You simply can’t put a price on giving dignity to the dying

The Dougie Mac is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

The Dougie Mac is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

It’s the place you only really come to appreciate when someone close to you is dying. A place which, if truth be told, many people in these parts are still more than a little afraid of.

The Douglas Macmillan Hospice, or the Dougie Mac as most of us know it, has been part of the fabric of life in the Potteries for as long as many of us can remember.

What began in 1973 as a terminal care home has grown exponentially over the last four decades to become a centre of excellence for palliative care.

What started with a £50,000 grant to the North Staffordshire Committee of the National Society for Cancer Relief has morphed into an organisation with an annual income requirement of £9.2 million.

Remarkably, £5 million of that comes from members of the public through donations, fund-raising events, lottery ticket sales, charity shop purchases and legacies.

All that money pays for services including a day therapy unit, respite care, specialist family lodges and the community nursing teams who provide invaluable care for people wishing to remain in their own homes.

People like my auntie Jean. People you will know.

Yet despite its staff of more than 250, its constantly-evolving site at Blurton, its 900-plus volunteers and its multi-million budget, the Dougie Mac has somehow managed to remain what it began as – an organisation which is by the community, for the community.

It exists because the NHS, wonderful as it is, makes no real provision for end-of-life care.

Focused as it quite rightly is on delivering children safely into the world and treating the sick, there is precious little thought and even less money given to those whose life’s journey is coming to an end.

That’s why places such as the Douglas Macmillan Hospice exist.

When the NHS can do no more and families have nowhere else to turn that’s where the Dougie Mac comes in.

When someone learns they are dying they, and their relatives, experience a whole range of emotions from fear and sadness to anger and even guilt.

At the Dougie Mac, no-one sits in judgement and no-one claims to have all the answers.

But the staff there – from the cleaners, kitchen staff and maintenance men to the reception staff, the nurses and the doctors – are entirely focused on helping those with life-limiting illnesses, and their loved ones, find value in the time they have left.

Given the nature of a hospice, you’d be forgiven, perhaps, for thinking that the Dougie Mac, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this week, is a sad place. You’d be wrong.

Walking around, as I’ve had the privilege of doing in recent weeks, you’d be amazed at how friendly and welcoming everyone is and by how content the patients and visitors are.

It’s no coincidence that the terminally-ill, anxious and frightened when arriving at the Blurton hospice for the first time, often relax once they come through the doors.

“This is where I want to die,” is a sentence that more than a few staff and relatives have heard down the years – such is the effect that this place has on people.

The work done at Dougie Mac, the care given by its expert staff, is a gift so precious that many feel the need to say thank you.

People like ‘Tin Can Man’ John Leese MBE, who sadly passed away last week.

John, who I had the pleasure of interviewing a while back, raised more than £350,000 for the hospice in memory of his late wife Olwen who had been cared for by the staff at the Dougie Mac.

When he came on stage to receive his Editor’s Special Award at The Sentinel’s Our Heroes awards night, he said to me that he hadn’t done it for the praise.

It seems to me that, like than man who rattled his tin can for years for the charity he loved, no-one associated with the Blurton hospice ever does it for a pat on the back.

They do it because they are so grateful that when they and their loved ones are at their lowest ebb there is a local organisation, funded by local people to pick up the pieces.

What the Dougie Mac and its near neighbour the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice do is give dignity to the dying.

They make every moment count by relieving pain and suffering, creating memories and giving those left behind a reason to go on.

We’re rightly proud of our hospices because you simply can’t put a price on the services they provide.

Happy birthday, Dougie Mac, and thanks for everything.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

Why Tom’s still fiercely passionate about his native Stoke-on-Trent

Tom Brennan during his days as a city councillor with plans for Northwood Stadium.

Tom Brennan during his days as a city councillor with plans for Northwood Stadium.

Love him or hate him, you couldn’t possibly ignore him. That may well be Tom Brennan’s epitaph.

But that would be too simplistic and do a huge disservice to a man who, at the age of 79, remains as fiercely passionate about his native Stoke-on-Trent as he was when first elected a councillor almost 40 years ago.

What’s more, Tom is that rare beast: A councillor who can look back on his unblemished period of office with a mixture of pride and satisfaction – having gifted the people of the Potteries some tremendous benefits.

Born in 1933, there was little to suggest the lad taught mainly by nuns at St. Joseph’s RC School in Burslem was destined for a career in politics.

Having learned his trade as a painter and decorator, Tom completed three years’ service with the Irish Guards.

He went on to work in the building trade before taking a job, like other members of his family before him, with the very Catholic-orientated Michelin tyre firm.

It was there that Tom, who became a shop steward, met the likes of local politicians Leon and Stan Bate who suggested he join the local Labour party. Within 18 months he was elected as a councillor at the then acceptable age of 40.

Tom, who lives in Bucknall with his wife Elaine, recalls: “It was a real culture shock to me. Suddenly I was in a position to be able to represent all of these people in my area.

“I was very proud. I did a four-year college course, paid for by the Labour party, which trained us to be good councillors and schooled us in the art of politics.

“I finished it and even received a certificate signed by Jim Callaghan (who went on to become Prime Minister in 1976).

“I was full of enthusiasm and remember attending my first meeting up at Hanley Town Hall.

“Jim Westwood was leader of the Labour group back then and when I stuck my hand up at the end of the meeting to ask about national policies he made it very clear to me that the local party ruled the roost in Stoke-on-Trent and they didn’t listen to national politicians.

“I wasn’t downhearted by this. When you’ve done three years with the Guards and been a drill instructor you learn to cope with shouting and bawling and how to give it back.”

This refusal to be intimidated and an unwillingness to take ‘no’ for an answer was to serve Tom well over the next 21 years as a serving councillor.

The City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards, organised by The Sentinel and now in its 38th year, was Tom’s brainchild.

A talented athlete in his youth, he was also the key player in the creation of Northwood Stadium.

Tom remembers: “Under the ‘any other business’ section of a meeting of the parks and recreation committee I stuck my hand up and asked why Stoke-on-Trent didn’t have a running track like other cities.

“The chairman at the time was Joe Monks-Neil. You have to bear in mind that, back then, the chairmen of council committees were all-powerful. It’s not like that these days.

“Joe asked me who I thought I was to be asking a question like that. He said the council had more important issues to think about like slum clearance and land reclamation.

“But I wouldn’t let it lie and I just kept niggling away.

“I got myself onto the Northwood Management Committee and worked to help bring together the various councils and funding bodies who stumped up about £4.5 million to pay for the stadium.”

More than a decade later, in 1985, Northwood Stadium was officially opened and Tom’s involvement in its creation is now acknowledged there with a plaque.

Tom looks back on his time as a councillor with great fondness and a real sense of achievement.

He said: “Elaine did a terrific job of bringing up our two children and I am very proud of them all.

“Crucially she supported me every step of the way through my endeavours as a councillor and there were times she barely saw me.

“Elaine just knew it was something I was very passionate about. I still am.”

Something which Mrs Brennan was able to play a full role in, however, was Tom’s period of office as the Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent (1982/3).

He is now the second oldest surviving Lord Mayor of the city.

Tom recalls: “I was tremendously proud to represent the city. I think we attended more than 1,700 engagements that year. These included a visit to London at the request of the Lord Mayor of London along with all the other civic heads and an audience with Pope John Paul II.”

When Tom heard earlier this year that, as part of cutbacks, the city council was looking at doing away with the ceremonial role of Lord Mayor and its associated costs he was horrified.

He said: “I couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself: ‘Where do they get these mad ideas from?’ I am a Labour man through and through – a socialist and proud. But having served as the Queen’s representative I understand the importance of such roles – the distinction of having a Lord Mayor – and I will defend the idea to my dying day.”

Tom believes the role of councillors has changed since his day and that their power and influence has waned somewhat.

He said: “I don’t believe that councillors in 2012 have the same opportunities and wield the same power as they did 30 years ago.

“That’s a good and bad thing, I suppose, and I dare say getting something like Northwood Stadium would be beyond modern-day councillors and I feel sorry for them in away.”

However, Tom says that even with the changes and knowing what he knows now, he would happily start over as a councillor tomorrow.

He said: “You never stop caring. You never stop wanting to help people. It gets in your blood.”

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel for 12 pages of nostlagia