Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Helping to make it a special Christmas together

STAFF at the Sue Ryder hospice in Nettlebed will never complain about working over Christmas.

STAFF at the Sue Ryder hospice in Nettlebed will never complain about working over Christmas.

In fact, they say it is a joy and a privilege to decorate the Victorian Gothic manor at Joyce Grove and organise treats for patients and their families.

Although the centre’s administrative team can have the festive season off, anyone involved in its day-to-day running must come in as usual.

This applies not just to doctors and nurses but frontline staff such as chefs, cleaners and domestic staff.

Shifts are allocated on a rota basis but healthcare assistant Linda Clark, who has worked at the hospice for 28 years, says there is never a shortage of takers and many staff who don’t have to come in still do so anyway.

Mrs Clark, 48, of Ashford Avenue, Sonning Common, says this is important because many patients are facing their final Christmas.

The hospice provides palliative care, counselling and complementary therapies on both a residential and outpatient basis. Users can attend its weekly wellbeing clinics or stay for one or more nights if they need more specialist attention. They can also arrange home visits.

Most prefer to be at home on Christmas Day but some cannot as they require intensive treatment and supervision.

Those who stay are cooked a full roast dinner and their families may visit whenever they like and stay overnight, as normal.

The patients usually spend the morning chatting with loved ones while carols play on the radio and they may enjoy a drink if they are well enough.

Each patient is given a small illuminated tree and encouraged to decorate their bedroom. They also receive gifts of toiletries while their families receive a tree decoration to take away.

Meanwhile, those who are at home but struggling can call at any time for advice and support or to arrange an emergency call-out.

Mrs Clark says: “People are surprised when we say it’s a joy to work here because they imagine a hospice is going to be a depressing place.

“However, I look forward to Christmas Day because there’s such a family atmosphere among patients and staff.

“It’s just as joyful an occasion here as anywhere else. You don’t think ‘oh God, I’ve got to go to work’, you just say ‘right, I’m off’ then head out and make the very most of it.

“We know our patients well and enjoy a close rapport. It’s a real privilege to work with them. It may well be some people’s last Christmas so we’re determined to make it as special as possible and to make it feel homely and welcoming. It allows them and their families to create some fond memories together, which is really important.

“We’re always pretty upbeat here, to be honest, there’s no room for being down. Because we work so closely together, our team of staff feels like an extended family and we all support each other.”

In the run-up to the big day, a large Christmas tree is erected in the great hall and pupils from Nettlebed Community School perform carols.

Mrs Clark says: “Joyce Grove is such a beautiful building with a very traditional feel. As soon as you walk in and see that tree, you can’t help but get into the festive spirit. You can just imagine Santa Claus coming down our chimney with a big bump.

“There’s always such an incredible atmosphere when the children come here to sing. The acoustics are magnificent and their voices echo around the room beautifully. A lot of patients gather at the top of the stairs or sit watching it from the balcony.

“It has become a tradition and the school now says Christmas wouldn’t be the same without it. The pupils love it because it’s a chance to do something good in their community.”

Clinical nurse specialist Sue Hollands, 52, from Hambleden, has worked at the hospice for 10 years but never on Christmas Day until this year.

Mrs Hollands, whose mother died at the hospice in 2007, says: “I’m excited and looking forward to it.

“Because I’m always out and about on home visits, I will have built up a good relationship over a long period with many of those patients who are in over Christmas.

“My colleagues and I will have seen them in their own surroundings, so we know them well and are familiar faces. We really want to make it an extra-special occasion.

“It’s hard to explain the atmosphere here, it’s just something you have to experience. If you could bottle it, it would be worth a fortune. There’s something about the light around this time of year that gives the building and its grounds a magical quality.”

Both women are married with children but say their duties don’t interfere with their family lives. Staff usually have Boxing Day off if they work on Christmas Day and vice-versa.

Mrs Clark, who has worked all but four Christmases in her career, says: “It’s never an inconvenience. When you take on this job, you realise it’s a 24/7 responsibility. There’s none of that regular nine-to-five business.

“Most of us are fairly mature and our partners signed up for that when they met us. Our children have grown up with it so it’s just part of our family routine now.

“It can be hard to get in and out of the hospice if it snows but everybody manages it by hook or by crook.  No one ever gives up and decides they can’t make it to work.

“We get loads of positive feedback from families who’ve been in at Christmas and you’d be amazed by how many continue sending cards every year to thank us. In some ways I think the relatives get more out of it than the patients.”

Mrs Hollands, a former NHS district nurse, says: “My husband and children are actually incredibly really proud that I volunteered to work on Christmas Day. I won’t be at home during the day but we can have our celebrations in the evening and that’s fine by me — it gets me out of doing the cooking and washing-up!”

Mrs Clark adds: “I have my Christmas dinner on Boxing Day. I wouldn’t want to eat it before work because I’d get full up and feel sleepy for the rest of my shift.”

The women say the festive season can be tinged with poignancy as those in their care may only be days or weeks from death but they stay focused on the positive difference they can make.

Mrs Clark says: “With everyone you care for, a little piece of you always stays with them. That’s especially true at Christmas when families are struggling or patients pass away.

“You remember each and every one, whether you want to or not, and years afterwards you find yourself wondering how old their children are and how they’re doing. That’s just the nature of the job, you have to be that kind of person to want to do this in the first place.

“However, you can’t dwell on it too much because it would overwhelm you. If ever I’m feeling down, I know I can talk to one of my colleagues about it. We all support one another, which keeps us strong.

“I’m looking forward to staying here for many years — they’re not going to be rid of me any time soon! The care here is outstanding and I really appreciate having as much time to spend with patients as they need.

“There’s no rush to meet targets like there would be in a hospital, it’s so much more fulfilling. After this, I think working in any other nursing environment would be a disappointment. It’s all about the quality of care and relationships with the patients.”

Mrs Hollands says: “I appreciate having time to do the little things that mean so much to patients. You can see the tangible difference you’re making. I wanted Mum to come here even though she didn’t live locally because I knew she’d be well looked after.

“Incredible care costs money but you can’t put a price on giving a family one last Christmas together. It’s something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives and for the right reasons. No amount of money is too much to be able to give someone that.

“It’s important for everyone because nobody knows what’s around the corner — one day it could be you or I that needs the hospice’s help. There can be such a thing as a ‘good death’ and we provide that for so many people.

“Just knowing someone is there for you is a big part of it. We’re all here to listen, then to give support and advice or find out more information. We provide holistic care, looking after all our patients’ needs whether they be physical, spiritual, emotional or psychological. We go well beyond their basic nursing requirements.

“We see every patient as more than just an illness and really like it when relatives bring in photos of them in their younger days. It gives us a greater sense of who they are.

“It is sad when patients die but we stay strong because we can stand there, hand on heart, and say we did our absolute best for them and helped their families to move on and rebuild their lives.

“You have to learn to let go because there’s always somebody else who still needs your help.”

How YOU can help the hospice

YOU can donate to Sue Ryder in the following ways:

Online at Please enter your postcode to allow Sue Ryder to allocate your donation to the Nettlebed hospice.

By post. Send a donation to: Sue Ryder Nettlebed Hospice, Joyce Grove, Nettlebed, RG9 5DF. Please make cheques payable to “Sue Ryder Nettlebed hospice”.

In person at the hospice or by leaving your donation at the Henley Standard’s offices at Caxton House, 1 Station Road, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 1AD.

By telephone. Please call (01491) 641384 ext. 246. All cards are accepted.

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