‘I couldn’t do what they do, those nurses. It’s amazing how brave they are,” says my taxi driver as we pull up towards St Columba’s Hospice.
Having watched someone dear succumb to a pernicious terminal illness, I am inclined to agree as I know how hospices can feature in many of our very darkest moments.
But St Columba’s Hospice doesn’t feel dark, the seaside light streaming in through glass windows offering sweeping views of the Forth. It feels tranquil and inviting to anyone passing its secluded spot on the Trinity shore, from where staff and volunteers have delivered dedicated and unflinching care to the people of Edinburgh for nearly four decades.
The building is a labour of love, with the state-of-the-art facilities completed last May as part of a £26 million rebuild, thanks in part to the generosity of Evening News readers who donated to our Buy a Brick appeal.
And it is clear that it is not just the outside that has been transformed, as new chief executive Jackie Husband explains the charity’s ambitious plans to transform both the treatment and the narrative around terminal illness.
“When people don’t know much about what we do here, sometimes they ask whether it is really hard. I always say it is a privilege,” says Jackie, 45, who worked as a nurse for many years before moving into education and then management. “The other day one of the patient’s grandsons was running about, playing hide and seek in the courtyard and the normality of that is so important.
“You will hear lots of laughter, you will hear lots of noise and some people find that surprising. It is about quality of life and making the most of living.”
She hopes to increase the awareness of hospice services, and to improve the conversation around terminal illness, by encouraging people to discuss their wishes with their loved ones.
Jackie, who hails from Cumbernauld, adds: “It shouldn’t be something to be frightened of, it should be something that can be discussed. Death is part of life too.”
Since taking over in October following the retirement of popular chief executive Margaret Dunbar, Jackie has set to work on the charity’s five-year strategy, with plans to expand their care to a greater number of people.
A specialist children’s bereavement service is top of the list, along with an expansion of the community nursing team to provide a seven-day service and an improved outpatient service.
St Columba’s Hospice is also exploring the therapeutic benefits of using art and other creative therapies through its partnership with Queen Margaret University.
She says: “It’s about providing different models of care to meet different people’s needs and the way they want to access it. There’s a misconception that hospices are about beds and wards, but actually the bulk of care that we provide isn’t actually in the hospice. There are many, many patients who never actually attend the hospice at all and they are cared for in the community.”
Another ambition is to create a bigger focus on supporting patients’ families, with the introduction of two patient and family lounges in each ward as well as two extra family bedrooms.
The hospice – which cares for around 1200 people per year – costs £8 million to run, with the majority of that money coming from the public.
Jackie says: “The people of Edinburgh really see this as their hospice. They built it 30 years ago, they raised the money and year-on-year they raise the money to keep it going.
“Often when you talk to people, even if they have never had direct contact with the hospice then they know of somebody who has benefited from the hospice care.
“I believe that’s why they continue to support us because it is very much close to folk’s hearts in a lot of ways.”
This year’s appeal is raising funds for the decoration of the hospice interiors, where staff plan to use colourful fabrics and furnishings to create a homely environment for patients and visitors. The gardens are also being transformed to create a vibrant place for families and patients.
With pride in her voice, Jackie adds: “The tranquility and the peace strikes you. Many years ago a patient had said to me that the one thing that was very important to them at the end of life was the ability to see the stars and feel the rain and the snow on their face and for me that is something that has been achieved in this new building.”
‘Buy a brick’ drive helped rebuild
THE stunning new hospice opened its doors in May last year, following an astonishing outpouring of generosity from local people.
St Columba’s Hospice has been providing care to the people of Edinburgh since 1977 after Ann Weatherall, a matron of Corstorphine and Beech Mount Hospital, visited St Christopher’s Hospice in London.
She was so inspired by the care being given to the dying there that, alongside Dr Derek Doyle, she formed a committee to raise funds to found both Edinburgh and Scotland’s first modern hospice.
But in recent years it became clear that the buildings needed complete renewal to meet the needs of the hundreds of patients who use it each year.
The charity joined forces with the Evening News for the “Buy a Brick” appeal in 2009, which aimed to raise the final £7 million needed for the construction of a new state-of-the-art hospice at its shore-side location in Granton.
Contractors tore down the 1980s flat-roofed building to replace it with the £26 million new hospice, based around the B-listed Challenger Lodge which welcomed the hospice’s first 15 patients when the site first opened in 1977.
The historic building was once known as Wardie Lodge, but it was renamed in 1914 by renowned oceanographer Sir John Murray after his famous deep sea expedition.
While the work was under way, the entire operation decamped to Gogarburn in February 2012 to allow for the massive demolition and rebuild to begin, almost entirely paid for by fundraisers and donors.
They included thousands of Evening News readers who raised an astonishing £370,000, donating their cash in return for the chance to dedicate a brick at the new hospice in memory of a loved one. The hospice now contains two 15-bed wards, with many rooms boasting wet rooms and floor to ceiling windows leading on to balconies with stunning views of the Firth of Forth.
A palliative care education centre linked to the site opened in 2013 to provide courses for doctors, nurses and other professionals.