Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead; a happy or harrowing visit?

Hospice care

Dispelling myths; an inside look at hospice care

A few weeks ago, I was asked a question.

“Would you like to come and visit one of our a Marie Curie hospices? We’d really like you to share your thoughts on what happens behind closed doors – it’s always great to have an outsiders perspective.”

I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect but I thought I had a pretty good idea. A hospice was a place where terminally ill people could be cared for until their final hours, and I felt my irrational dislike of hospitals and nosemaphobia begin to bubble up at the thought of such a visit.

I’m fortunate enough to have never had to deal closely with a loved one dying from a long term or chronic illness. Never to have had to consider palliative care or think about how spending time with someone you love in their final days really feels.

I was apprehensive to say the least but I knew that what I was being offered was a rare and humbling opportunity; and that it was something I simply couldn’t say no to.

And indeed I wanted to find out if hospices matched up with people’s preconceived ideas as someone who is removed from the experience – that is, without the emotional attachment to an in-patient that I would imagine generates an association of hospices with sadness and loss. This meant that I could be impartial with my thoughts and opinions.

And so I went to the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead on the morning of Monday 9th November with an open mind but a slightly perturbed disposition.


As I walked in to the reception area I was met with warmth; both in the temperate room itself and in the smile of the receptionist waiting to greet me. This instantly felt too comfortable to be a place of sorrow; too ‘normal’ to be a place where people came to die.

It didn’t smell like a hospital; it wasn’t noisy; there were no serious faces. This was as far from clinical as you could expect from a place of care. It was peaceful; calm; comfortable; and for me, totally unexpected.

I felt relieved and began to relax as I was led to the hospice canteen to await the start of my tour. The first thing I noticed in this light and airy room was that it was filled with colourful artwork. I later learned that these creative pieces were made by volunteers at the hospice, the local community and in some cases, even the in-patients and their families themselves.

My quiet admiration was interrupted by the chatter and laughter of a patient who had just entered on a walking frame; a relatively young lady who carried with her an enthusiasm for life that most of us could only ever hope to have. She embraced one of the canteen staff and happily babbled away at the food hatch whilst she waited for her cup of tea.


Our tour guide, Dianne, arrives and gathers round the other visitors (a few volunteers and two Marie Curie head office support staff).

A volunteer herself, Dianne’s passion for the hospice is apparent as she talks to us about its 50 year history and the doctors, nurses and volunteers who have helped successfully secure its reputation as one of the most highly rated respites around today. We learn that this centre alone costs £5.5m to run each year and that only a third of this cost is government funded – the rest is acquired through donations.

We begin our tour in the first floor lounge and reception room; another warm and cheerful space adorned with armchairs, artwork and a tea and coffee area for patients, families and guests. We were given the chance to step out onto the balcony area which delighted with an impressive view of central London and the famous skyscrapers that jut out across the skyline. Dianne proclaims; “this is a beautiful sun trap in the summer that offers patients much needed fresh air with a view”. I think it’s quite glorious now as I gaze over the bronzed tree tops and pull my coat around myself a little tighter. This feels truly peaceful and I try to imagine how it feels to be an in-patient here and appreciate every building, every season and every sense with valour.

We move back inside to continue with our tour and work our way towards the Day Service facilities. We see a small beauty salon where day guests and in-patients can have massages and get their hair and nails done, and a well-equipped gym. There are a few people using the gym facilities as we pass by. Diane explains that every guest receives a personalised training programme and one-on-one time with a physiotherapist. As many in-patients and guests arrive at the hospice very weak, the primary aim of hospice staff is to build up their strength and help them live as independent a life as possible for the time they have left. We learn that one in-patient arrived at the hospice just under a year ago; and unable to take more than just a few steps, she can now run at quite a pace on the treadmill and enjoys regular walks around London. So it just goes to show that with encouragement, support and determination, these terminally ill people can achieve ‘quality of life’ despite their diagnoses.

I’m learning that much of the work done by hospice staff is focused around mental health and making the person feel good. Yes, doctors are there to treat pain and help people manage their symptoms but ensuring their happiness and well-being is paramount. Doctors, nurses and volunteers have seen health improve dramatically with physical exercise, and by offering company and companionship to people at a time when they need it most. Many people feel uncomfortable talking to terminally ill people and worry about what they should say (I confess, I thought I would be one of them) so it can be quite a lonely time for them. A new hairstyle, a cup of tea and chat with a volunteer or a session in the gym – these are the little things that can really transform the final stages of a person’s life.


We walk down another art embellished corridor towards the In-patient Care ward. There are 34 beds available for people who’ve come to the hospice with a late diagnosis or who’ve recently deteriorated and have greater or complex care needs. These in-patients each have a private room which is made as comfortable as possible. Family and friends can stay, pets can visit (as long as they’re well behaved) and a drinks trolley is wheeled around every lunchtime. Dianne tells us that the majority of people’s favourite afternoon tipple is Bailey’s, and who can blame them?! The primary aim of the hospice is to offer comfort to in-patients in their final months, weeks and hours.

Dianne leads us back downstairs to a small chapel room which contains religious readings for all faiths. Spiritual support plays a very important role for many families trying to cope with the illness and eventual loss of a loved one. Hampstead hospice holds a remembrance service for families six months after their loved one has passed away. This a place that they have likely spent much of their time in the past months and perhaps years, and families naturally form close bonds with other families going through the same thing. The remembrance service provides comfort and an element of closure for grieving families and friends.

The walls around the hospice are filled with cards thanking the hospice for providing comfort and care at a time when patients and their families need it most. And bereavement support for adults and children is offered free for up to one year after a family’s loss. It has become apparent to me that this hospice is a sanctuary for people faced directly or indirectly with terminal illness and I am beginning to see this place as the life-saving unit it really is. For this is a place of hope and healing – it’s not just a place where terminally ill people come to die, as I’d previously (and perhaps naively) thought.

Feeling newly insightful and moved by this eye-opening experience, we move on to our final stop; the hydrotherapy pool. Hampstead is the only Marie Curie hospice to have this facility and it is all thanks to a generous donation left by a previous patient. The pool is most often used for those who’re too weak to move or exercise, and it provides a huge sense of relief for people where movement induces pain. Dianne tells us about an elderly lady and in-patient who was too weak to hold her newborn grandchild. Knowing that she didn’t have much time left, hospice staff were able to hoist her into the hydrotherapy pool so that she could hold her grandchild before she passed away. I can only imagine what that must have felt like for her and her family at the time.

Hampstead’s Marie Curie Hospice is about making last wishes possible.

And it was with this thought that I left the hospice; with a smile on my face and feeling comforted not distressed; cheerful not saddened. But most of all I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to see how these wonderful centres operate, as an outsider. My preconceived ideas have been quashed and my mind has been opened.

Thanks to all at Marie Curie and long may you continue with your incredible work.

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