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After dedicating 21 years of her life to caring for patients and their families at Ashgate Hospice, Dr. Sarah Parnacott has made the bittersweet decision to retire from her role as Medical Director.
Her compassion and expertise have touched countless lives over the past two decades, and she leaves behind a legacy that will be remembered by everyone at the hospice.
Before she hangs up her lanyard, we caught up with Sarah to reflect on her career at Ashgate as she shares some of her proudest moments since joining us in 2002.
How would you describe working at Ashgate Hospice?
Working at Ashgate Hospice has been nothing short of an absolute privilege over the past 21 years. No two days have been the same and no two patients have ever experienced the same challenges. I have been honoured to find out who the individual in front of me has been, their life story, and how it has shaped the person that they are. You get to learn about their goals for the future, and then it becomes a partnership – trying to help the patient achieve them while managing their symptoms. The range of patients I’ve cared for has varied significantly, from the age of 18 up to 102!
The hospice is very much a community. Many of the staff have worked here for a number of years and you learn about the events that shape their lives; revelling in the happy times and commiserating the sad. I feel incredibly proud that Ashgate is held in such high esteem by so many people in our community and it is so amazing to hear the stories of how we have helped to make a difference to people’s lives.
What inspired your passion for palliative and end of life care?
I failed to gain the necessary grade in my A-level maths to start studying my degree and had to spend a year resitting maths at night school. During this time, I undertook some volunteer work in Manchester and spent some time at a home of disabled ex-servicemen. During this time, I met a gentleman called Len, who had multiple sclerosis and I would help him by turning the pages of the newspaper, filling in the crossword and putting the tapes into his cassette recorder.
One day he was less well and he suggested that I went for my lunch. I returned to find that he had died alone – I was devastated. My piano teacher’s husband had recently died in St Anne’s Hospice and she suggested that I visited to see how different care at the end of life could be.
I visited St Anne’s and was stunned to be offered a paid job as a Healthcare Assistant by the fearsome matron. I worked for the hospice before starting medical school and for the following 18 months during holidays. The knowledge and experience I picked up during this time sparked my passion for palliative care!
How did you get into working in palliative care?
As a doctor, the expectation is that you will cure people and when I began studying medicine in 1989, palliative care was in its infancy. People would look at you as if you had two heads when you expressed an interest in it! I ended up initially training in oncology but my passion for palliative care was never far away and I ended up becoming one of the first people to be trained in palliative care in Sheffield. During this time, I was a trainee with Dr David Brooks who became the MacMillan Consultant in Palliative Medicine at Chesterfield Royal Hospital and Ashgate Hospice.
How did your journey with Ashgate Hospice begin?
I had worked with Dick Atkinson, who had been involved in starting Ashgate. He introduced me to the then Chief Executive Alethea Lindley, who was a passionate advocate for end of life care and was so committed to ensuring the community had the best possible facility. She had an incredible vision for expanding services to meet rising demands across North Derbyshire
I applied for the post at the hospice and was interviewed – while eight months pregnant – by an incredibly intimidating panel of trustees, consultants and royal board members. I was ecstatic to be appointed and started at the hospice in June 2002 – you could say the rest is history!
How is the hospice different now from when you joined?
The physical hospice has changed massively during this time. When I first started at the hospice, it was a 14-bedded unit and within three years, we had opened the extension giving us an additional eight beds, a bespoke Day Hospice, outpatient rooms and a gym! The rooms created are beautifully designed so that the patients feel as if they’re staying in a five-star hotel.
In the early days, there were very limited staff and volunteers, but as its grown Ashgate has developed to meet the needs of the North Derbyshire community. Our patients have also changed over the years. in the early years, we had more patients with malignancy who had a very short life expectancy. With changes in modern medicine, immunotherapy, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy patients can often live for prolonged periods of time with a terminal malignant diagnosis.
What have you enjoyed most about working at the hospice?
I enjoy feeling like I make a difference to the quality of life and the quality of the final chapters of a patient’s life. I am inspired by the challenge of trying to overcome symptoms that are distressing to patients, and it’s been wonderful to help so many different people over the years.
I like to think working in palliative care is like being part of a bicycle wheel: A patient’s care is enhanced by all the different spokes working together to enable it to function. At the hospice, we all – as the spokes – work creatively, and in unison, so we can be there to enhance the quality of life for the people who need us. I love sharing patients’ interests and seeing how my colleagues and the volunteers create something magical for a patient and their family. Everyone is driven by the same goal of providing exemplary holistic palliative care to our patients, their families and friends.
Some of my fondest memories of the hospice have revolved around patients eagerly awaiting the birth of a grandchild; a wedding or even animals making a surprise visit to the Inpatient Unit. We are very fortunate to have a phenomenal team of fundraisers, who work closely with our community to organise the most incredible weddings in the shortest timescales. These events bring immense joy to families and leave them with memories that live on into the future.
What will you miss most about Ashgate?
Where do I begin? I will miss the amazing staff and volunteers that we have at the hospice. Particularly working alongside my incredible medical and clinical colleagues, including our awesome secretaries, especially Lesley, who has been a phenomenal colleague by keeping me organised and on track. That can be a considerable challenge!
I will miss being involved in patients lives for that final chapter, and I will also miss inspiring and training our medical students so they too can deliver exemplary palliative care in whatever branch of medicine they pursue.
How are you feeling about retirement?
I am feeling nervous about retiring from the hospice, but I also feel ready. My mum died earlier this year and now I’m top of the family tree! In this work, we see so many people whose lives are dramatically cut short by illness and have regrets as to what they have not done or who they have not prioritised. I didn’t want to end up in that scenario.
I am hoping that by continuing to do some outpatient work in the community, I will still have the same job satisfaction and can offer a much-needed service to patients, as well as providing education to inspire others to deliver amazing care.
What are your plans for retirement?
I enjoy foreign travel and really exploring a country. I am hoping that retirement will give me the time to explore more in the UK and to also travel further afield to New Zealand Japan and several Asian countries. I have family in Australia and America and I’m hoping to have the opportunity to meet up with them, but not necessarily in those places.
Although I am retiring from Ashgate Hospice, I will be continuing to work in palliative care in North Derbyshire and in my role as a medical examiner at Chesterfield Royal Hospital, as well as teaching communication skills to final-year medical students.
Experienced palliative care consultants are now being encouraged to apply for Sarah’s soon-to-be-vacant position of Medical Director at Ashgate Hospice.
The outstanding-rated hospice, which provides palliative and end of life care across North Derbyshire, is accepting applications until 31 December.
Find out more about the role and apply for the position online.