'There are few things more traumatic than not being able to be with a loved one that is dying' - Wakefield hospice CEO Tina Turner

For thirty years Wakefield Hospice has provided essential end of life care to thousands of people. Now its CEO, Tina Turner, is facing a huge battle to keep this going. Mark Casci reports.

The challenge of keeping any business or organisation viable when faced with the hammer blow being dealt by the coronavirus shutdown is as acute as any manager is likely to have to deal with in their lifetime.

But when your day-to-day business involves providing crucial end of life care for people, the problem becomes particularly emotive.

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As chief executive of Wakefield Hospice, Tina Turner is facing one of the toughest moments of a career in healthcare that goes back decades and has taken her all over the country.

Tina TurnerTina Turner
Tina Turner

The hospice requires £4m in order to provide the care it offers to those in the final days and weeks of their lives.

With just a quarter of this funded by the NHS, the hospice relies on fundraising from the likes of sporting events, sponsored walks and sales in charity shops.

For Ms Turner, the Covid-19 crisis has simply shone a light on the funding model for end of life care, which she describes as “a complete travesty”.

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“If you were to say to expectant parents that the quality and extent of service that supported them in that most precious time of their lives when their babies were being born was dependent on how many T-shirts the organisation was able to sell in a charity shop or how many people sponsored a recent 10km run it would be abhorrent,” she said.

“Yet we do that in end of life care. I find that completely shocking. We should be regarded as a vital contributor to the social and healthcare needs of the nation.

“The demand is only going to increase.”

Running a hospice is for Ms Turner a “massive responsibility” and one she cherishes, saying that caring for someone during the closing stages of their life is a “gift”.

She recounts occasions when family members of people who passed away while in the care of a hospice she managed still came up to her many years later and hugged her to say thank you for the care they received.

“I never take it lightly,” she said.

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“Helping people come to terms with their death with dignity and sensitivity and resilience; it is a job that can be emotionally as well as physically draining for staff.

“One of my responsibilities is the obligation to support staff in the incredible job they do.”

Ms Turner received a convent education in her native Bury. At a very young age the notion of giving back to one’s community and being of service became hugely important to her.

After attending university in Scotland, she began her career as a social worker, something she likens to being a priest in the sense that it is a vocation from which you never really cease to hold on to, regardless of what you are actually doing. Much of her career was spent working on the Isle of Wight.

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It was here where Ms Turner enacted one of her finest hours of her career when she set in place the process of ensuring that families on the island had access to proper palliative care for children with life-limiting conditions.

Ms Turner had recently began working at Isle of Wight Hospice and as part of an attempt to get a thorough grounding in the movement, she paid a visit to a number of other hospices, including Naomi House in Winchester.

“It took three hours to get there,” she said.

Observing that the facility was home to extensive family accommodation and facilities she enquired as to why.

“At the time we had none at ours. He said because this is a children’s hospice and our catchment area is much wider than average. People travelled from quite far away including from the Isle of Wight.”

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The process of becoming aware that no specialist palliative care for children existed on the island left Ms Turner feeling “shattered”.

“I felt it physically,” she said.

“I felt ashamed that because I had five healthy children and it never dawned on me that if one of my children had a life-threatening or limiting condition I would have had to travel to Winchester.”

With her “wheels barely stopping” she drove straight to the Commissioner for Children’s Services and demanded action.

Relevant parties agreed and a partnership was formed which developed services at the hospice so it could offer specialist support to children with life-limiting conditions.

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“In anything I have ever done it was the most moving and incredible time,” she said.

There have, of course, been bumps along the road. When she was made chief executive officer of Isle of Wight Hospice she memorably told an interviewer on local radio that she had just successfully obtained “a job to die for”, a description she now shuns in favour of “the job of a lifetime”.

Ms Turner began her current role in Wakefield just under four years ago.

She has high praise for the staff and community support that helps sustain its operations.

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However, the impact of Covid-19 on the economy and people’s ability to move around has presented colossal challenges.

“We have been obligated to limit visiting opportunities” she says slowly.

“That has been very difficult for us. Some organisations have already taken the decision to not allow visitors at all. We have not done that.

“We have reduced our visiting times and limited the number of visitors. We are currently maintaining a professional discretion response about visitors to be as flexible as we can. There are few things more traumatic than not being able to be with a loved one that is dying.”

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Wakefield Hospice is 30 years old this year. Last weekend should have seen its annual 10km race take place, the single biggest event in its calendar.

“It is hard to know whether they will be re-established,” Ms Turner said.

“To some extent it depends on the calendar of other fundraising events. Our first calculations indicate that because of event cancellations and shop closures is that we will be more than two thirds short of our income this year.

“But this is simply a cash flow problem. The bigger concern is that for the long-term future. I appreciate we are not alone. Other charities will be facing similar challenges.”