24 April 2020, The Tablet

An old hospice responding to a new threat

by Tony McLean

An old hospice responding to a new threat

A nurse gives a book and a rose to a patient at a hospital during Saint George's Day in Barcelona, Spain, April 23, 2020.
unreguser/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

St Joseph’s Hospice in Hackney has existed for 115 years, founded by five remarkable women, Sisters of Charity, who arrived from Dublin in 1900 to help the poor and dying of east London. St Joseph’s Hospice opened its doors five years later.

Back then the enemy was tuberculosis, a terrible disease that particularly affected the poor. People were dying in crowded rooms, spreading infection among their families. Coming to St Joseph’s allowed them to die with dignity, in clean and peaceful surroundings, being looked after with love and care by the Sisters of Charity. 

The next enemy was the Spanish Flu of 1918 to 1920. The Sisters navigated their way through that pandemic too giving love and support to those that needed it.

Today the Hospice is once again responding to a new enemy, Covid-19, which has had a massive impact on the way we live our lives.

At St Joseph’s Hospice in many ways it is business as usual. We are still lovingly caring for the dying, ensuring that our patients have a dignified and peaceful death in line with our mission. 

It’s hard to know what impact this crisis is having on our mental health. Our health professionals care for the sick and dying 24/7, it’s what they do. But, with the additional pressures of an enemy that could strike us at any time, our chaplaincy team have an important role to play. The communities of east London are diverse and so are their faith needs and we are fortunate to have a Catholic Priest, an Imam, an Anglican Minister and a Rabbi on-site when needed by our patients and staff. We also have a beautiful chapel and prayer room.

Fr Gerard O’Brien is our Chaplaincy Lead at St Joseph’s Hospice. He said, “My role as a priest and chaplain is tactile, the human element and touch is so important. A hand on the forehead to a dying patient speaks a thousand words, when words are just not helping or even necessary. A hug can be a great comfort to someone in their final hours but we can’t do that at the moment. That is really difficult for me personally, but we cannot bring the virus to a patient unknowingly or risk our health or that of our families. 

“Along with the clinical staff we absolutely should run towards this challenge, but as much as our purpose in life is to be there for the sick and dying, for now we have to do it wearing gloves and masks as we have a lot of work still to do.”

Since the Covid-19 crisis began we have been expecting a call from the NHS to open up more beds in order to increase capacity. 

A little over a week ago the call came and it was all systems go at St Joseph’s. Along with the 34 beds we currently have in use we have an empty ward, St Anne’s, which used to take in respite patients. The ward closed two years ago and four respite beds were moved to our other two wards, Lourdes and St Michael’s.

St Anne’s Ward has been transformed in just over a week thanks to the hard work of the facilities team; cleaners, porters, electricians, plumbers, painters and the IT team, along with the nurses, current and new, who have been trained to use the new beds and equipment. We now have 51 beds.

It has been a herculean effort by our fantastic staff to get St Anne’s Ward ready to accept patients from local hospitals. We are of course delighted to do our bit to help the NHS and our wonderful local community who have rallied behind us since the start of this crisis. 

St Joseph’s Hospice has been around for a long time and that is because we adapt and change when necessary. This crisis has thrown up some challenges but we’re well equipped to deal with them and any others that may come along too. 

Tony McLean is the Chief Executive of St Joseph’s Hospice, one of the oldest and largest hospices in the UK

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