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Looking back at 40 years of Hospiscare

2022 marks a special year for our hospice charity as we celebrate 40 years of caring in the heart of Devon

From one community nurse caring for patients in Exeter, Hospiscare has grown into a much-loved, award-winning hospice charity, caring for more than 2,500 people living with a terminal illness across Exeter, Mid and East Devon every year.

We simply would not be here without the dedication of our community; from our staff and volunteers to our supporters.

To celebrate all that we have achieved over the decades, we look back at our journey and share the stories of those people who were instrumental to Hospiscare’s success.

Dr Jack Simpson and Dr John Searle

Dr Jack Simpson (L) and Dr John Searle (R) viewing Hospiscare’s first Annual Report

Dr John Searle, Hospiscare’s founding chair, explains, “It really began when I was a medical student at Guy’s Hospital and I was looking after a lady who had advanced stomach cancer, for which there was really no treatment in those days.

“When the consultant came in, he didn’t even acknowledge her. He said, ‘Send her home and give her a bottle of whisky a day’ and then we moved on to the next case. I thought to myself, surely there has to be a better way.

“Some years later as a young doctor, I heard a lecture by Dame Cicely Saunders, the founder of the hospice movement, where she explained that you could control the symptoms at the end of life and that you could prepare both the patient and those close to them that death was coming. Her philosophy was that those last few months or weeks could be lived to the full.

“Years later when I’d moved to Devon, I was invited to chair a group to bring end-of-life care to Exeter. We’d arranged to have a launch in the Guildhall on 21 January 1982 and we expected that a few people would turn up. The Guildhall was packed – people couldn’t get in and they were standing out on the high street in a blizzard!

“I explained what we wanted to do, and that we needed to raise £300,000 to pay for two community nurses. There was an elderly chap at the back and he suddenly took his hat off and shouted ‘Put your money in it!’ By March of that year, we had two community nurses working within a six mile radius of Exeter Cathedral.

“In those early visionary days, you just do it, because you’ve dropped a pebble in the pond and either the ripples are going to fade out, or something is going to happen.”

A woman outside holding a certificate and medal

Kerry Macnish with a certificate recognising her long service to our charity

Kerry Macnish, one of Hospiscare’s early nurses, continues, “I joined Hospiscare in April 1987 and the nurses were ensconced in an old midwife’s cottage – Mowbray Cottage. I was the fifth nurse to join this small but amazing team, led by Jill Pettitt, Hospiscare’s first nurse.

“It was amazing; I had a long induction because I didn’t have a district nurse qualification, which had been the tradition, but they saw something in me. These amazing matriarchs showed me what community nursing was and how important end-of-life care was to them.

“We were a 24-hour service and Jill would give us a pack, which had a torch, map and written notes. Usually at night on home visits, the relatives would be there to greet us and they were very grateful for the help.

“We learned on our feet and, honestly, I don’t know how we could have run the service without our volunteers.”

A man and woman shaking hands

The Mayor of Exeter with Paula Lawford in Exeter’s Guildhall

Paula Lawford, one of Hospiscare’s first fundraising volunteers, continues, “I was very interested in the hospice movement and a great admirer of Dame Cicely Saunders. I went along to the meeting given by Dr Searle and straightaway I signed a piece of paper, saying that I wanted to become a volunteer. A couple of days later, I was invited to join a committee, which is now called Exeter Friends of Hospiscare.

“At the time, this group was one of the main forms of income for the hospice. In the early days, we organised all sorts of things, from street and house-to-house collections to concerts, swimathons and fetes.

“I sometimes have my moments and think, perhaps I should do something else, and then I think, no, this is a wonderful charity and it is doing great work. The people involved in it are so hard-working and dedicated to providing the best service and I am proud to be a part of it.”

An elderly couple with a young boy

Dr John Searle with his wife Elizabeth at the London Marathon

Dr Searle concludes, “It was crucial to root what we were doing in the local community so that the volunteers, as well as the families, became the ambassadors.

“For everybody who, over 40 years have given money, time, energy and expertise, I am hugely grateful, and hugely grateful that it continues. Without this, we would not be able to do what we do.

“Many people have asked me what it was like to have my dear wife, Elizabeth, looked after by Hospiscare. I tell them, Hospiscare does what it says on the tin, so please go on enabling Hospiscare to do what it says on the tin.”

To hear more stories from our 40 year history, please click here.