GRITTY actor Tam Dean Burn is used to putting on a hardman front for the audience, having played tough guys in Taggart and in the stage version of Irvine Welsh’s Filth.
But his macho exterior was put to the ultimate test as he sat by his dying mother’s hospice bed and watched her quietly slip away.
In the peace and quiet of St Columba’s Hospice he held her hands, talked gently to her and even softly sang some of her favourite songs, watching intently as her breathing gradually slowed and finally stopped.
Today, her passing on the second day of January this year is still bitterly raw. But Tam, who stayed by her side throughout her final days at the hospice, pitching up in a family room so he could be close by her side, can at least look back secure in the knowledge that she was in the best place possible.
After a moment’s deep thought given over to reflecting on the one word that he feels sums up the hospice’s role in caring for his mother, he says: “Open.”
“But how can you come up with just one word that covers everything that happens there?”
Yet that’s precisely what the hospice asked of those touched by its work, as part of a major project that will eventually take centre stage at its new home – eventually every participant’s single-word contribution will combine to create a powerful wall of words, a poignant feature in what will be the rebuilt hospice’s Columba Room.
His mother’s death was, he recalls sadly, a dignified and comfortable closing chapter to a life dedicated to giving love and care to others, in a haven Jean knew would provide all the comfort, compassion and support needed throughout the toughest
journey of them all.
In peace and calm of the new facility, families and friends of patients will have space to reflect, to gaze across nature’s beauty from picture windows overlooking the Forth and absorb the meaning of the poignant words of others who have gone before.
“I read the words that other people contributed, like ‘sanctuary’ and ‘care’,” says Tam, explaining how he came to choose the one word that encompasses what the hospice means to him. “And every word I read struck a chord.
“Then I thought ‘open’, partly because there is this wonderful open policy, so you can visit day or night, whenever you want to.
“The staff are completely open, they never cover anything up, you always know what is happening.
“Finally the word ‘open’ makes me think of flower buds opening up, like the flowers my mum used to arrange for the hospice.
“It’s the best word to describe my mum and my love, still.”
The memories choke Tam and send him reeling back to happier times when his mum would devote her boundless energy to visiting the hospice, where she would chat with patients, relatives and friends.
“She got on well with everyone, particularly old people – she loved to chat,” he smiles. “Flower arranging was just a hobby for her, but for 20 years she’d go to the hospice and arrange the flowers. It was a special place for her, she was remarkable.”
That close association with the hospice meant that when Jean, who lived in Clermiston, was diagnosed with incurable cancer late last year aged 76, there was no question of where she would spend her precious final days.
“It all happened quite quickly,” recalls Tam. “She had cancer around five years ago in both her lungs but she refused chemotherapy.
“She’d heard that taking ground apricot kernels could help fight cancer so she tried that.
“She had a scan later and it turned out the cancer had gone. It was incredible and it meant she was with us for the birth of her first granddaughter, my daughter Morgan, three years ago.”
Sadly, and with her husband Tommy, 80, in a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, Jean was diagnosed with advanced cancer which had spread to her liver in early December last year.
It took grip so fast that by Christmas she was in the care of the hospice in Kirklands House, Gogarmuir Road, Gogarbank, the facility’s temporary home while a new £24 million facility is built in Boswall Road.
Glasgow-based Tam, his partner Emma and little Morgan were able to stay close by in a family room, allowing them to spend valuable time at Jean’s side as she quietly slipped away.
“She wasn’t able to communicate any more,” he remembers. “But it was good to be able to sit beside her and talk to her and sing to her. I knew she was where she wanted to be – in St Columba’s Hospice.”
June Eagles agrees that choosing a single word to define the role of St Columba’s Hospice as it cared for her terminally ill sister, was a challenge. Eventually she settled on ‘comfort’, a simple word that she says covers a multitude of experiences.
“As relatives you take comfort from the fact that your loved one is being looked after so well. You know they have comfort – both in the material things around them, but also they are not in pain.
“There’s comfort too in knowing you can visit when you want to and there’s comfort given by the staff who cared for us too, made us tea and supported us.”
June Eagles, who lives near the hospice’s temporary home Gogarbank, spent hours by her sister Anne Lang’s bedside as she bravely succumbed to cancer last April, at the age of 62. The mum of three had battled breast cancer for five years, eventually it spread to her lungs and at the beginning of the year the family received sad news that it had spread to her brain.
Given just a fortnight to live, Anne rallied in the care of the hospice, surviving for a further nine precious weeks.
“There are many words to sum up the hospice,” adds June, “like empathy, peace, love and care.
“We came together as a family, had many laughs and were able to work together to benefit my sister. I can’t speak too highly of the hospice.”
Although the hospice is in temporary accommodation while work continues on its new facility, the level of care is unchanged, says staff nurse Mhairi Kidd. For her, the hospice also has an emotional attachment as well as being a place of work – the nature of the job makes it impossible for the two not to be entwined.
“You can’t not be affected, there are many times when you get attached to patients and it can be a challenging job but one that’s also very fulfilling,” she says.
Like Tam, she found it a challenge to pick just one word to sum up her many feelings towards the hospice. Eventually, though, she settled on “compassion”.
“There’s so many words that fit, love, fulfilment, care, support,” she nods.
“It’s also a happy place, a calm environment that’s not doom and gloom at all. There can be humour – in fact, that counts a lot when you are caring for patients of all ages.”
Mhairi has worked at the hospice for 16 years but also has personal experience from the other side, as a relative visiting an ill family member.
“I know how important it is to see your loved ones get the care they require,” she adds. “If someone has a positive experience at a difficult time, it makes coping with their loss that bit easier.”
Now, as work on the new hospice takes shape, she is looking forward to the next phase of caring for the terminally ill and supporting their families, when it opens next year.
“It’s very exciting to think we’re getting closer to moving,” she adds.
“We’ve coped well at Kirklands but it will be wonderful to offer the same high standard of care in a much more purposeful building.”
All part of the big campaign
THE One Word Appeal – in which donors choose a word to feature on a wall of words in exchange for a donation – is part of a major campaign
to raise the £26 million needed to refurbish St Columba’s
The hospice moved out of its home in Boswall Road to a temporary base in Gogarmuir Road, Gogarbank, so work on the rebuild could take place.
The countdown has now started to its completion next year.
Much of the exterior work has been completed and the focus is now on creating the interior of the hospice, day unit and facilities.
Among the improvements will be patients’ rooms designed to allow natural light to flood in, creating a calm and tranquil environment.
French doors will open from their rooms directly onto the gardens, enabling patients and visitors
nature’s simple beauty.
The rooms will also be designed to be more comfortable and homely, and less like a hospital room.
A new kitchen facility will help the chefs create a rich menu of nutritious and tempting meals for patients.
A new education centre linked to the hospice’s Granton site opened last year.
Evening News readers helped raise more than £350,000 for the hospice’s Buy a Brick campaign two years ago, which kicked off the appeal to raise vital funds for the rebuild.
For further details, go to www.stcolumbashospice.org.uk