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Meet Beryl, who recently celebrated her 93rd birthday. Here, she tells us a bit about her fascinating life as an Occupational Therapist during the war, her adventures across the globe, and how St Barnabas House has helped to keep her spirits high since her cancer diagnosis and referral for palliative care in 2017.
My favourite space in St Barnabas is the art room. As a Day Hospice patient, I would spend all my time in there, experimenting with art materials and techniques. It’s such a creative place and each session I’d come away having learnt something new from Stevan, the Artist-in-Residence.
My interest in art goes back to when I was training to be an Occupational Therapist during the war. In those days, occupational therapy in hospitals was quite a new thing and there was a lot of emphasis on the use of craft activities to help rehabilitate patients, many of whom had been wounded in the war. I learnt pottery, weaving, woodwork and all sorts of other crafts.
After finishing my training in 1946, I went on to start a new Occupational Therapy department in Poplar Hospital in East London which had been bombed during the war. It was there that I had an Occupational Therapy student come to me who had worked with Cicely Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement. So, I heard a lot of exciting things about hospices and how they would be starting up.
I went on to work in various hospitals and I also spent some time working in the boroughs of Paddington and Kensington where I mainly cared for tuberculosis patients in their own homes. In those days, tuberculosis was generally treated with bed rest, so I’d strap my loom to my bicycle and load it with arts and crafts materials to help keep patients busy while they were at home or waiting for a place in a sanatorium.
It was in 1947 that I met my husband, Noel, on a youth hosteling holiday in Tunisia. He used to work for a company who organised walking holidays abroad and had taken a party out to explore the country.
We fell in love and after we got married, I got involved in helping him with his business whenever I got the chance. We shared a passion for all things outdoors and together we travelled all over the world, exploring and walking out places he was planning to use for walking and cross-country skiing holidays. There were many memorable expeditions including a trek to Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalayas and a hike up Mount Kenya to see if it would be possible to send walking parties there. On one occasion, we also took a group to Lapland, staying in basic huts along the King’s Trail.
After many adventurous years living in London, in 1983 we retired to Bramber, a village near Steyning. When Noel fell ill with prostate cancer in 1997, he was referred to the old St Barnabas House.
I shall never forget people’s reactions when I told them that Noel was being cared for by St Barnabas. Their faces would drop, and you could see they were thinking, ‘oh dear’. That was their attitude – they just thought of the hospice as a place that you go to die, they didn’t know it was so different.
Of course, when I was referred to St Barnabas for palliative care in March 2017, I knew all about how wonderful it was and I was very pleased to be referred back.
A lot of people find the hospice to be a very happy place, including me. It’s a place where you can learn new things, where you can meet people, share your troubles, but also share your happiness. A place where you feel you are welcome and can talk to anybody. It’s very supportive – not only of the patients, but their loved ones as well.
Since my cancer diagnosis, I have used a range of the services provided by the hospice.
One thing that I really do enjoy is visiting the hospice once a week to have a bath. Although this hasn’t been possible lately because of coronavirus, it’s a real luxury as I haven’t been able to get into a bath on my own for a long time. I have a shower room, but it’s not the same as having a good soak.
Like the bathing service, there are so many other things that make St Barnabas unique; from the friendly volunteer drivers who so kindly collect and drop me off at the hospice, to the chance for keen gardeners like myself to grow vegetables in the hospice gardens. The Day Hospice team always go out of their way to plan new and interesting activities, but you can just as easily sit and do a jigsaw quietly all morning if you’d rather.
There’s one day in particular that I’ll never forget. I was attending the Day Hospice with a group of others; it was beautiful weather and out of the blue, one of the nurses said, “How about we all go to the lake?”. They helped all of us down to the hospice gardens and we sat there chatting and enjoying the views. The next thing I know, I was offered an ice lolly. I’d not had an ice lolly for years! It’s those small things that are just so liberating, and so different from the care you get in hospital.
I feel strongly that more people should know about the type of care provided by hospices, which is part of the reason I also enjoy taking part in the St Barnabas Schools Project. Local schools visit the hospice for three weeks running and patients, like myself, are paired with schoolchildren so they can learn about the hospice.
We work on crafts projects together, play games, answer questions and talk through some of the more unusual equipment that patients need to make their lives easier.
I don’t have family at all and I don’t see a lot of small children, so I’ve found it most interesting to talk with them about their lives and see how they react so positively to things that they are shown.
The best thing is that the boys and girls are able to see what a happy place the hospice is, which is important as they won’t grow up thinking that a hospice is just a place where you go to die. In many ways, they become like ambassadors, spreading the word amongst their parents, family and friends.
I too have been a proud ambassador of St Barnabas ever since my husband was cared for at the hospice. I have always contributed, but I’m aware that at the moment coronavirus is having an effect on donations, with many events cancelled and fundraising that can’t go ahead. I really hope that everyone continues to support St Barnabas during this difficult time as it is such a wonderful place and we must never let it disappear!