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

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Please help us to honour Our Heroes of 2014

Jonny Wilkes and Rachel Shenton with previous Child of Courage winner Corey Stephens-Goodall.

Jonny Wilkes and Rachel Shenton with previous Child of Courage winner Corey Stephens-Goodall.

It was back in early 2006 when I sat down with the then Editor of The Sentinel and we talked about creating a community awards campaign.

We kicked around some ideas for categories, thought about how the awards ceremony would work and finally came up with a name.

Nine years on and Our Heroes is firmly established as this newspaper’s flagship annual community event.

On September 25 an array of TV, stage and sporting stars and a host of civic dignitaries will gather on the red carpet to pay tribute to a remarkable group of individuals highlighted through our news pages.

Ask celebrities such as Jonny Wilkes, Nick Hancock, Rachel Shenton, Gordon Banks OBE and Olympic gold medallist Imran Sherwani and they will tell you that the Our Heroes Awards do is an incredibly humbling and grounding experience which makes all those in attendance feel extremely proud of our patch.

Every day now until July 31 you can read inspirational and humbling human interest stories in The Sentinel as we shine a light on each award nominee.

They range from children of courage and bright young things to charity fund-raisers, volunteers and carers, good neighbours and community groups. They include school stars and heroes of the NHS as well as emergency services and Armed Forces personnel who go beyond the call of duty.

Since 2006 we have published more than 1,000 Our Heroes nominations and more than 2,000 people have attended the gala awards dinner.

Previous award recipients have included foster carers, charity fund-raisers, paramedics, policemen and women, firefighters, soldiers, aspiring performers, doctors, nurses, receptionists, teachers, school caretakers and residents’ associations.

Winners have included cancer drug campaigners, the Women Fighting for Herceptin; courageous youngsters including meningitis sufferer Ellie-Mae Mellor and Caudwell Children ambassador Tilly Griffiths; ‘tin can man’ John Leese MBE who raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for Dougie Mac; and even the Staffordshire Regiment (now 3Mercian).

The local media is often criticised for focusing on the negative in society and fixating on bad news.

Our Heroes rather disproves that notion because it gets under the skin of the daily acts of kindness, bravery and selflessness shown by so many people in North Staffordshire and South Cheshire.

It’s not a campaign which will sell us thousands of extra newspapers but the goodwill and pride generated by highlighting all these amazing individuals is priceless.

The Our Heroes Awards is exactly what a local newspaper should be doing – a genuine antidote to all the hardship and misery, all the stories about deaths, crime, accidents, deprivation and job losses.

Each tale is inherently positive and highlights an unsung hero, heroine or group who perhaps otherwise would receive no recognition for their extraordinary lives.

And therein, of course, lies the problem for my colleagues and I which is that those nominated for an Our Heroes Award don’t believe what they do – day-in, day-out – is unusual.

It’s our job to convince them otherwise and to show them how special they really are.

In order to do that, however, we need your help. If you know someone, or a group, who deserves recognition then please just take a moment to pick up the telephone or email one of the reporters tasked with looking after a particular category.

Please help us to honour those who enrich the lives of others. Tell us who Our Heroes for 2014 really are.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

In all honesty, this press regulation bun-fight has nothing to do with regional newspapers

The Sun's excellent front page yesterday.

The Sun’s excellent front page yesterday.

In the wake of yesterday’s historic agreement on press regulation we now have the entirely predictable and unseemly spectacle of the main protagonists doing their very best to claim victory and rewrite history.

Despite protestations to the contrary, it’s plain for all to see that, as per usual, leaders of all three political parties were more interested in point-scoring and saving face than genuinely achieving an accord which satisfied both the public clamour for change while safeguarding one of the pillars of our democracy.

Frankly, I’m very cynical about the Leveson Inquiry and rather despondent about the subsequent witch hunt.

This is not because I don’t think the inquiry was warranted. Neither am I cynical because I would try to defend any of the nefarious activities of certain journalists working for certain media organisations.

I’m cynical because I see how MPs, scarred and seething in the wake of the expenses scandal, were champing at the bit to bash Fleet Street.

I’m cynical because the rich and famous with axes to grind turned the inquiry into a cause célèbre and rather hijacked the very legitimate aims and concerns of the Hacked Off campaigners.

I’m cynical because, if anything, the real danger to people’s privacy and the enemy of good journalism – the internet and social media – was beyond Lord Justice Leveson’s remit, despite it becoming more relevant (and intrusive) by the day.

I’m cynical because many broadcast journalists who should know better are taking the moral high ground and reacting as though their counterparts in the print media have leprosy.

I’m cynical because the hacking of telephones by a minority of national newspaper journalists (exposed, of course, by other national newspaper journalists) has somehow been allowed to tar the entire industry with the same brush.

Lastly, I’m cynical because my colleagues and I in the regional press are wondering where Leveson and yesterday’s vote leaves us – the thousands of ordinary regional newspaper journalists who haven’t the faintest interest in hacking someone’s phone but may well pay a heavy price because some fools once did.

A few days ago the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) Lord Hunt visited The Sentinel.

We gave him a whirlwind tour of Stoke-on-Trent and then he met staff on a paper that’s been chronicling the history of this part of the country for 159 years.

Lord Hunt gave us an insight into his meetings with senior politicians ahead of yesterday’s all-important vote and spoke of his hopes and fears.

We expressed our concerns that the regional press seemed to have been forgotten in the almighty post-Leveson scrap but could well pay the price of misdemeanours by staff on national newspapers.

He spent a couple of hours at Sentinel HQ and during that time we did our best to accentuate the differences between ourselves as A Friend Of The Family and the red tops and broadsheets who caused this mess.

We explained that we are the only media organisation with the resources and the inclination to cover both magistrates and crown courts in North Staffordshire on a daily basis – thus playing our role in the administration of justice locally.

To that end we extolled the virtues of my colleague Dianne Gibbons, who greets me in the office each day at 7.30am with a smile before heading off to court.

Dianne has been with The Sentinel for more than 50 years.

Like her colleague Dave Blackhurst, our health reporter for more than 30 years, Dianne’s knowledge and professionalism is unparalleled and the service they both provide to our readers is vital.

We informed the Chairman of the PCC that we are the only media organisation which provides in-depth coverage of local government – attending every city council meeting and outlining in full the ramifications of things like local authority cutbacks.

We told him of our investigative work which has exposed everything from the goings-on at Port Vale under the previous board of directors to various council gaffes and concerns over the capability of doctors at our local hospital.

We showed Lord Hunt our successful campaign to save the name of the Staffordshire Regiment which attracted 17,000 signatures on a petition which was taken by veterans to 10 Downing Street.

We told him about our public events – from the ever-popular Our Heroes Community Awards and the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards (now in its 38th year) to our Class Act campaign for schools, our Young Journalist Awards scheme run in conjunction with Staffordshire University, The Sentinel Business Awards and Stoke’s Top Talent which we organise in partnership with The Regent Theatre.

We pointed out that we mark all the important occasions in our neck of the woods with souvenir supplements – from the Olympic Torch coming to our city to Stoke City’s 150th anniversary or 40 years of the Dougie Mac.

Hopefully Lord Hunt went away knowing that we echo the view of Lord Leveson himself who said: “It is clear to me that local, high-quality and trusted newspapers are good for our communities, our identity and our democracy and play an important social role.”

This is what we strive to do at The Sentinel every day – irrespective of what Hugh Grant thinks.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

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.

High time decision-makers rewarded incredible service

If you ever want some perspective; if you are ever having a terrible day at work or your football team has been beaten (again) or you just feel stuck in a rut – then simply log on to the internet and Google Treetops hospice.

Better still, take a drive or a walk down to Trentham Lakes and look for the place.

Nestling amid a modern housing estate is the children’s hospice which is home to the Donna Louise Trust (DLT).

The place itself is state-of-the-art, colourful and impressive – the staff warm and welcoming.

It feels more like a newly-refurbished youth club than a place where seriously-ill youngsters and their families receive care and support that is, quite simply, humbling to behold. Care and support which reminds us what life and love is all about.

A decade ago it didn’t exist. Yet now it is difficult to imagine North Staffordshire without this remarkable charity – in the same way that the Dougie Mac at Blurton has become a blessed part of the furniture locally.

Indeed, it is hard to believe we didn’t have a facility like Treetops on our doorstep long before this newspaper was approached in 1999 to begin publicising the fund-raising initiative to build the hospice.

I remember those early meetings and how eagerly both Sentinel journalists and our readers embraced the concept.

To get it up and running so quickly was testament to the generosity of spirit which sets the people of the Potteries apart.

Now here we are, 10 years on, and the DLT, which provides care and support for children who have life-limiting illnesses and their families, is struggling.

Its latest fund-raising drive, the Save Our Services (SOS) campaign, is an attempt to raise £300,000 to prevent further cutbacks during the current recession.

This appeal continues despite last month’s announcement that the Government is spending an additional £30 million on so-called palliative care across England.

At first glance this seems like wonderful news for children’s hospices up and down the country.

However, there is no guarantee that this extra money will find its way into the coffers at the DLT.

Whether or not Treetops receives additional money is entirely at the discretion of local Primary Care Trusts (PCTs), who will decide how best to deliver care to children with shortened lives.

At present, the level of funding the DLT receives from the PCTs locally varies depending on the worth each attaches to the hospice when they review its performance annually.

For the record, it costs around £2 million each year to run Treetops. At the moment 85 per cent of this funding comes from charitable donations with only 15 per cent provided as statutory funding.

In contrast, hospices for adults receive, on average, 31 per cent of their funding from Whitehall. Why the disparity? Your guess is as good as mine.

The fact is, many of us tend to take charities for granted.

It is only when we ourselves, or our relatives and friends, have reason to call upon their expertise that their true value becomes apparent to us.

We rely on the likes of the DLT and the Dougie Mac to provide essential care at crucial stages in the lives of our loved ones.

The scandal is that these incredible organisations have to rely so heavily on public goodwill.

Let us simply hope that the decision-makers at the PCTs recognise the true value of the DLT and the quality of the service it provides when slicing up the pie.

If they don’t, and they need some perspective, I suggest they pay a visit to Treetops.