As The Northern Echo embarks on a year-long appeal to help raise £1m to establish a cancer care centre of excellence for the people of County Durham, Peter Barron talks to patients and medical staff about the importance of the campaign.

A NEW day is beginning in the chemotherapy day unit and another thank you card has arrived, addressed to “Beth and her fabulous team”.

Beth Gibson, manager of the unit at the University Hospital of North Durham, smiles as she reads the words of appreciation…

“Thank you so much for your care and support during my treatment; you really are second to none! When you’ve done a job for a long time, you don’t always see how much of a difference you make, or the impact you have on the lives of others. I’ll be forever grateful.”

The Northern Echo:

It is just one of a steady stream of cards that are sent to the unit by patients who have come to know the staff as “an extended family” during their treatment for cancer.

This is the place the people of County Durham come to for their initial treatment if they are diagnosed with cancer, and Beth takes immense pride in the positive feedback. But despite the praise for her dedicated team of 18 nurses, she is determined to improve the experience for the patients in her care.

The unpalatable truth is that while the staff are first-class, the environment in which they work is not providing the best experience for patients.

When she arrived as the unit’s manager three years ago, having worked in other hospitals, she was immediately struck by the cramped conditions.

“The lack of space was the first thing that hit me and how that was denying patients their dignity at the most difficult time of their lives,” she says.

“More people than ever before are coming to us for cancer treatment because of lifestyle factors, the environment, and better diagnosis, but the facilities can’t cope.

“When we are having consultations with patients, taking bloods, and giving them bad news, we would like to offer them complete privacy and unfortunately the space we have at the moment does not always allow that. We really would like to see that change.”

The ever-increasing demands of a growing population, and nationally recognised financial pressures on the NHS, mean County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust Charity has launched a £1m year-long public appeal aimed at transforming the unit.

Earlier this year, the charity’s previous appeal was declared a success when £750,000 was raised to buy state-of-the-art MRI scanners for Darlington Memorial Hospital and Bishop Auckland General Hospital. The irony is that one of the consequences of having those scanners is that more people will be diagnosed with cancer earlier, adding to the pressure on the chemotherapy unit in Durham.

Staff and patient panels are involved in designing plans for what’s needed with the new appeal and the developing proposals include:

• An open-plan waiting room leading out to a garden to help patients feel more relaxed.

• Three consultation rooms to provide greater privacy and dignity.

• 14 treatment rooms

• A quiet room where patients can be given upsetting news or see specialists in privacy.

• A complementary therapy room.

• A phlebotomy room where blood samples can be taken.

• An intrathecal room where chemotherapy can be administered into the spine and bone marrow biopsies taken.

• Staff facilities, including showers, lockers and a meeting room.

• Spaces for scalp-cooling to minimise hair-loss.

• Storage areas for equipment and records.

The role of the centre is to set the standards, and stabilise treatment, with the aim of patients from other parts of Durham going on to be cared for at hospitals closer to where they live. The appeal will, therefore, have an impact on families right across the county.

For Beth, the changes can’t come soon enough. “I came into this area of nursing because I love the opportunity to really get to know patients and build relationships with them,” she says. “They become an extended family and, of course, it can be emotionally draining to lose people you become close to, but the rewards are great when you see you are making a difference.”

Beth’s aim now is to be able to make an even bigger difference by being given the chance to treat the unit’s extended family in a more private, dignified and spacious environment. To do that, she needs the public’s help.

“Sooner or later, everyone is going to be touched by cancer and raising this money would make a difference that would be absolutely priceless,” says Beth as she pins up yet another thank you card.