Liverpool

Hospice care at Christmas - carols and kindness

Drinks trolley at the hospice
Image caption If someone fancies a whisky or a gin and tonic before their dinner, why shouldn't they have it?

A hospice is not the first place you would think would be full of festive cheer at this time of year. Most, if not all of the patients there are facing their last ever Christmas, and it's their final chance to make memories with their families.

That's why the staff at Wirral Hospice St John's do their level best to make it as joyous a place as it can be, doing whatever it takes to make the patients and their loved ones make the most of what is undoubtedly a very difficult experience.

Not everyone welcomes this time of year and when things are tough, a little bit of understanding goes a long way. Sometimes when faced with life's big questions, it's the small things that really make a difference, and that's why the staff here are going all out to make their patients smile.

I know first hand how they go over and above to care for the families who walk through their doors, as mine was one of them. My husband, Roger, also a BBC journalist, died from bowel cancer in July this year. He spent three months at the Bebington hospice and got to know a lot of the doctors and nurses so well, we would both now count them among our friends.

We never spent Christmas there, as Roger was only diagnosed in March, but we still experienced some of the ways the hospice tries to make life as normal as possible for those in their care.

One of the things which always raises an eyebrow - and a smile - with visitors is the arrival of the drinks trolley twice daily. Looking very much like a traditional tea trolley, this one is well-stocked with alcohol, as if someone fancies a whisky or a gin and tonic before their dinner, why shouldn't they have it?

You can hear the glass bottles clanking as it rolls along, and it's that sound that shows it's a place where nothing is off-limits, if it's something that will cheer a patient up, keep them going, then it can be done.

This trolley became something of an internet sensation last month, as the stocks were depleted and an appeal on the hospice Facebook page asked for donations of bottles to replenish it before Christmas.

As you can imagine, they were inundated and now have plenty of drink to last the whole year. Some even donated tequila and a bottle of the extremely strong spirit absinthe, which although gratefully received, is probably a little strong for the patients.

The important thing about the trolley though, is that it makes people feel at home, makes the difference between a hospital and a hospice, and speaks volumes about the ethos of the place.

Director Cathy Lewis-Jones said it's important for them to get the message across to people that the hospice isn't a scary place, it is there to help patients and their families at such a confusing time.

She said: "I once heard someone compare the journey of a cancer diagnosis to a map of the Russian underground.

"People arrive at the station and they look at the map, but they don't understand any of the language so they get on this journey but they have no idea where it will take them or how much it will cost.

"That is probably the best description I have heard about a patient's journey - but we are here to try to make that experience better for them, to unravel and decode some of that jargon."

Image copyright Julia Bryson
Image caption Julia and Roger Bryson on their wedding day in 2011

As Jill Littlewood, in-patient services manager told me, anything goes with patients and whatever they feel would make them happier is possible. In the run-up to Christmas, they are encouraged to decorate their rooms as they wish, so many have twinkly lights and trees making them feel more at home.

The trees in the garden outside are decorated with hundreds of white lights as well, which were switched on at the annual Light Up A Life service at the beginning of the month. Each light represents a loved one who has been cared for at the hospice.

"We have Christmas trees everywhere," Mrs Littlewood said. "We encourage that, and for people to decorate their rooms with lights, tinsel, whatever they like."

She said one patient recently had some lights up in her room, and when she died her daughter kindly placed them on one of the hospice trees, for others to enjoy.

She added: "We are having a choir come in to sing this week, and the patients if they able can come into the lounge and watch them, and we will be serving hot chocolate and marshmallows as well."

Aside from the drinks, people have been donating things to the hospice all year and some of those things are kept to one side to be wrapped up as Christmas gifts. On Christmas Eve, one of the consultants comes in with her children and they hand out the presents to patients.

On Christmas Day, staff dress up in Christmas fancy dress and patients are encouraged to invite their families in for a festive lunch.

Mrs Littlewood said: "Normally it's full, full of children and families, it really is whatever they want, we try to make it happen."

For many who haven't experienced them, hospices are not usually places associated with joy and laughter, but this one is certainly proving that this isn't the case.

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