Hospice needs support after challenging year like no other

The hospice and part of its gardensThe hospice and part of its gardens
The hospice and part of its gardens
Wigan and Leigh Hospice (WLH) had almost every service it runs severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

There have been changes in the senior leadership team, fund-raising has faced enormous obstacles and every aspect of the charity’s work day in and day out has had to be scrutinised.

The scale of the challenges was most recently brought home when the Oak Centre day service was closed, with patient numbers for the virtual activities not enough to keep it running and the hospice having to look closely at its books after a year in which many events which swell its coffers have been unable to take place.

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The charity is urgently appealing for public support as the financial outlook remains extremely challenging in 2021.

Jo Carby, who will take over as hospice chief executive in 2021Jo Carby, who will take over as hospice chief executive in 2021
Jo Carby, who will take over as hospice chief executive in 2021

The shutdown of the day service came at a time of year when the changes of 2020 were already being keenly felt at the charity’s Hindley headquarters.

The Light for A Life appeal is always one of the most poignant campaigns in the calendar, as Wiganers come together to remember those they have loved and lost.

Many people lost someone close to them in the pandemic, but the huge Christmas tree adorned with lights in memory of loved ones stood alone in the grounds of WLH’s Kildare Street base.

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Whereas normally hundreds of people would pack the car park for the switch-on ceremony, the novel coronavirus meant only a handful of staff witnessed it in 2020.

Hannah Holmes, deputy manager on the in-patient unitHannah Holmes, deputy manager on the in-patient unit
Hannah Holmes, deputy manager on the in-patient unit

The hospice’s core work caring for those who rely on its specialist palliative and end-of-life care has also been heavily affected.

In a year around 1,200 patients who need palliative care or are at the end of their lives typically access one or more of the hospice’s services.

Usually around 350 people closest to those patients also access essential services including counselling, complementary therapy and bereavement support.

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Due to Covid-19 visiting the in-patient unit has been extremely restricted, with teams wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE) and being unable to reach out and comfort patients and their loved ones as they normally would.

Trees lit up at the hospice in DecemberTrees lit up at the hospice in December
Trees lit up at the hospice in December

Specialist hospice nurses have been carrying out appointments remotely when possible and visiting patients only when essential.

Counselling and bereavement support are offered via telephone or video call.

There was also a reshuffle at the top, with chief executive Dr Alan Baron announcing he is leaving the top job next year and clinical director Jo Carby being appointed as his successor.

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Ms Carby said: “This year has been extraordinary for us all.

“At the hospice we have experienced unique challenges I never thought we would. Our staff, volunteers and services have all had to adapt quickly and work incredibly hard to keep up with the pace of change and keep everyone safe while running a core healthcare service relied on by over 1,500 local people every year.

“Our nurses, healthcare assistants and doctors have been at the frontline of care throughout the pandemic and have helped to reduce the burden on the NHS by keeping beds open and supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

“Many have taken on extra hours, volunteered for different duties or learnt new skills in a very short space of time.”

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Ms Carby said the hospice was extremely grateful for the support of the Wigan public in helping them get through the difficulties the charity faced.

She said: “We have seen the best of people, as we often do at the hospice, from our staff and volunteers and also our supporters.

“When we were struggling for PPE back in April - like many other healthcare providers were - our local community came out in force to help.

“Schools, hairdressers, GP surgeries and individuals did what they could after we appealed for essential supplies. The support and love for the hospice was humbling.”

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Before lockdown was put in place in late March the hospice was already preparing for the possibility the novel coronavirus would have a significant impact on services.

Ms Carby described the arrival of the pandemic on these shores and how the charity had to react to keep its staff and patients safe.

She said: “In the weeks before lockdown we were asking visitors to stay away if they had been to certain countries or were showing Covid-19 symptoms.

“One of our biggest concerns was staff and volunteer sickness and how we would continue to operate.

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“Contingency plans were put in place for every service with our priority to make sure that, no matter what, the hospice could keep going.

“When lockdown began the most immediate effects were felt on our wellbeing services and Hospice in your Care Home. The Oak Centre had already closed a week before: when lockdown was announced we temporarily stopped offering complementary therapy, bereavement support and counselling.

“Our outpatient clinics held in GP surgeries and at the hospice also had to stop as well as our training and education in care homes, although we were able to start offering a virtual care home service in May.

“The Inpatient Unit has stayed open but we have had to take innumerable measures to protect patients, visitors, staff and volunteers and keep on adapting.

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“Limiting visiting is absolutely heart-breaking and not the way we like to do things here.

“However, we have never stopped visiting completely and essential visitors continue to be permitted.

“The highly-trained community nursing teams usually visit over 900 patients every year and keeping that momentum going has been a huge challenge but one our staff have met.

“Within a few weeks of lockdown starting we had the technology set up to start providing video appointments and were visiting where the need was essential.

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“Our nurses’ specialist palliative care knowledge is needed in our community more than ever as patients’ symptoms are becoming more complex and psychological support has been vital due to the isolation so many people have been experiencing.

“Oak Centre in Your Home began offering online classes in May and counselling and bereavement support started over video and telephone call at around the same time to help people through grief, anxiety and distress.

“Hospice in your Home nurses have carried on visiting all patients at home providing essential contact and care but have also had to step in and help out on the Inpatient Unit.

“Our Hospice in Your Care Home team experienced a huge shift in working practice; lockdown meant immediately stopping going into care homes to mentor and train.

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“The team continued to offer support to care home staff over the phone but initially several members of the team supported staff on the Inpatient Unit until the service could be adapted.

“This service has changed hugely this year but it has been a real success story. As we already had such excellent relationships with care homes it became clear very quickly that they were in desperate need of support.

“Within eight weeks a new type of service was set up; new training courses relevant to the issues faced during the pandemic were created and training began to be delivered online.

“We also expanded our support to all 52 care and residential homes across the borough, in effect training hundreds of staff in issues such as end of life care, identifying the symptoms of Covid-19 and recording peoples’ final wishes.

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“What makes me so proud is that even though the care may be delivered differently by every one of the hospice services it is still given wholeheartedly, with compassion and with genuine care and affection for our patients and their loved ones.”

Unfortunately the Oak Centre has become a casualty of the pandemic, though the hospice is not ruling out doing another day service in future and is talking to the council and NHS about future provision.

Financially the charity has faced huge challenges, with its shops shut for months as well as fund-raisers being scrapped.

Despite the generous donations of its supporters, WLH faces a significant deficit by the end of March 2021.

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Dr Baron said: “We knew from the start that the pandemic would seriously affect our finances as it has many other charities.

“In May we launched a campaign asking people to donate what they usually would spend on trips to the cinema, the hairdressers, the gym and so on to the hospice, when all of these places were closed.

“The response was fantastic and helped us to get through a very difficult time during the summer. I would like to thank all of those people for their incredible support.

“However, the impacts of the pandemic continue to be felt and the hospice faces a difficult time ahead.

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“People reading this have been through their own financial challenges which makes it hard for us to ask for support. That is very much at the forefront of our minds.

“But we have to be honest: our income is currently not covering our costs and we need to seek ways of raising additional funds if we are to continue to offer our broad range of services.

“Your support really is appreciated as we all want the hospice to survive and carry on providing care for patients who need and deserve to live and die well, at peace and with dignity.”

As the hospice looks to 2021 the charity’s hope is for fund-raising events to begin once again, charity shops to remain open and for a steady, sustainable income so that the nurses, doctors and staff can carry on delivering compassionate care to the borough’s residents at the time when they need it most.

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