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Tuesday, 07 July 2015

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‘I distinctly remember doing the conga dressed as a tiger one year’

After 25 years of providing essential end-of-life care for thousands of patients, it is hard to believe that Hospice at Home West Cumbria began with the raffle of a black and white television set that had been gathering dust under someone’s desk.

Linda Hewitt, 53, who is the organisation’s clinical services manager, has been there since the beginning.

Working as a community nurse at Cockermouth Cottage Hospital, she was part of a pioneering group who saw the need for hospice care in people’s own homes.

Linda, of Cockermouth, says: “Initially those people organised a raffle to raise funds, and first prize was a black and white portable TV that had been under a desk.

“We only had enough money for the raffle tickets and I had to borrow money off my dad for the licence. That’s how it all started.”

A public meeting was then organised in January 1987 at Whitehaven Civic Hall to explain the idea of hospice at home and gauge interest.

Linda, who became a staff nurse and then progressed into more education around palliative care, recalls: “It was a wild, wet, horrible night and it was blowing a gale, but around 350 came out to listen to what we had to say.

“Afterwards about 36 people put their names forward as being really keen and interested in being part of what we were talking about.

“We were also aware of the work that Dr Brian Herd was doing around hospice and palliative care and he came to the meeting and got involved.”

Things moved quickly. Committees were formed and Hospice at Home West Cumbria was registered as a charity in April of that year. By June they had raised £30,000, and met with the health authority, which agreed that the service could begin in September.

Linda says: “Some hospices raise funds for three years or more before they even build, and then there is the staff and running costs which are all far greater than providing the service at home.

“In those early days I concentrated a lot of my time outside work on fund-raising in the Cockermouth area. I distinctly remember doing the conga down Main Street dressed as a tiger one year.

“It was evident in 1987 that the community was behind this whole concept.”

Someone who was instrumental in setting up the hospice, with Dr Herd, was Margaret Dowling.

Margaret was the first Macmillan nurse in West Cumbria and went on to become nurse manager for palliative care services, which incorporated the NHS and the charity. When she retired in 1998, she stayed on the board of directors and was chairwoman until shortly before her death in 2007.

Linda says: “Margaret was a truly wonderful, genuine person. She was unflappable. She listened to anything anyone had to say and gave it a considered response.

“She was a special person. She listened so intently to people and understood what was needed.”

When the hospice began it was based in the Ann Burrow Thomas Health Centre, on Workington’s South William Street. It moved to the old Workington Infirmary and when this closed the service transferred to Workington Community Hospital, where it remains today.

Over 25 years, there has been a steady increase of patients, from 56 in the founding year to around 200 new patients a year plus around 150 users of support services.

While home nursing remains at its core, the organisation now provides support to families and carers through support groups and bereavement counselling, complimentary therapies, a lymphoedema service and day care services.

Linda says: “I still meet families of people I cared for and they still remember you and that is lovely.

“One occasion I met someone who quoted verbatim what I said to them when I was caring for their loved one and I found that very humbling.

“People put a huge amount of trust in our nurses and you have to understand that at first they are going to bed and leaving their family member who is so sick in the care of a stranger in their house.”

Today, the charity needs to raise around £10,000 a week to provide these services.

Linda, who completed a masters degree in hospice leadership from Lancaster University in 2010, says: “We must not rest on our laurels but continue to be innovative in our approach to caring for people at home and in their community.

“We need to work with local commissioners and other health and social care providers to ensure the people of West Cumbria receive the best possible palliative and end-of-life care.

“In addition we need to see how other hospice at home services are being developed to gain new ideas and establish what else might work well for West Cumbria.”

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