Bernadette Baxter was the first person to be appointed at St Catherine’s Hospice in Preston when it opened in 1985, initially working in day therapy and the inpatient unit before becoming a Physician Assistant. After spending 36 years at the hospice she recently retired, and here she reflects on how hospice care has changed in the last three decades.

During the first three months we spent time preparing for the first patients to arrive, buying items like towels and wash bowls, but more importantly developing policies and procedures that would guide our practice.

We advertised and recruited a team of nurses, the housekeeping team and kitchen staff. I remember spending hours trawling through applications from hundreds of prospective volunteers, and inviting them to an information evening and to have a tour of the hospice.

A new and exciting venture

I remember that everything was new, exciting and very scary! I had no idea what to expect when I started; it was fascinating really because we had time to find our feet and get a feel for what people needed from us. The first six months after we opened were actually very quiet, but as the services developed and it got busier, I felt so satisfied with the work we were doing and how we were helping people.

One of my fondest memories is of the very first patient we welcomed to day care. His wife told us that we were in for a tough day because he never spoke, but in the end he never shut up! Our Matron’s mum made a lovely lunch which we all had together, with a custard tart for afters, and we just had a really nice day.

The uniforms hadn’t even been chosen at that point, but it started to build up from there. My time was split between day care and the inpatient unit, and it was nice to see the difference St Catherine’s made to families as well as patients, giving them some respite from providing care. We had some really dedicated volunteers from the start, and of course we continue to be so wonderfully supported by volunteers today, right across the charity.

Compassionate care

The hospice has changed so much since those early days. In the beginning we knew very little and every day tried our best to ensure that people had comfort and dignity at the end of their lives. Today there are libraries devoted to palliative care, but the goals are unchanged and the holistic essence of hospice care has never been lost.

Behind every diagnosis is a person and a family, and we need to explore not only symptoms but their thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams and expectations, their fears and all the other emotions that make us human.

It’s often the small acts of kindness that make the most difference, reaching out, really listening and allowing people the space to just be, perhaps over a cup of tea or a bacon butty.

Moving forward

The pandemic has caused the hospice to constantly review working practices. It’s been a huge challenge to keep everyone safe and effectively communicate with families about their loved ones, and technology has come to the rescue and enabled conversations, medical and nursing updates and face-to-face meetings to take place safely.

It’s also been really rewarding to see staff develop and achieve their dreams. Things are always moving forward and I don’t know what the future will bring, but I do know that I have always been very happy at St Catherine’s.

It’s hard to imagine life after the hospice, but I’m looking forward to volunteering with the Preston Samaritans. I’m also looking forward to doing some educational medical role play, and I hope that once the pandemic passes I can achieve a long-held dream to do the Santiago de Compostela walk in Spain. But first I might bake some cakes.