Warning: Attempt to read property "ID" on null in /home/customer/www/stchristophers.org.uk/public_html/wp-content/plugins/search-filter-pro/includes/class-search-filter-post-cache.php on line 1106
Karen Bascombe, Author at St Christopher's Hospice

Nurse Patrick’s marathon efforts touch people’s lives

Patrick O'Shea

When most people are staring into the abyss as they hit ‘the wall’ about five miles from the finish line of a marathon, that’s when St Christopher’s ward manager, Patrick O’Shea, reflects on where he’s come from, how proud he is of what he’s achieved, how much he loves his work and then pushes on to the end.

You see, Patrick didn’t follow a traditional path straight into nursing – or indeed running for that matter. He did though always have two attributes that meant that, when he made his career change, he was ideally suited to working in palliative care and now can’t imagine doing anything else. As well as being a ‘people person who loves to chat’, Patrick was well acquainted with death from an early age and has always felt comfortable talking about it.

Brought up originally in a fishing village in Ireland, he followed his mother into cheffing, starting out in kitchens at the age of 12. Patrick enjoyed the work but knew deep down that he wasn’t putting his communication skills to good use.

He recalls: “I didn’t like being behind closed doors, only getting to talk to people when I nipped out for cigarette breaks. I knew deep down that I wanted to work in an environment where I could help people.”

So, aged 21, Patrick enrolled on a training course to become a Health Care Assistant. Among the many jobs he took at that time, one changed his life.

“I started working at a hospice at Marymount Hospice in Cork and I just knew then that was what I wanted to do,” he says. “It was the calmness and the individualised care given to patients and families. I loved it there and I would work 12-hour shifts at weekends while I was studying. I just couldn’t get enough.”

Patrick had known about Dame Cicely Saunders for as long as he can remember and so when he trained as a nurse he knew for sure that he wanted to work at St Christopher’s. He moved to England and to broaden his understanding and knowledge of treatments first worked at Guys and St Thomas’s – something he’d advise any aspiring palliative care nurse to do.

He’s now progressed from being a staff nurse to deputy ward manager and now manages Rugby Ward on the inpatient unit at St Christopher’s – a position that allows him to pursue two of his professional passions; making a positive impact on the lives of patients and their families while also empowering his fellow nurses to provide the person-centred patient and family care he so values.

“Being present with the individual is so important and so different to working in a hospital where you’re run off your feet. Here in the hospice, you can really achieve something and touch people’s lives. In a hospital the focus tends to be on what you do wrong, whereas in a hospice it’s on what you do right. Quality improvement and education are also huge for me.”

One of the changes Patrick is proud to have implemented on the wards at St Christopher’s is a simple but significant one. Now, the team – ideally the whole multidisciplinary team of nurses, doctors and everyone involved in caring for the patients there – meet for a 15 minute ‘huddle’ halfway through their shift. He says it’s an opportunity for everyone to check in on the patients and each other.

“It’s been really successful,” Patrick adds. “It’s a way of further improving communication, bringing people to together, identifying any patient and family risks or concerns and provides a time to learn together as a team.”

Given his early life experience, it’s perhaps not so surprising Patrick made the superficially unlikely switch to palliative care nursing. Back home in Ireland, he says he’d attended at least 20 funerals by the time he was 10. Indeed, he, his mother and sister all have their plans in place for their burial and funeral.

“Death and dying have always been massive for me. We celebrate it in Ireland, and I’ve always been comfortable speaking about it. I love understanding different cultures’ approach to death. Yes, death can be sad, but we should also see it as a chance to celebrate life and that’s why it’s so important as a palliative care nurse to get to know someone.

“That’s what I mean about person-centred care – establishing who the individual really is, what really matters to them and what makes them happy. Asking those questions means you can put all the treatments and medication to one side and focus on providing something individual for that person.”

To illustrate this, Patrick recalls touching experiences he and his colleagues have been able to facilitate.

“For one woman who was very young and acutely unwell – what was important to her was to have a cinema night with her friends. We were able to set up a projector and cinema screen so she and seven of her girlfriends could enjoy a movie night with food and drink laid on.”

Two young women who got to know each other on the ward in the summer, and who shared some of the same goals, took their children on day trips to the zoo and beach, thanks to Patrick and the team managing their medicines and all the arrangements.

“It’s very individualised what people want and we’ll do everything we can to support and accommodate that,” Patrick adds.

Communication is key and Patrick has developed his own ways of engaging patients in conversations about their wishes.

“Welcoming people is a big part of what I do and creating a space in which they can trust me. Of course, there are professional boundaries but it’s also important to create close connections and I do that by being very open.”

In case you haven’t got the message yet, Patrick loves his work.

“I am very excited every day when I go to work. When I step into my uniform, I know I am working for my patients, their families and supporting my team. I am so passionate about it.”

Sometimes, Patrick says, he struggles to switch off from death and dying away from work, but only because it’s a topic he feels so strongly about.   

And then, there are his fundraising efforts for St Christopher’s. A mix of marathon running and bake sales have seen Patrick boost the hospice’s coffers by close to £4,000. Running, he says, provides him with a chance to reflect on where he’s come from and what he does.

“I’ve run seven marathons now. I feel proud and it’s hard to believe that that chef smoker, stuck away in the sweaty kitchen who’d never dreamt of running would be here now.

I write names of people who’re important to me on my hands to drive me on when I get to the 20-mile mark. At the Berlin marathon I was welling up, remembering that I’m running for my job.”

More than anything, Patrick wants the population to communicate more about death and dying and better understand what hospices are really like. He’s started making good on that public information campaign by running sessions for new volunteers at the hospice as well as care home staff.

“I would love for people to know more about what this place is really like and to have a greater awareness of what end of life care really looks like. St Christopher’s isn’t about doom and gloom, it’s about calm, about living well and sometimes about fun too. I really want to help to put that out there more.”

Anne’s story

Anne Burrell Lottery supporter

Living in South East London all her life, Anne Burrell has always been aware of St Christopher’s. Now, as she and her friends and family reach a certain age, that awareness has been brought into sharp focus and Anne has committed to supporting the hospice in the best way she knows how – investing in our lottery every month.

In fact, when the mother of her oldest friend was nearing the end of her life in the run-up to Christmas 2022, Anne decided to buy presents for fewer people and commit the money to the hospice instead.

“It just made me think about what was really close to my heart and I decided that supporting St Christopher’s was bigger,” says Anne, who lives in Beckenham, close to her 90-year-old mother.

Anne, 56, works part-time for Boots opticians, alongside supporting her mother to live as independently as possible.

“What happened to my friend’s mother made me realise how precious my time is with my mum, and how lucky I am to be able to spend this time with her.

“I’d known my friend’s mother pretty much my whole life. She was in a care home and when she became ill, she really wanted to go to St Christopher’s. When she was admitted there, my friend said she could finally relax. She felt reassured because she knew she was in a place that is filled with care and compassion.”

Having been a long-time supporter of a national cancer charity, Anne said what with her friend’s mother, a cousin and another friend all with serious illnesses, everything seemed much closer to home and she wanted to support an organisation rooted in the local community.

“I bought a few presents for some of my friends but then I saw the lottery and thought, what a great way to give money regularly even if it’s not a huge amount. Christmas shopping can be such a stress too, so this seemed like a great idea.

“I feel a part of the community I live in and would like it to be there for me or one of my family members if we ever need it. It feels like I am doing something meaningful.”

Anne will definitely be keeping up with her monthly payments to St Christopher’s, but hasn’t decided yet who’s on her Christmas list this year!

“I’ve got three people being treated for cancer at the moment and I guess we all have to accept it at some point, we just don’t know when we’ll need St Christopher’s care. If everyone could just pay what they can afford every month then we’d be sure it would be there for everyone. I’ve heard such brilliant stories about how people feel so cared for. And I even had a little win on the lottery and treated myself to a coffee and a croissant.”

If, like Anne, you would like to support a fantastic local organisation and be in with a chance of the odd cash windfall, play the St Christopher’s lottery

Frances’s story

Frances Dormer Volunteer Orpington

People of all ages volunteer for St Christopher’s, supporting us in a huge range of ways, motivated by a host of different reasons.

For Frances Dormer it started by chance. Now eight years on, Frances is driven by her own personal reasons and a deep love for what she’s become a part of. She and her daughter Belinda have also teamed up in a canny scheme to raise money for the hospice.

It started because Frances’s daughter-in-law is friends with someone in the fundraising team and they needed someone at a short notice to help out with the Bluebell Walk, so she stepped in.

“It was such good fun and everyone was so lovely and a pleasure to be with,” Frances says. “So, I then got involved with fun runs and fetes as well as events at Christmas.”

Then seven years ago Frances’s sister died.

“She was my best friend. We lived ten minutes apart and saw each other every single day. Nurses from St Christopher’s came and cared for her at home and they were so wonderful, making sure she was comfortable.”

Some of Frances’ fellow volunteers mentioned that the hospice’s shops were always looking for volunteers and thought she might enjoy it.

Sure enough, the retired secretary was quickly into her stride, sorting donations and hanging clothes, working three half days a week.

“You don’t get a moment to breathe, but I like to be busy and the camaraderie with the ladies is fantastic.”

It didn’t take Frances long to discover a coincidence with one of her shop colleagues.

“Sylvia and I soon realised we were both Taureans, as we’re both quite fiery, then we discovered we were both 82 and born on the same day.”

That makes for a double celebration and shop manager Gill provides the cake to celebrate the ‘twins’ birthday.

It was another kind of a party organised by Frances’s daughter Belinda that helped raise funds for St Christopher’s.

“Belinda organises children’s activities at The Walnuts Shopping Centre and when she visited her mother in the shop and saw a big influx of teddy bears she had an idea. As part of the shopping centre’s free summer events she planned a Teddy Bear Picnic for children to bring along their favourite teddy bear. If anyone “forgot” to bring a bear she had the idea that children could adopt one. She asked Gill if she could take the teddies from the shop, gave them badges and asked the children to give each one a name. 22 teddies found new homes, raising £60. The children loved it and every penny went to St Christopher’s which was great as we normally only charge 50p a teddy.”

Having been a widow since 1998, Frances loves keeping busy now her grandchildren are grown up too and would recommend volunteering to anyone.

“I would say to anyone to come and join us. It’s such a nice atmosphere, the customers are lovely, it’s a really nice thing to do and you’re supporting a wonderful organisation.”

Find the right volunteering opportunity for you and discover all the ways you can help us raise funds to continue to care for people like Frances’s sister.

Waltraut’s story

Volunteer Petts Wood Waltraut Gilchrist

The 1,000-strong army of volunteers that helps keep St Christopher’s functioning is as diverse as the boroughs we serve, but perhaps few are as old, long-serving and dedicated as Waltraut Gilchrist.

Ever since she retired as a chemistry technician at the old grammar school in Bickley in 1989, Waltraut has given up her time to help out in various of our 23 charity shops.

Now 93, Waltraut is looking to build on the more than three decades of service, still driven by the same motivation that started during her childhood in wartime Germany.

“I suppose it is about helping people. I have seen so many unhappy people who needed help and I got through, so I still feel an urge to help people. In the same way as I can’t bear to throw food away because we were so hungry at times.”

The times she is referring to were truly terrifying for the young Waltraut who was brought up in East Pomerania in the far east of Germany, close to Poland.

After her mother’s premature death, Waltraut and her sister were sent to boarding school, first in Potsdam and then in what was Czechoslovakia. Once on the week-long journey home the train came under fire.

When Germany was divided after the war her father who’d been taken prisoner by the British, was on the West while Waltraut and the rest of the family were in the Russian East. She escaped to the West as a 14-year-old, before emigrating to the UK in 1954 where she met her husband Thomas, and they settled in Orpington.

Waltraut has lived in the same house there since 1960. Widowed six years ago, she loves to keep active, tending to her large garden and making the weekly two bus plus walking journey to the shop at Petts Wood.

“I’ve been in all sorts of shops over the years and my husband used to go around pubs collecting money they had raised for St Christopher’s.

“I’ve always done whatever the managers asked me to do but never handled any cash.”

Recently, Waltraut is kept very busy when she volunteers every Thursday sorting the many books that are donated at the Petts Wood shop. She says it’s a highlight of her week.

“I really look forward to my Thursdays as I am living by myself now and there’s nothing much happening. I really enjoy the work though I am exhausted afterwards.”

Waltraut is also something of an ambassador for the hospice and the many opportunities it can provide people with.

“I have spread the word. I am always telling people how good this shop is so they come and shop here and how good it is to volunteer. You are doing something that helps somebody and is of help.”

With four children, ten grandchildren (including one, Nathan, who plays cricket for Kent) and two great grandchildren, Waitraut has a busy family life but also manages to find the time to study history and science at u3a.

Waltraut says she has no plans to retire – for the second time – and says she’d encourage anyone, whatever their age, to volunteer for St Christopher’s.

Discover all the many volunteering opportunities at St Christopher’s and how you can get involved in supporting the hospice in the role that suits you.

Influencer Emma’s mission to make us all charity shop treasure hunters

Sustainable Fashion Ambassador

St Christopher’s fashion ambassador, Emma Fowler, turned 50 this summer and she can’t remember the last time she bought a new item of clothing, except occasionally underwear.

Growing up on a council estate in Hackney, money was tight for Emma and her family. She took an interest in fashion from an early age but knew she couldn’t afford the clothes her friends were buying new and had to find a way.

“I was probably in my last year of primary or first secondary when my Mum started taking me to Lewisham market,” she remembers fondly. “I’d pick out fabric and have ideas for clothes and then Mum would make them.”

Then, as charity shops became more commonplace, Emma’s fashion horizons widened.

“I started to realise I could have things my way, on a budget, and not feel like I was being left out of the fashion,” Emma added.

By the time she had her first child, aged 22, in the mid-90s, Emma was a charity shop pro, having furnished her flat with pre-loved items.

Now, almost 30 years later, Emma, who was also once Head of Sales for Fred Perry, not only dresses herself in bargains she finds in charity shops across South East London, she has her own small network of pre-loved pop-ups, operates as a personal charity shopper for lots of her friends and volunteers as a stylist and blogger for St Christopher’s.

“I absolutely love it. I wouldn’t say it’s an addiction, but I just get such a thrill being in a charity shop. Some people love sweets. Others love cake. I love charity shops.”

Emma has built a social media following thanks to her posts highlighting that day’s bargain outfit. It was these that brought her to St Christopher’s attention.

When she was approached to support St Christopher’s with its Wedding Fair earlier this year, Emma says she couldn’t believe her luck.

“When they asked me to come to the wedding event and be a pre-loved ambassador I thought the heavens had opened and all my dreams had come true. It was an incredible day and one of my friends bought her wedding dress there. It was worth £2,000 and she got it for £500.”

As well as ample qualifications for this ‘dream’ role, Emma was thrilled to be asked as she has a personal connection with the hospice too, as it cared for her grandparents and an uncle.

“I think St Christopher’s holds a special place in the heart of everyone I know locally. That’s what makes me feel so proud to be part of it.”

During Second Hand September, Emma went into St Christopher’s premium store in Crystal Palace, went through the rails, picked out items she knew worked together, took photos of them laid out on the floor and then tried them on and had shop volunteers take photos of her in them. Emma then posted these on Instagram urging her followers to come and find their own hidden gems.

So, what’s Emma’s secret?

“I think what I do is show how accessible a charity shop is and how you can do it. A lot of people say they can’t find what I find. I do have an eye for it but I’m also able to imagine how you could wear an item in a different way or have it taken up or out. You’ve got to go in with an open mind and give yourself time to look.”

Emma’s keen eye and love of charity shopping does mean her own clothes collection is pretty large.

“I have my own bedroom to myself and it has a lot of wardrobes which are full. I think at the last count I had 35 coats. But then if I have a clear out, I either give things to my friends’ daughters or to charity shops. It’s that circle of life and sustainability that I love. We’ve got to stop buying so much new stuff.”

It’s not just the wardrobes in Emma’s house that are testament to her charity shopping skills. Every item of furniture and even the knives and forks are sourced the same way. And she’s determined to change the hearts and minds of anyone she comes across who has a mental block when it comes to buying pre-loved.

“I love taking people with that mindset round some charity shops and showing them what they can find. I’ve converted so many people and lots of them are now buying vintage only.

“If you look hard enough there is treasure. I sew the seeds for people and then they go and find their own treasure.”

Find your local store and join our campaign for change.

Kerry and Roberto’s story

When I met Roberto, I was drawn immediately to his gentle and kind nature and his impressive intellect. Although his background was in computer science, something I knew nothing about, he was interested in everything from politics to economics to history. We married a few years after meeting in a beautiful villa in the hills outside of Rome – the city where Roberto grew up. Over the years we often travelled to Italy and some of our best memories were holidays spent exploring the country, especially Sardinia, from where Roberto’s father originated.

Finally, after 12 years and numerous miscarriages, we joyfully welcomed our son Gianluca, who was the image of his father. A passionate photography buff, Roberto accumulated thousands of photos of our son throughout the years; from Gianluca’s first day of school to the numerous tennis tournaments he began to compete in from the age of five. We used to tease Roberto for always having at least two large cameras strapped across his chest anytime we left the house. He was always behind the lens and rarely in front of it!

When the pandemic hit, Roberto lost interest in taking photos. He began to feel tired; he suddenly became impatient and moody.  All changes easily attributed to the impact of lockdown. One day while working from home, Roberto complained he was struggling to make sense of emails. We thought it was time for a new eyeglass prescription. But within a few days he became alarmed and emailed the GP.  Eventually, he was sent for blood tests which came back clear, and an MRI, which did not.

We got an urgent call from the GP to go straight to A&E where a neurologist would be waiting for us. With our nine-year-old son in tow, we rushed to the hospital. Once Roberto was finally admitted, my son and I were told to wait outside. I’ll never forget the call from the attending physician telling me my brilliant husband presented with the worst dementia symptoms he had ever encountered. But it wasn’t dementia. Instead, it was stage 4 brain cancer, the most aggressive type, glioblastoma.

A few weeks after receiving the diagnosis, on Father’s Day, my husband again was rushed to hospital. We were told he had deteriorated so quickly that the only way he could undergo radiotherapy and chemotherapy was as an inpatient at Guy’s in London. He spent more than a month in hospital slowly losing the ability to walk. When he finally came home, it was to a hospital bed in our downstairs bedroom. I stayed by his side. He needed help with everything – eating, drinking and washing. It was devastating to see my once strong husband so weakened and ultimately robbed of his dignity. 

By September, Roberto was admitted to St Christopher’s. The kindness we were shown as a family from the moment he arrived was incredible. Doctors took the time to speak privately to both myself and Gianluca about what we could expect. More importantly, they spoke to Roberto like the intelligent person he was, thereby preserving his dignity. More than once I cried on the shoulders of staff and volunteers. There were brief moments of happiness amongst the sadness. I’ll never forget how Emily, one of our favourite nurses, arranged to bring Roberto out in a wheelchair to the tennis club across the road to watch Gianluca play, or the three of us making clay handprints from the hospice’s art studio, or the lovely music therapist Sean playing The Girl from Ipanema on his electronic piano. With my family living in the US and Roberto’s family in Italy, St Christopher’s became the second family we desperately needed in our darkest hour and for that I am forever grateful.   

Roberto died peacefully in my arms in the hospice on November 11 2021, just seven months after diagnosis. As he slipped away, with nurse Emily holding both our hands, the setting sun blazed such intense fiery red orange and pink hues like I had never seen. I took comfort from the fact his suffering was over but for my little boy and myself ours was never ending. Thankfully, in the year that followed we both received support from St Christopher’s through group and individual counselling. I learned that kindness can be found even in the darkest of times. Something else that was a real godsend was the help I received from the Welfare Team sorting out my husband’s pension and our leased car, which I would have really struggled with on my own. We are so very grateful to all the staff at St Christopher’s.

Who will you never forget?

Every year, thousands of our supporters dedicate a light on our hospice trees, to remember someone special who has died.

Help light the way for those who need us most.

Donate and dedicate

St Christopher’s nurse grateful her book was presented to Pope Francisco

Maria Aparicio with book

Just how did a book co-written by a nurse at St Christopher’s end up being presented to the Pope in Rome?

The book, Gratitud y cuidados paliativos (Gratitude and Palliative Care) (Gratitude and palliative care. A dialogue between philosophers and clinicians – Ediciones Universidad de Navarra (eunsa.es)) was the outcome of a nine-month project which saw healthcare professionals and philosophers meet online and in person fortnightly, for nine months to discuss the impact of gratitude on doctors and nurses working in palliative care and to reflect on the essence of gratitude in palliative care. You can read more about that in this article.

Facilitated by the research team called ATLANTES, at the University of Navarre in Pamplona, where Maria did her PhD on this topic, the project culminated in an event that saw 400 healthcare professionals and philosophers join in person and online for a conference about the findings. This then then led to the book.

Maria and the ATLANTES team started to study the topic of gratitude more than 10 years ago, first analysing the content of letters of thanks that were received by the palliative care teams. They then followed this up with a major project about the impact that expressions of gratitude have on those professionals.

“Most of us who work in palliative care keep a box in our house,” she adds. “We all have letters and tokens of gratitude, some of which cost very little but are absolutely priceless. We felt that most of us when we are feeling down or lost in what we are doing, we will come back to that box and find renewed motivation. It’s like fuel in a car or vitamins for the body. We thought it was really important to bring more knowledge about it, so we decided to make a systematic study as none was found in our literature review.”

Like any gift or card, some mean more than others. The research identified criteria for determining their significance, one of which is the nature of the relationship with that individual. Equally, Maria says, a look, smile or hug of appreciation can carry as much or even greater meaning as a material gift – as discussed in this article.

Gratitude is not exclusive to the palliative care field, Maria says. “In fact, it’s strange because the gratitude we receive is not because we have cured the patient, but because the care that we provide usually goes beyond the medical care.”

Also, Maria adds, that being receptive to people’s gratitude is essential for maintaining a balanced relationship, “Sometimes as doctors and nurses we feel like we’re just doing our job and we don’t deserve the thanks. But if they want to give something back we have to allow it and open up to it to stop that hierarchy. But let’s be very clear that we do not work expecting any gratitude”

Maria says that while she still appreciates and welcomes every token of gratitude she receives in her role as a nurse supporting people in the community, her research has given her a greater awareness of its effect on her and her nursing practice.

“I feel like I am carrying all the gratitude I have received in my life with me. That doesn’t mean any new thanks aren’t welcome, because it always is, but all of those nice words people have said are in my skin and in my memories and I feel very grateful and blessed and they are part of who I am now.”

So, finally, how and why did the book reach the Pope?

Pope receives book co-written by CNS Maria Aparicio

Maria reveals: “The Pope is a big supporter of palliative care.  One of the directors of my thesis at the University of Navarre happens to belong to a committee at the Vatican. He travelled to Rome once or twice a year and he usually will have a meeting with the Pope. Then we thought that as a gesture of gratitude for his support of palliative care, he should offer a copy of the book on this occasion. He did and Pope Francisco appreciated it!”

“It is something that you do not expect to happen, it is amazing. I particularly love this Pope, so I am really grateful and thrilled that he has a copy of our book.”

Skip to content