St Columba’s Hospice: A new lease of life

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The value of St Columba’s Hospice cannot be underestimated and as it embarks on a radical transformation which can only enhance the sensitive work it performs, we examine how it has helped so many people

SHEILA Davies was certain that the agonising ambulance ride from her home to St Columba’s Hospice would be the last of her terminally-ill mother’s life.

Sophia Reid, who had been living with her daughter at her home in Currie, winced in excruciating pain with every bump and turn the vehicle took, as a result of the breast cancer which had ravaged her body.

And when Ms Davies left her 73-year-old mother at St Columba’s that morning, she believed she would never see her alive again.

In fact when she returned later that day, she was sitting up and knitting.

Ms Reid went on to enjoy life for another six months, and was even able to move back in with her daughter for a period as a result of the care she received.

That was more than 30 years ago, and Ms Davies has seen staff at the hospice use their “magic wand” on countless other patients who have seen out their final days there, after she became a St Columba’s volunteer in the months following her mother’s death in the summer of 1980.

The building where Ms Reid and thousands of others passed away has now been largely consigned to history, as part of a £26m redevelopment which will bring St Columba’s fully into the 21st century.

But although the nursing wing where her mother was treated has just been demolished, Ms Davies’ memories of her care will live on in the foundations of the redeveloped building.

As part the hospice’s Foundations appeal, those with a connection with the old building have been encouraged to write a short message on blue paper doves which will then be sealed within a special air-tight wooden box and buried in the hospice grounds.

It is hoped that the project will allow people like Ms Davies, who have an emotional attachment to the old building, maintain a bond with the new hospice, which is being rebuilt on the same north Edinburgh site, overlooking the Forth.

Ms Davies wrote on her dove: “I will always be grateful for the care she received, and the support I got. Long may the guiding principles of St Columba’s Hospice remain.” And speaking to the Evening News about the hospice, she added: “My mother had so much support – she was in the bosom of her family for as long as we could possibly have her.

“We got an extra six months – and for a good bit of that time she was at home with us.

“I look back with happy memories because we could be with her. She had a lot of sorrow in her life, but she was a colourful and cheerful soul. The hospice allowed her personality to shine through.”

Thousands of people have already shared their memories through blue doves, but a final push is underway to get even more people to send 
messages, before the box is buried forever next month. Actress and River City star Una McLean acts as an ambassador for St Columba’s and will be sending her own blue dove to be buried at the hospice – where two of her close friends have died.

“The blue dove idea is wonderful,” she said. “It’s delightful that people can have their thoughts there forever.

“We’re very lucky in Edinburgh to have the hospice. I’m sure it holds a special space in a lot of people’s hearts.

“I had one particular friend who passed away there and they did everything. The staff acted with such love. I remember the first time I was in a hospice. I thought they were somewhere to go to die, but a friend said ‘that’s where people go to live’. I never forgot that.”

As the transformation of the old hospice site gathers speed, St Columba’s has temporarily moved to a site in Kirklands House, Gogarbank.

The wider fundraising appeal for the redevelopment of the hospice – backed by the Evening News – has already raised £22.7 million, but a further £3.3m is needed to reach the target. Edinburgh craftsman Eugenio Paolozzi built the wooden box in which the blue dove messages will be sealed by hand and donated it to St Columba’s.

The box is made of iroko – an African hardwood – which surrounds a metal container which will ensure the messages survive even if the wood rots away.

He made the gesture after his father-in-law died at the hospice in the summer of 2009.

“The wood shouldn’t rot, but the metal will be there forever,” he said. “It’s nice that people can write a wee note to say thank you, it’s very poignant.

“When my father-in-law passed away the staff were so compassionate and understanding. He died in peace. In his final days he was up and talking because he was given the care to do that. It was a special time.

“The hospice has touched so many. It’s a release for making people comfortable and allows them to die with dignity.”

Pauline Willis, a staff nurse in the day hospice, wrote a blue dove message out of respect for the patients she had cared for since 2005.

She said: “If people have lost someone at the old hospice it’s probably very helpful to put something in the foundations – it’s keeping their heart there.

“The hospice is a fantastic place to work. It’s very rewarding and it’s not just about the people who are unwell, it’s the families as well.

“It makes the job very satisfying when people find comfort at the hospice and that people have nothing but praise for the work done.

“The old building was dated and to carry out a high standard of nursing care, the new hospice is the way forward. But it is sad to see it go.

“But we’re still going to have the spectacular views. Little, simple things in life can make a great deal of difference at that stage of your life. When you see the blue skies and calm water, you could be anywhere in the world.”

The deadline for submitting blue dove memories to be included in the box is August 10.

Ambitious plan for revamp

ST Columba’s Hospice opened in 1977 in Challenger Lodge, in what had been The Edinburgh Cripple and Invalid’s Children’s Aid Society.

When it took in its first patients the 15-bed facility was considered Scotland’s first modern hospice.

It was originally envisaged that the hospice would last 25 years, but 35 years later it became clear that wear and tear was taking an unacceptable toll on the fabric of the building.

A decision was made to completely transform the hospice and an ambitious fundraising campaign was launched to pay for the work, as the hospice moved out of its spiritual home temporarily to allow the redevelopment to begin.

When the new St Columba’s

Hospice building opens in 2014, it will include larger patient rooms to allow loved ones to stay with

patients, a “spiritual space” for relaxation and contemplation, new garden spaces and a larger day hospice.

The 30-bed in-patient unit and day hospice facilities will be modernised and a new education wing will house a centre for excellence in palliative care.

The number of single rooms will increase from eight to 18, catering facilities will be upgraded and the building will be more energy efficient, leading to a reduction in

running costs.

• For more information on the appeal, to donate money or to find out about how to write a blue dove message, visit http://www.stcolum