“My first nursing role was at Walton Hospital in 1979. I was based in the old tuberculosis unit and chest unit for the elderly. Of course, being in Chesterfield, with there being a lot of ex-miners in the community, a lot of our patients had lung diseases and lung cancer.
I was eventually appointed as Sister on that ward. Whilst there, I became very concerned with the way lung cancer patients were treated towards the end of their life. Cancer is a terrifying thing, especially when you have no idea what’s happening. Many families of these patients just wanted to know exactly what was going on. I thought there must be a better way to care for these people. We did all we could at the hospital, but it wasn’t the right environment. Many patients would go home and then end up in A&E because there wasn’t enough support for them to die at home.
At the time, St Luke’s Hospice in Sheffield was the only place we knew nearby that offered good care to people who were dying. They ran courses in palliative care and so I asked the nursing officer at the hospital if I could go there to learn how to care for our patients better. That course was an eye-opener for me and so, when I came back, we did what we could to implement some of the things they did at St Luke’s. We tried to offer more support to families, but it was very difficult to do on a general ward as it was so busy.
I wanted to see these patients receive better treatment, and by this time I knew there was going to be a new hospice in Chesterfield. They started recruiting at the hospice around the time my unit was closing at Walton Hospital, so I knew this was my chance to do what I really wanted to do. I applied for the role of Matron at the hospice. I was a little bit apprehensive though, as I’d never worked in a hospice setting before.
When I was sat waiting to go in for my interview, I met a lady called Mary O’Dowd, who had also gone for the role of Matron. We sat chatting for a while and then I went in for my interview. After that, she went for hers, but she didn’t come back out for a long time. I thought that was it, she’d got the job and I was going back home. Then, somebody came out of the room and asked if I’d go back in. They told me I hadn’t got the Matron’s post but asked if I would accept the role as Deputy Matron working under Mary. I was delighted and we were both appointed that day!
Mary and I did more or less everything together in those months leading up to the opening of the hospice. I went to Mary’s house a lot before I started to plan what we were going to do. She wanted me to be involved in everything. We chose the furnishings, the carpets, the uniforms, the curtains round the beds… and she consulted me on everything. Mary started in the January of 1988 and I officially started in the April. Our first patients arrived in the October.
We had 14 beds at the time – nine in the three bays, the double room and three single rooms. We tried to make them look as homely and beautiful as possible, but we had to be frugal because we hadn’t got a large budget.
Mary asked me what I wanted from the role and I said I’d like to develop my own nursing style with our team to give the best care possible to our patients. I was determined that the nurses weren’t going to work just days or just nights; they had to work both and they would rotate. I think in a hospice you need to experience the nights as well as the days because a lot of people die at night or in the early hours of the morning. The nurses carried on working like that to this day, and I think it helps to foster a nice culture within the nursing team when they are all experiencing a similar working pattern and they can all get to know each other.
We were really keen to meet everyone who was going to be nursing the patients to make sure they were the right fit for the hospice. We had an open day and advertised for anybody interested in working at the hospice to come along. It was held in the early evening and we were inundated with applicants queuing all the way down the drive!
I could tell a brilliant nurse as soon as they walked in the door. We wanted people who weren’t afraid to be hands on and who had empathy and understanding. We were also looking for people who could communicate well, so that they could be honest with families about what was going on and be supportive.
We had a great team of volunteers supporting us in looking after the patients and also lots of local people who did all they could to fundraise for the hospice. All the staff and volunteers went above and beyond to make sure the patients were enjoying the time they had left and it was a great environment to work in. We also tried to give the patients anything they wanted to eat. Everything was home cooked and the two cooks we had at that time were excellent, you only had to say, “fish and chips” and it was there!
I stayed at the hospice for about eight years before I retired. It’s so nice to look back and think that I played a part in creating the hospice. Obviously, lots has changed now but some things have stayed the same. The times have changed but not the ethos. The feeling of wanting to support patients and families as best as possible is still there and that’s the most important thing. When I look at the fabulous things that the hospice are doing now, I feel very proud.”