that continues to benefit people with terminal illness today and has been replicated across the country. I feel very proud of that.

“I know people tend to think that all St Luke’s patients receive their care at Turnchapel because it’s such a well-recognised, long-standing facility, but these days 95 per cent are looked after by the charity’s team at home or in hospital, with only those with the most complex symptoms needing to be admitted to the specialist unit. 

“There’s another common misconception, too. I was often asked how I coped with working somewhere ‘so depressing’ and I’d always say, it’s not! Sad at times, of course, but if you know someone’s passing and their family’s experience of that have been better because you have helped make it so, that has got to be a good thing. The staff and volunteers are upbeat and incredibly kind, too, organising weddings for patients and visits from much-loved pets.

Everyone at St Luke’s – whatever their role – is making a difference. It’s not just one, it’s a team, working together to make sure people are looked after really well at the end of their lives.”

We believe that no one should have to die alone in pain or in distress. As an independent charity we work to ensure that the people in our community receive the best possible end of life care, wherever they are, whether that be at home, in hospital or at our specialist unit. However in order to do this we have to raise vital funds every year to continue to provide our services. Without your generous donations this simply would not be possible.

However much you can spare, every penny will make a difference to someone’s life in your community. We want to make a difference and with your help we can. Make a donation.

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