Saint Michael’s Hospice: helping patients and families through the darkest of times

Peter Marston pictured with wife Helen and son James on holiday in Portugal
Peter Marston pictured with wife Helen and son James on holiday in Portugal

Last week was National Hospice Care week. Reporter Laura Hill met with Saint Michael’s chief executive, Tony Collins to find out why the Hospice is so special to our whole community.

“People see us as a place, but hospice is a way of caring.

Peter Marston pictured with wife Helen and son James on holiday in Portugal

Peter Marston pictured with wife Helen and son James on holiday in Portugal

“Yes, this is a beautiful building, yes this is a beautiful place, but our work is where the patient is.”

The in-house end of life care at Crimple House is the service most commonly associated with Saint Michael’s, but the centre also offers day therapy, and respite care.

“We hadn’t even realised that people can go into the hospice and then return home again,” said Peter Marston, whose wife Helen died of breast cancer at Saint Michael’s this year.

“Like everyone in Harrogate, we knew of Saint Michael’s but until you are in need of it you don’t really know what is done there.”

Sandra Gilbert (from in black) with father Arthur Appleton (back, second from right) and family.

Sandra Gilbert (from in black) with father Arthur Appleton (back, second from right) and family.

Saint Michael’s also provides services in the community, that people might not associate with the Harrogate charity.

Mr Collins said: “In the community we are committed to offering help and support to help patients to spend their last days at home, if they wish.”

For example the Saint Michael’s Macmillan Nurses, are 55 per cent funded by the hospice and palliative care consultants at Harrogate Hospital are 80 per cent funded by Saint Michael’s.

The Just B bereavement service, which is open to anyone in the district, is also run by Saint Michael’s.

“It is not just for people who lost their loved one at the hospice, it’s for everyone,” said Mr Collins.

The hospice offers a volunteer visitor service, with trained volunteers making home visits to patients. “One of the most common things we hear from patients is that they just want, ‘someone to treat them as normal’, and that’s what our volunteers do.”

Saint Michael’s is developing a new community hub in the old library at Starbeck, which will offer advice and information on a walk in basis and have ambitious plans to launch Night Sitting Nidderdale in 2014, helping people living with terminal illnesses in rural communities.

“For every person we touch there is one person that is missing out.”

Mr Collins added: “The real driving force behind us is the patient that is not yet our patient.”

‘It’s just like a hotel with nurses caring for mum’

Mum Helen Marston was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 and died at Saint Michael’s hospice in July 2013 aged 47.

Her husband Peter Marston, managing director at Farrah’s of Harrogate said: “I have nothing but praise for them. It really is an amazing place.”

When Helen first went to Crimple House they had planned for her stay a short time to manage her symptoms. However her condition deteriorated quite rapidly and within a week they realised she wouldn’t be able to return home.

Peter said: “The team at Saint Michael’s had pulled out all the stops. But Helen accepted she wouldn’t be able to go home.”

He added: “Going to the hospice I did feel quite a lot of the medical responsibility was taken off me.

“When she was at home she was taking 15 or so tablets a day and I kept track of that, I was able to just pass a carrier bag of medicine over to the hospice staff and concentrate on quality family time.”

Peter had been concerned about how the couples’ 10-year-old son, James, would feel about the hospice.

He said: “Over the years the main thing that James found really difficult was when Helen had to go to hospital. So we were concerned that he would find it hard going to Saint Michael’s but it was quite different.

“I described it to him as like a hotel with doctors and nurses to look after his mum.

“He was very comfortable going there, he was obviously a little apprehensive about the first visit but after that he was fine.

“The staff made all of the family comfortable, they were professional, without being cold, and sympathetic without over doing it.”

Peter felt the staff made a genuine effort with James.

“One day James wanted to be on his own with Helen, he wanted to watch the pink panther DVD with her, like a normal day, so the staff set that up for them,” he said. “The chaplain brought him a little teddy bear wearing a Saint Michael’s knitted jumper. He told him it was to keep an eye on his mum when James wasn’t there. That is something very special, he still has the bear and he will keep it forever.”

Peter said: “Helen always said she didn’t want to die alone, so for the last few days we made sure someone was always there, with me and James taking it in turns with her mum and sister (Shelia Ezard and Claire Ezard).

“And when the time came we had as long as we needed to say our good-byes.”

Peter added: “It must have been hard for Helen, knowing she was leaving us when James still has so much growing up to do.

“She was such a positive person, the message she wanted me to pass on to our son as he grows up without her is, ‘Never give up’. They really are three words to live by.”

Peter is now planning to cycle from Harrogate to Paris to fundraise for Saint Michael’s Hospice, and will continue with Farrah’s support of the Hospice.

He said: “Instead of corporate Christmas cards we make a donation to Saint Michaels and I would urge other business to do the same.”

‘We made the most of our last precious days’

Sandra Gilbert, 48, started volunteering with the Crimple Valley Saint Michael’s fundraising group a year after her father Arthur Appleton died of Liver Cancer at Saint Michael’s Hospice aged 72.

Mr Appleton had used Saint Michael’s day therapy centre in the months before his death.

Sandra said: “I know he was very scared when he found out it was terminal.

“Pain management and making him comfortable was an issue. When you love someone that is the worse thing to have to deal with.

Sandra’s father also used Saint Michael’s respite care service. She said: “He came out a different man each time. I do think it bought him more time. He felt safe here and could talk to people, he was more refreshed mentally when he came out.

“The hospice gave us the chance to just be with him, rather than nursing him. During the last two weeks I stayed here with him, I even brought Zoe his Labrador here to visit.We were allowed to be emotional and we were allowed to have a joke and we could be how we needed to be, it was amazing. With the staff, you just know they are experts, I needed to feel he was safe and he wouldn’t be alone and they just knew how to help us.”

Despite not being religious Sandra found comfort with the Chaplain at Saint Michael’s. “It gave me someone to talk to and express my deepest fears,” she said. “The hospice is not the scary, gloomy daunting place you might think of as somewhere where people are living their last moments, it is a supportive and safe place.It just carries you through something we all dread so much, some how he had a good death.”

Sandra feels the greatest gift Saint Michael’s gave her was the chance to make memories. “As soon as I knew time was running out we were able to make the most of the time together, the precious moments. At the moment he died, I was calm, it was the time those two weeks had given us that allowed me to be calm at that time.”

Eighteen years ago Sandra lost her mother to MS. “I didn’t know about hospices then, until you experience hospice care you don’t really know what happens or what it is like, a lot of people think it’s just for people with cancer but now I know it’s not just that. It would have been great to have known that with my mum.”