Could you join the army of hospice volunteers?

Yours truly in the kitchen at the Dougie Mac Hospice.

Yours truly in the kitchen at the Dougie Mac Hospice.

If you are of an age, like me, and you’re born and bred in North Staffordshire, the chances are you will know someone who has received care at the Douglas Macmillan Hospice in Blurton during the last 40 years.

That’s how long Dougie Mac, as we call it, has been caring for local people.

Hopefully, no longer to does anyone view the place as ‘somewhere people with cancer go to die’ – as a member of my family once referred to it.

Dougie Mac is, and always was, far more than a hospice which provides end-of-life care.

If you ever have cause to visit you’ll find a bright, airy place which has more of a community feel than somewhere caring for sick patients.

I suppose that’s part of the magic. The first-class facilities, the modern decor, the beautifully-maintained gardens and the wonderful meals.

It’s actually a lovely place to be.

But what makes Dougie Mac truly special is the people who work there and the hundreds of people who give up their time as volunteers.

It costs more than £10 million each year to keep the hospice running – or £22,000 a day, if you prefer – much of this raised through donations, shop purchases and legacies from the people of North Staffordshire.

The fact is that sum would be a hell of a lot higher were it not for the army of volunteers who supplement the hospice’s paid-for staff.

Either that or the hospice’s income would be lower and it would simply be unable to offer the huge range of services it currently provides.

Some volunteers are students, many are retired people, others simply have a few hours a week to spare and want to give something back to their community.

Roles are many and varied – depending on whether someone wants to be based at the hospice, working with patients or out in the community helping with events or fund-raising.

Wherever you go in the hospice you’ll find volunteers.They answer the phones, they look after the gardens, they help maintain the buildings and they interact with the most important people – the patients and their relatives.

When the Prime Minister talks about the ‘Big Society’, people scoff. The truth is it’s been in action at Dougie Mac for decades.

Earlier this week I, along with BBC Radio Stoke’s John Acres, Stuart George and Charlotte Foster, and the Hanley Economic Building Society’s chief executive David Webster, spent some time at the hospice as volunteers.

I found myself wearing a green throwaway apron (much to the amusement of colleagues back at The Sentinel newsroom) and working in the busy kitchen which, I discovered, operates a rolling 10-week menu which makes your mouth water.

Once I’d proved I could polish 40-off glasses for a do the following day, chef Stephen Pickerin (CORR), from Hanley, let me loose preparing two huge trays of braised steak for patients and staff.

Mum would have been proud of me.

I have to say it was quite a therapeutic experience and a lovely atmosphere within which to work – helped no end by the banter with Steve, a long-suffering Vale fan like myself.

I chatted to another volunteer, Keith, (a Stoke fan) who told me how he’d begun working at the hospice after retiring when he found himself wondering ‘what he was supposed to do now’.

Keith began as a volunteer in the hospice garden before neck and back pain had forced him inside where he now works as a kitchen assistant.

It’s quite clear that the volunteers are extremely well thought of by staff and are viewed as a vital part of the team.

As chef Steve said: “We really couldn’t cope without them.”

But it was something he said later that stuck with me as I drove away from the hospice.

Steve commented: “We get lovely compliments from the patients and relatives about the meals. The best thing is when you hear someone who is ill say: ‘I couldn’t face my food until I came here’. That’s really special.”

It’s volunteers like Keith, of course, who help Steve and the team in the kitchen achieve such incredible results and genuinely improve the quality of life for patients and their relatives.
Right now, Dougie Mac is desperate for more volunteers for all kinds of jobs 24/7.

If you think you could help out for a few hours a week, or more, in a patient-facing role, a fund-raising or income generation position or a hospice-based role, then call the Douglas Macmillan Hospice voluntary services team on 344332 or email workforce services@dmhospice.org.uk

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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

Proud legacy that keeps on giving after 40 years

Sign pointing motorists to the Dougie Mac hospice.

There is a place in Blurton which is very close to the hearts of the people of North Staffordshire.

It’s a sprawling site, much of which isn’t visible as you drive past, and it may not look much from the outside.

However, looks can be deceptive and inside this very special place people find the strength, hope and courage to face the very worst that life can throw at them.

I am, of course, talking about the Douglas Macmillan Hospice which this year celebrates four decades of caring for people with life-limiting illnesses.

It is no exaggeration to say that most people in our neck of the woods know someone who has benefited from the ‘Dougie Mac’ – as it is known locally.

I’m no exception. My auntie Jean received invaluable support from the community nursing team during her final days.

Without the hospice, it is almost impossible to imagine just how many people with terminal illnesses, and their relatives, would cope.

This is the thought which perhaps spurred the pioneers back in the early 1970s who worked tirelessly to create what was the termed a ‘terminal care home’ here in the Potteries.

It was in 1969 that the North Staffordshire committee of the National Society for Cancer Relief (NSCR) received a grant of £50,000 to help create the Douglas Macmillan Home which was to be used exclusively for cancer patients.

A public fund-raising appeal was then launched with the aim of raising £330,000 in 10 years.

Thanks to the generosity of individuals, businesses and local authorities, the target was reached in just four years.

On January 2, 1973, the first in-patient was admitted to the home (the name hospice was introduced some years later).

As it has today, the in-patient unit had 28 beds – although, back then, each cost £7.20 per day. Patients were initially admitted for the remainder of the lives – whether that be a few days, several months or, as happened with one resident, 14 years.

When the home opened nursing staff consisted of five sisters, one staff nurse, two enrolled nurses and 15 nursing auxiliaries.

It’s a far cry from the Dougie Mac of today which boasts more than 250 full and part-time staff – including 50 people working out in the community – and more than 800 volunteers.

Over the years the home became a hospice which diversified so that it no longer focused its services solely on cancer patients.

From one main group of buildings which included the in-patient unit, a chapel and mortuary, the hospice has grown exponentially across the site.

The 1980s were a period of huge expansion for Dougie Mac, as summed up by Lynne Johnson who was the cook in charge when she joined in 1984.

She recalled: “During my 12 years of service I saw the hospice develop from a small, homely place to a centre of excellence – still holding on to the friendly atmosphere which attracted me initially.”

During the Eighties:
Bereavement care was introduced (1980)
Care in the community began (1983)
The day care unit became operational (1985)

A summerhouse was donated for the garden and the first ‘Light up a life’ Christmas tree service was held in 1989. This was also the year the hospice purchased its first computer which was used by the finance department.

Over the years a Community Nurse Specialist Team (PCNS), a Hospice at Home service and an Education Centre have all been added.

These are now all supported by a full range of clinical support services which include physiotherapy, occupational therapy, lymphoedema, chaplaincy, bereavement support, social work, psychology and diversional therapies.

As Dougie Mac celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, there’s no doubt its founders would be proud of their legacy which just keeps on giving to the people of North Staffordshire.

*The Sentinel will be publishing a special supplement to mark the Dougie Mac’s 40th anniversary in its editions on Tuesday, February 5.

Ray of sunshine has been on the buses for 44 years…

Thirty years ago if you wanted to get around the Six Towns then most people hopped on the tried and trusted buses mainly operated by Potteries Motor Traction (PMT).

In the early Eighties, there were nowhere near as many cars on the road and public transport was the lifeblood of the local economy.

Buses ferrying workers to major employers such as Shelton Bar, Wedgwood, Royal Doulton and the pits were crammed from 7am.

Hanley bus station – that huge, dirty, decaying carbuncle which is set for demolition – was a hive of activity as the main terminus for the Potteries.

My nan wouldn’t buy her bloomer loaves from anywhere else other than the bakery in the underpass where other businesses such as a dry cleaners, chemist and bookies were thriving.

This was a place Ray Newton knew very well.

In August of 1980 he passed his driving test not in a little car like the rest of us – but behind the wheel of a PMT bus.

Ray had begun his career on the buses on May 6, 1968, when – as a 21-year-old – he had swapped his job as a stores clerk for a firm in Newcastle for the better paid job of a conductor PMT operating out of its Clough Street depot.

Ray, aged 64, of Bentilee, said: “I started on a basic wage of £13 nine shillings – which was a big jump for me. And we could work overtime to earn some more.

“It was a great job and I really enjoyed it. There was wonderful camaraderie on the buses and the drivers became good mates – a big part of your life. As well as collecting the fairs, the conductor was responsible for ensuring the buses stuck to the timetable and arrived on time. It was an important job.

“Back then people were more friendly, polite and courteous. Lads would give up their seats for a lady if the bus was full and the drivers and conductors were treated with respect by customers.”

Ray’s working life came to a crossroads in August 1980 as conductors were being phased out in favour of single-operative vehicles.

He opted to re-train as a driver and during the interview we worked out that he must have ferried yours truly to Sixth Form College, Fenton, and home again to Sneyd Green in the late Eighties.

Long before that, however, Ray had to pass his driving test.

He said: “It was terrifying, to be honest. My knees were knocking the first time I sat behind the wheel of a bus. I only had a provisional licence at the time and so I passed my test on a bus which I suppose is quite unusual.

“By the following year (1981) there were no conductors on PMT buses and the drivers were doing it all and so I had to learn to take the fares as well as getting my head around the mechanics of driving a big vehicle.”

Ray has no doubt why the number of people using the buses across North Staffordshire has fallen in recent years.

He said: “It’s the local economy. We just don’t have the companies and workplaces we had back then. Workers would fill our buses.

“It was standing room only at certain times of the day. They just aren’t there anymore.”

And the biggest change he has seen over the years?

Ray said: “Definitely the switch from a manual gearbox to an automatic. That was a really big deal for all of the drivers and totally changed the job.”

Of course, you can’t work on the buses with the public for forty-odd years and not have a few stories.

Ray has seen it all – including one elderly passenger he picked up near Cobridge Traffic Lights expiring in his seat.

But one story which still tickles Ray is from his time as a conductor in the seventies.

He laughed: “Our bus came to a stop in Highfield Road, Blurton, and I told one of our passengers – a blind man – I would get off and help him cross the road. Just as we got to the other side I heard the ‘ding-ding’ of the bell on the bus and off she went. The driver drove off without me.

“Some comedian had obviously seen what I was doing and pretended to be me, rung the bell, and left me stranded. To be fair, the driver did come back for me. Eventually.”

On May 5, Ray will finish his shift at First Bus, hand in his keys at the depot in Adderley Green, and head off to a well-deserved retirement – just one day shy of 44 years on the buses.

He’s had a long and distinguished career and admits he has enjoyed it.

So how will he fill his retirement?

Ray said: “I love making things. Doll’s house furniture and the like. That’ll keep me busy.”

With seven grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, three great grandchildren (and another on the way) he won’t be short of takers for those hand-made toys.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

Ian’s proud as punch of his megastar nephew

Slash's uncle Ian Hudson at home.

Slash’s uncle Ian Hudson at home.

When Tony Hudson told his family he was emigrating to America, his younger brother Ian was understandably upset – not least because it meant saying goodbye to his nephew Saul.

Ian took a lock of the lad’s hair, placed it in a photo album and shaped it into a number six – the age Saul was when he left the Potteries to start a new life overseas.

The year was 1971 and the States may as well have been another planet as far as your average Stokie was concerned.

Little did Ian know that the next time he would hear about the scruffy boy with a penchant for sticklebricks and drawing dinosaurs was through a book review in The Sentinel.

The book in question – Low Life In The Fast Lane – told the story of the biggest rock band in the world and there, on the cover, was the lad who had once turned little girls’ heads in Blurton.

The band was Guns N’ Roses, Saul had become its legendary lead guitarist Slash, and it dawned on Ian that his nephew was a megastar.

Ian, who works as a warehouse operative for DHL in Stoke, said: “I honestly couldn’t believe it. We were all absolutely thrilled to bits.

“You see, I remember Saul – as he was then – as this boisterous little guy who lived with my mum and dad, Cybil and Charles, in Consett Road, Blurton, and went to the local primary school.

“Saul was very close to his dad, adored his auntie Mabel and loved drawing. He was a very gentle boy really, and there was certainly nothing to indicate that he would become a hard rock musician or join a band.”

Ian said: “When we found out Guns were touring the UK in 1991 we managed to get in touch with the band’s PR company and asked Slash if he minded the Hudson family going along to the gig at Wembley and he said: ‘Great!’.

“The first time I saw him with Guns, strutting around with his guitar and flying across the stage with Axl it was just awesome.

“It was hard to believe it was the same little boy I knew from all those years ago.”

I took it as a good omen as I drove through Tunstall on my way to interview Ian and spotted a bloke wearing a faded Guns N’ Roses t-shirt.

You know the one – the classic, circular gold band logo with the two pistols and red roses.
It took me back…

Back to 1988, in fact – my final year at Holden Lane High – when an earthquake had transformed the music scene.

A certain American band had brought hard rock music to the masses with their multi-platinum album Appetite For Destruction.

Even the girls in my class, used to bopping around to the Theme From S-Express, were hooked.

“Slash’s from Stoke, you know,” I recall one of them saying – which, of course, made the lead guitarist even cooler. If that was possible.

Guns ’n Roses went on to become the biggest band in the world before drugs, touring and egos led to the implosion of the original line-up.

More than three decades later and the boy from Stoke – AKA Slash – is scheduled to play his first gig in the city where he spent the early years of his life.

Tickets sold out in under two hours – much to the delight of his uncle Ian who will be at a packed Victoria Hall in Hanley on July 24 along with his family and some lucky pals.

You wouldn’t know Ian had a famous relative. Not unless you get invited round to the home of his partner Jean Booth in Sandyford, that is.

In the cosy living room you’ll find framed pictures and magazine covers signed by Slash himself, along with back stage passes from past tours which are the equivalent of rocking horse poo to your average rock fan.

Ian, now 64 and living in Tunstall, has got used to having a famous nephew.

So used to it, in fact, that he can now look back and laugh at the time when he met a man in a pub in Fenton who claimed to be Slash’s uncle.

“I didn’t argue with him,” said Ian. “But it did make me smile to think that there was some bloke going around pretending to be me. I guess it just shows you how big Guns were.”

The living room at Jean’s house is where Slash’s father Tony spent two weeks sleeping on a camp bed in July last year when he stayed over in order to spend a little time with the brother he hadn’t seen for nearly 40 years.

Since that first Wembley concert experience, Ian has met up with his famous nephew several times – during UK gigs with his post-Guns ’n Roses outfits Slash’s Snakepit, supergroup Velvet Revolver and on his solo tour.

But when he heard that Blurton’s finest would actually be playing live here in the Potteries, Ian was understandably over the moon.

He said: “Slash had just got off stage from a gig in South America and he texted me. It said: ‘See you in Stoke on July 24’.

“I thought: ‘Stoke? Where on earth would he play in Stoke?’.

“When I found out it was the Victoria Hall I was thrilled because I’ve seen a few decent concerts there myself – people like Eric Clapton and ELO back in the Sixties.

“It’s a great venue and it will be brilliant to see Slash back here in Stoke and not have to travel so far. I could even use my bus pass.”

Looking back, Ian fully understands why his older brother wanted to move away from the Potteries.

Tony, who will be 70 in August, was a gifted artist who went on to create album covers for musicians such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.

Meanwhile, Slash’s mother Ola was an African-American costume designer whose clients included David Bowie.

Needless to say there wasn’t much in the way of work for them in the Potteries.

Tony moved his family to the Laurel Canyon neighbourhood of Lose Angeles which, during the 1960s, became famous as a home to many of the Big Apple’s rock musicians, such as Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison of The Doors and The Byrds.

Ian said: “I think Tony just felt that he could offer his family a better life over in America.
“Obviously, back then none of us had any idea what would happen to Slash.

“When they first moved to the States we would get letters and Tony would send pictures of album sleeves he had been working on.

“Then, over time, the correspondence dried and up and we just lost touch.

“The success of Slash’s career has brought us back together really and I couldn’t be more proud.”

Ian rang The Sentinel after reading my column about Slash’s homecoming gig and the campaign to have a statue erected in his honour here in the Potteries.

He said: “I don’t think Slash really understands just how many fans he has here back here in Stoke-on-Trent.

“But I’m sure the crowd will let him know and make him feel welcome. It will be a very special night for all of us.”

Council has definitely favoured Stoke City above Port Vale

The Britannia Stadium: Home of Stoke City FC.

The Britannia Stadium: Home of Stoke City FC.

Very shortly the Audit Commission will give its verdict on whether or not the deal which enabled Stoke City to acquire sole ownership of the Britannia Stadium was properly handled by the city council.

It follows claims that councillors were misled over the exact details of the £5 million sale.

The inference is, of course, that the sale of the city’s 36 per cent stake in the stadium may not have gone through at all had elected members been made aware of the exact details.

At this point I should declare my interest in this matter. I’m a Port Vale fan, a season ticket holder, a (very minor) shareholder and a Vale columnist for this newspaper.

For years now I have observed as the city council has displayed what I believe has been an astonishing bias in favour of the club whose players wear red and white in comparison to Burslem’s finest.

Now, as my club teeters on the brink of a financial and footballing abyss, I’d like to point out the obvious.

Yes… I can almost hear the jeers. I’m waiting for the emails and the letters from Outraged of Heron Cross, Sarky from Trentham and Smug of Blurton.

It’s a good bet that the word ‘jealous’ appears in this correspondence. Fair enough – it’s a free country.

Whatever people might think, I’m not anti-Stoke City. I’d like to see both clubs doing well. I appreciate full well the importance of the Potters being in the Premier League – for the club and its supporters, for the profile of the city and even for the company I work for.

However, that shouldn’t mean the city’s other professional football team is treated like a poor relation by the local authority.

We know Stoke City has more supporters than Port Vale. Thus, simple mathematics dictates that there are going to be more Potters fans among the powers-that-be at the Civic Centre (Town Hall as was) than there are Vale fans.

Could this, then, help to explain some of the following?

During the season 89/90 (Vale’s first season back in the old Second Division – now the Championship) the Burslem club’s relationship with the city council hit rock bottom.

The authority forced the closure of Vale market which had been generating around £120,000 a year for the club. Cheers.

In the early 90s the idea of building a ‘community stadium’ was first mooted. The concept was championed by the then city council leader Ted Smith, a no-nonsense politician and staunch Potters fan who brokered a deal between the authority, Stoke City and St. Modwen.

To be fair, Vale were approached about the possibility of ground-sharing with Stoke at the proposed venue in Sideway. Which was a bit like asking Stoke fans if they fancied leaving the Victoria Ground to share a new stadium with the Vale in Middleport.

Needless to say, Vale stayed put and Stoke City received millions of pounds worth of taxpayers’ money (and, against the odds, European grant aid) to build a new ground which never realised its grand vision of becoming a community stadium. (Hosting a few pop concerts just doesn’t cut it, I’m afraid).

In June 2007 Stoke City was able to purchase the city council’s 36 per cent stake in the Britannia Stadium for £5 million.

Whether or not this represents value for money for the city’s taxpayers is open to debate. (I suspect the pre-credit crunch valuation of the site would have meant the stake was worth more).

However, the phased payments which city councillor Mike Barnes and other colleagues have taken issue with equate to an interest-free loan to the Premier League club.

In stark contrast, League Two Port Vale has been paying up to six per cent interest on the £2.25 million loan it secured from the same authority.

At the same time Vale Park, at the council’s behest, has become a genuine community venue in the way the Britannia Stadium never was.

But while the Vale has had to finance its own community programmes, £500,000 of the £5 million Stoke City is paying to become sole owner of the Britannia Stadium will actually be ploughed into community schemes… at the home of the Potters.

Does this all sound fair to you?

I could go on. There are many more examples. But, in summing up, I reckon that, irrespective of the result of the Audit Commission’s investigation, it is a fact that the bias towards Stoke City within the city council is every bit as real today as it was when Ted Smith and his Labour cabal ruled the roost.

And, should the unthinkable happen to Port Vale, then I believe that through their actions elected members and officers, both past and present, will certainly have contributed to the club’s demise.