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Heather’s Story: The hospice is a place where I feel safe and really loved

The café at the Hospice of the Good Shepherd is buzzing. It’s always a really happy place, brimming with positivity and full of smiles. That’s probably not what everyone would expect in a hospice.

We’re on a quiet corner table, both of us nursing a coffee and perhaps slightly on edge. This is going to get personal and I’m still unsure about how far I can go with the conversation that’s about to start, and where the boundaries might be.

Heather Vaughan is elegantly turned out, composed, smiling and seems to be in control. That’s a bit of a surprise. I’m wondering how she’s managing to be all those things, given the circumstances.

 

Heather and Stephen had been together for 27 years and married eight months ago. Stephen, passed away here at the hospice just two weeks ago after years of inexorably diminishing ill-health.

 

Imagine. Just two weeks ago. Fourteen nights. No time at all in which to properly grasp the reality and finality of what’s happened let alone process and come to terms with anything.

As afflicted by raw grief as she must be, Heather wants to be here. She says that she actually needs to be here and wants to articulate just how much the hospice means to her and how the team and its expertise made the final months and days that much more bearable – for her just as much as for Stephen.

We’ve been at the table for no more than ten minutes. Just as our conversation begins to take shape, someone from the cleaning team spots Heather and accelerates over with a warm embrace, the kind you’d reserve for someone you really care about rather than a token gesture of sympathy.

Over the next twenty minutes there are more enthusiastic visitors to our table: Simon the catering manager, James our senior social worker, Kelly from the fundraising team and Naomi from the nursing team. Every one of them greeting Heather like a long-lost friend. There are meaningful hugs, warm exchanges and from Heather, a display of deep affection and gratitude in return.

 

“Some might find it strange that I want to be here so soon after Stephen’s passing but the fact is that I’m content here,” Heather explains. “This is a place where right now I feel safe and really loved.

 

“No one shies away from you or feels awkward. Everyone knows just what to say to you. That makes such a difference.”

Stephen was a respected landscape photographer and a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. His stunning photographs are displayed throughout the hospice with prints regularly sold from the hospice café.

A civil engineer by training, Stephen was also an author and publisher, a keen drummer, a constructor and flyer of model aeroplanes as well as a collector of rare watches, a model railway enthusiast and a regular exhibitor of his beloved 1990 Jaguar XJS convertible.

He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2011 and retired from professional photography in 2016 when he was no longer able to explore the wild landscapes he treasured.

A cancer diagnosis came in 2017 and in 2023 he was referred to the Hospice of the Good Shepherd after chemotherapy left him with severe anaemia. Heather has been his carer throughout.

 

“We didn’t know what to expect when we first arrived at the hospice’s Living Well outpatients’ centre in January last year and yes, it was scary,” Heather said.

 

“Stephen had endured some brutal treatment: chemotherapy, radiotherapy, radioactive injections and all the really painful and unpleasant side-effects that accompany them – and all that on top of the Parkinson’s symptoms. It was very difficult and whilst all this was going on I was also looking after my mum and dad. My dad actually passed away in September last year.

“We came to Living Well for weekly transfusions for about a year but the whole experience was a revelation to us both. There was such an air of warmth and welcome from the receptionists when we first walked into the place. Everyone was smiling.

“We didn’t expect any of that and it’s precisely those little things like that make such a big difference.”

Heather continued: “Living Well provided regular complementary therapy sessions which helped us both enormously. It was the only time Stephen was able to feel really comfortable and for me to have some rare ‘me’ time.”

“The hospice café is such an asset – it offers that sense of normality when so very little else is normal.

 

“It’s easy to feel isolated and alone when you’re in this situation and being able to join the Living Well Carer’s group was fantastic. You can just be yourself with people who are experiencing what you’re experiencing and feeling what you’re feeling. You never have to put on the brave face that you have to put on for some people in your day-to-day life.”

 

“It’s also an opportunity to share ideas and experiences and enjoy a real sense of camaraderie.”

In January this year, Stephen contracted Sepsis and was admitted to the Countess of Chester Hospital. During a four-week stay he received five transfusions and suffered several seizures.

Stephen was referred to the hospice for inpatient care. “Knowing what I knew about the hospice, I had never been so relieved about anything in my entire life.”

Heather continued: “Everyone was so lovely with us when we arrived.  We were gently walked to the ward and I was embraced by the doctor. 

“The care they provide at the hospice is just amazing but it’s the way that care is delivered that is so very special and humbling – always with real compassion, with empathy and with what I can only describe as real love.

“Everyone was so very kind and considerate to us in so many different ways. There was never a hint of negativity and I know for a fact that I could never have got through this without the love and kindness of everyone I came into contact with and got so close to over the last few weeks of Stephen’s life -doctors, nurses, cleaners and catering staff and volunteers.

 

“To know that you don’t have to do this on your own is so very special.”

 

Heather has already returned to the hospice as a volunteer in the cafe. “I want to stay part of this amazing place and the amazing family that is the hospice team,” she added.

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