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This Boxing Day will mark four years since the death of Sarah Warner’s beloved stepdad, Rob Holmes, who spent his last Christmas surrounded by his family at Ashgate Hospice’s Inpatient Unit.
He died exactly six months after being diagnosed with lung cancer, aged just 56, after being admitted to Ashgate for end-of-life care on 22nd December.
Sarah is grateful that she and her family were able to celebrate one last Christmas Day with Rob, as they tucked into a three-course festive dinner with wine and crackers, thanks to Ashgate’s catering team.
The “warm” and “loving” care he received inspired Sarah to start volunteering on the hospice’s Inpatient Unit just three months later.
And in 2018, when a Healthcare Assistant role became available, Sarah jumped at the opportunity to care for other families going through similar experiences that she had.
Sarah, 46, said: “Ashgate made the hardest most heart-breaking Christmas of our lives that little bit brighter.
“It’s true what people say when you enter Ashgate – you feel a sort of tranquillity and a big weight is automatically lifted off your shoulders. It was a truly special feeling.
“From the doctors and nurses to the kitchen team and volunteers – they were all angels! On Christmas Day, they even came to Rob’s room and set out a table and chairs for me and my mum, before bringing us a three-course dinner plus wine and crackers.
“By that time Rob was unresponsive, but it was such a lovely experience, and we were grateful to be able to make those final memories with him by our side.
“Rob loved Christmas and he had been really looking forward to it, so it was nice to get our last one together, even if he didn’t get to go to the pub!”
Despite the sadness of their situation, Sarah has many fond memories of their time spent at Ashgate, including that of a volunteer who made her laugh once again.
She said: “I remember Christmas morning; I was coming back from the family room, and I looked up to see one of the volunteers wearing antlers and funny glasses!
“It set me off laughing and my mum wondered what was going on. Shortly after, the volunteer came into the room, so she saw for herself. I thanked him for making me laugh when I didn’t think it was possible.
“When I came to work at Ashgate, I mentioned it to him, and he remembered straight away and gave me a cuddle. We even took a selfie together on the first Christmas day I worked here, both with our antlers on.
“That’s where my love of Ashgate came from. I wanted to give something back which is why I started volunteering. My dream was one day to bag myself a job as a Healthcare Assistant – that was fulfilled far quicker than I ever anticipated.”
Tragically, 22 months after Rob’s death, his partner and Sarah’s mum, Elaine, 61, also died less than two weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
“My mum had a double lung transplant six years before and they always told us because of the anti-rejection medications that the risk of getting cancer was far higher. It sounds sad, but we were so lucky to get her for that extra six years.”
Now Rob and Elaine are no longer here, Christmas can be a difficult time of year for Sarah, as she continues to navigate life without them.
But after caring for patients at the hospice on Christmas Day for the past two years, she is looking forward to spending time at home with her partner, Steph, and daughters Shelby and Kady, as well as grandson, Alfie this year.
“The first Christmas after Rob died changed dramatically,” said Sarah. “By then I was working on the ward and was really struggling emotionally, my mum understandably didn’t want anything to do with Christmas at all; she didn’t even want us to visit which was hard.
“I worked a morning shift on Christmas Day, which was a struggle at times, but all my colleagues were so supportive, and it turned into a really good shift with a brilliant atmosphere.
“Boxing Day marked the one-year anniversary of his death, and we raised a toast at home for him and remembered all of his silly antics.
“I also lost my mum less than 22 months after Rob. To lose my cockney hero, Rob, who in my heart felt like my dad, and then my beautiful brave mum in such a short amount of time was so completely shattering and life is still so different now.
“But I do also think my experiences have made me even better at my job, as I’m able to understand and emphasise with people going through difficult experiences.”
In Sarah’s role as a Healthcare Assistant, she works alongside Ashgate’s doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and other hospice staff and volunteers to provide vital palliative and end of life care to families from across North Derbyshire.
Her duties include taking patient’s observations, personal hygiene care, assisting patients with their food and drink and engaging with families to ensure they are comfortable during their time at the hospice.
Sarah says her family is ‘extremely proud’ to see her making a difference to people’s lives daily.
“There is no better satisfaction than being able to put a smile on someone’s face – this will forever be the most rewarding part of my job,” she added.
“My family are extremely proud of the fact that I work in a hospice. My mum loved Ashgate because of the care they provided to Rob.
“I recall the day I told her that I had got the job, she was lost for words, she didn’t say much she just had a beaming smile across her face. She was always proud to tell people where I worked!
“I am so passionate about providing end-of-life and palliative care to the people who need it. I get a strong sense of fulfilment knowing that I can make a positive impact on somebody’s life; I want to make sure that everybody’s day includes a smile, a laugh, a giggle and a little bit of mischief too!”
Right now, Ashgate Hospice is calling for the urgent support of the community as the charity prepares for another difficult winter due to the pressures of COVID-19 and the winter flu.
The hospice is asking the community to support its Winter Appeal and help it to get through the difficult months ahead – ensuring the hospice can continue to provide compassionate end-of-life care at a crucial time.