The hospices of West Sussex are among our county's greatest assets and, in this time of coronavirus crisis, we need them more than ever.
As this year's High Sheriff, it has been a privilege to be able to speak to representatives from each service to understand how they are coping with the challenge of Covid-19.
West Sussex is fortunate to have three hospices for adults, St Catherine's in Crawley, St Barnabas House in Worthing and St Wilfrid's in Bosham, as well as the Macmillan community hospice service based in Midhurst. In addition, Chestnut Tree House, near Arundel, cares for 300 children with life-shortening illness and their families from across the south east. All these organisations collaborate together across West Sussex, and with the NHS and social services.
Hospices provide compassionate, holistic and free care to those at the end of life and to their families. They are run by high-calibre trustees and managers and staffed by wonderfully skilled teams of specialist doctors, nurses, care assistants and volunteers, all of whom are committed to both the relief of suffering and also to ensuring that the best possible quality of life can be experienced for as long as possible. It has been said that if you need care from a hospice, the first question you will be asked is not 'what is the matter with you?', but 'what matters to you and your family?'.
Perhaps surprisingly, our hospices receive only a small percentage of the funds they need from the NHS - on average about 20 per cent - and they are therefore dependent on the generosity of their volunteers and local communities to find the funds they require. As with all charities, Covid has stopped almost all this funding and without the government grant recently announced, almost all of them will be in difficulty before the end of the year.
And yet, the need for specialist care at the end of life is increasing. Coronavirus has made it even more important to look after patients requiring end-of-life care in the community and away from an acute hospital setting. As a result, Jo Stuttaford, service lead for Macmillan in Midhurst, tells me that her service is already providing complicated interventions such as blood transfusion at their centre. The other hospices are also providing increasing levels of care and, where they have their own beds, the hospices are making sure they will be able to make these available to a wider range of patients. Some of these may well have Covid infection and the newly-completed St Wilfrid's Hospice, which has piped-in oxygen available in every room, is well equipped to help patients who remain very short of breath from this illness.
Terry O'Leary, who chairs both the board at St Catherine's and a forum for hospices across Sussex, has told me that even though the current crisis is 'the most difficult and challenging health situation in any of our memories', he and his team 'are immensely proud to care for the people of our community when they are approaching end of life'. However, despite the government's support, 'the financial challenge is much greater than that support, generous as it is'.
Mandi Hirsch at St Barnabas is also clear about the extent of the challenge: "Currently we are losing 70 per cent of our income and so St Barnabas is launching an emergency appeal this week."
Such appeals will be needed by all our hospices during the weeks and months to come.
Through my own experience of loss and as a GP, I have seen the tremendous difference compassionate and co-ordinated care at the end of life can make to a patient and their family.
Hospices and palliative care services have ensured that every one of us in West Sussex can access this gold-standard of care at this critical time and it is in all of our interests that we support them during their time of difficulty.
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