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18th May 2020

Heritage stories: Dr Elizabeth Hall

Dr Elizabeth Hall was one of the founders of St Helena Hospice. From 1979 she chaired the steering group which drove the idea of a hospice for north east Essex forward.

She became St Helena Hospice’s first Medical Director in 1984 until retiring in 2003. Dr E, as she was fondly known by patients, staff and volunteers, shares her memories of the early days of the Hospice:
Dr Elizabeth Hall


St Helena Hospice came about because several people could see that we could be looking after people who we then called ‘terminally ill’, much better. Deidre Allen, who worked at Severalls Hospital, had been up to another hospice and came back to Colchester wanting to do that, supported by the consultant Dr Peter Kennedy. 

At the same time Irene Overton, who was chair of the soroptimists, also thought we should be looking at hospice care locally, and wanted her year of being chair to raise the money for the launch of a hospice. They all went to the former Mayor, councillor Joyce Brooks, and she held an open meeting at the town hall.

I’d been thinking about it too because my husband Chris was doing general practice and I was working in the oncology department at Essex County Hospital. When we were students we knew Cicely Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement, and we’d visited St Joseph’s Hospice in London.

I saw in the paper that this meeting was coming up and I thought I’ll just go along and see what’s happening. It was absolutely packed.

A few days later I had a phone call to ask if I would chair the steering committee. Well, I’d never chaired anything, except a play group committee!

We gathered people who were already working with similar groups - social workers, district nurses, several groups of people that did things in the community - just to look at what was already being done and how we could do something. We elected a steering committee which then moved everything on at that stage.

At the same time, we got funding for two Macmillan nurses.

The support was amazing in the community. We’d raised some money and we thought, fingers crossed, it was sufficient to start and that we could acquire a building.

St Helena Hospice Appeal cheque
Liz Hall at Myland Hall

Mary Fairhead suggested there was this lovely old farmhouse. Houses were being developed all round it and the developers were using it as an office. The advantage of it was that there was plenty of room to expand. But the biggest thing was the access; you were right beside the A12 and I worked out it was going to be less than 45 minutes from the Hospice by car from almost all over the north east Essex area that was going to be served.

The Duchess of Norfolk was very supportive and she cut the first sod to mark the start of building work, which was a great day. I loved it because we had a band there and they played ‘Yo ho, yo ho, it’s off to work we go’ as she cut the turf.

By then I was off the steering committee because I was concentrating on the medical side and supporting the Macmillan nurses.

We had to recruit nurses and staff and train them because virtually nobody, except Deidre Allen and myself, had any training in palliative care. They came and did the training in the dining room at my house! This fantastic group of nurses and volunteer nurses were there when we opened on 20th May 1985.

I’d gone all over the country looking at different hospices, looking at what I thought was good practice, and wherever I went, people were telling me ‘I feel so safe here’. After we opened I thought, I wonder how long it’s going to be before somebody says that. And it was within 48 hours, which was wonderful.

But we were still fighting the concept that you go there to die. I always echo Cicely Saunders that you go to a hospice to live until you die.

The whole idea of helping people live until their last breath and for the family to be involved and supported, all this time later is still something that people don’t realise until they’ve actually experienced it. 

So there we were with the first few people being admitted and I always remember it was like living in a fog because I was learning on the hoof as well. I started to find people were coming in looking awful and then within 24/48 hours they were sitting up, they weren’t feeling so sick, and they were feeling out of pain.

Liz Hall

The nurses and all the people were just amazing; they were just ready to learn, to try – that was the thing, you could try with various things, very often non-medical things, and you hadn’t got someone looking over your shoulder.

The difference was looking at the patient holistically and the inclusion of the family; the needs of everybody.

I don’t know what my life would have been without it. It’s taught me so much. I’ve met so many fantastic people and I’ve enjoyed seeing other people developing with it. I now look back on people who were young nurses who progressed through and are absolutely fantastic.

St Helena has developed so much since that first day; it’s a dream come true of what one was hoping would develop and what one can see is still developing.

It’s like the family; it has to grow and do its own thing. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without it. And it’s been great fun. We’ve had some wonderful times. So yes I’m glad I’ve done it. 

St Helena Hospice Heritage Stories project supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund

National Lottery Heritage Fund

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