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Having reopened The Fire Fighters Charity’s refurbished Harcombe House centre in Devon HRH The Duke of Cambridge enjoyed “warm, easy and heartfelt” interaction with Charity beneficiaries
HRH The Duke of Cambridge visited the Harcombe House centre on September 9 to reopen the redeveloped facility and to speak to emergency services responders and Charity beneficiaries about how the £1.8 million investment will enhance mental health provision.
From the reception His Royal Highness stopped to sign the Harcombe House Visitors’ Book before grabbing a brolly to keep dry as he made his way to the marquee, where staff, beneficiaries and all those had been earlier involved in showcasing the work that we do, gathered to greet him.
After a few words of welcome from Chair, Andrew Lynch, and with a well-practiced pull of the curtain string, The Duke unveiled a plaque commemorating his visit in recognition of the work of The Fire Fighters Charity.
Speaking after the unveiling, Andrew turned to The Duke, saying: “On behalf of everyone at The Fire Fighters Charity, I would like to thank you, sir, for your time today and for unveiling this commemorative plaque for us, which will take pride of place in our main reception area.
“I hope that – through meeting some of our incredible beneficiaries – you have been able to see the impact of our work for yourself. Indeed, I am sure you will agree, that the people you have met today are living proof of the need for us all to continue to invest in, and work together in, supporting the mental, physical and social wellbeing of those who work to keep the rest of us safe.”
In the days that followed, Chief Executive, Dr Jill Tolfrey, summed up the impact the royal visit had: “I was honoured to introduce His Royal Highness to some of the people we have supported and to showcase the work that we do. We share common objectives with The Royal Foundation and I know that The Duke is as keen as we are to raise awareness of the need to support the mental and physical wellbeing of the fire services community.
“This visit was to recognise the incredible work of everyone throughout the Charity – and all those people we support on a daily basis – across the whole of the UK”
“We had some lovely feedback from Kensington Palace the day after the visit too. They told us that The Duke hugely enjoyed his visit and was really impressed with the obvious impact that The Fire Fighters Charity and Harcombe House has clearly had on so many lives. They also told us that he enjoyed the ‘warm, easy and heartfelt’ conversations he had throughout his visit. So, on behalf of everyone at the Charity, I would like to thank all those beneficiaries who so generously gave their time to join us for the day.
“Of course, The Duke visited us at Harcombe House, but this visit was to recognise the incredible work of everyone throughout the Charity – and all those people we support on a daily basis – across the whole of the UK. We are a family and, had we not worked so hard over the years and decades to impact the lives of so many people, we wouldn’t have been recognised in the way we have been this September.”
The Fire Fighters Charity’s nursing team has been rated as ‘Outstanding’ in a recent inspection by the Care Quality Commission
Based at the Charity’s Jubilee House centre in Penrith, Cumbria, the dedicated nursing team provides round-the-clock specialist care to beneficiaries with a wide range of needs. From helping them to independently engage with a structured programme of support, to providing care and support, which in turn provides a much-needed break for carers.
The Care Quality Commission is the independent regulator of health and social care in England. An inspector visited Jubilee House in June to visit the team, who provide personal and nursing care for people with life-limiting conditions or injuries.
Writing in her report, the inspector stated: ‘People who stayed here received extremely high-quality, personalised support from an exceptionally well-led service.
‘People said the service was ‘life changing’ and ‘amazing’ in successfully helping them to learn skills to manage their conditions, as well as enjoying a very fulfilling and sociable short break’.
Having taken the time to speak with beneficiaries, she could see the genuinely positive impact their time at the centre has on both their physical and psychological wellbeing: ‘The service was exceptional at helping people achieve positive outcomes and building confidence and independence’.
She also praised the ‘full commitment’ of ‘kind, considerate and empathetic’ staff in providing a person-centred service.
‘People and their relatives told us the service provided care that was exceptional and contrasted dramatically from any other provision they had experienced’, continued the report. ‘People said the service made a remarkable difference to their independence. The service provided bespoke therapeutic support and superb resources and equipment for people to gain new skills and become more independent, even after they had returned home.’
Director of Beneficiary Services, Sharon Bailey, said: “We are delighted to have received an ‘Outstanding’ rating from the CQC. I have been privileged to watch the service develop over the years and I am proud of every individual who has made this rating possible.
“This rating acknowledges and recognises the hard work that Nursing Services Lead Kath Savage, our nurses, clinical assistants and all the team at Jubilee House do in ensuring our beneficiaries receive the exceptional care they deserve.”
The first beneficiary HRH The Duke of Cambridge spoke to on his visit to Harcombe House was former Royal Berkshire firefighter and double amputee Richard Baldwin
Having joined the fire service in 1968, Richard spent 20 happy years in a job he loved: “The camaraderie, the team, the spirit, the ability to challenge yourself, I loved it all,” he says. “You’d be in situations where most people are running one way and you’re running the other. There was a lot of job satisfaction, making someone’s life a bit easier when they’re in a spot of trouble. That’s the biggest thing: knowing you make a difference.”
His career was not without incident, and having fallen through a roof during a house fire in 1972, he badly broke his ankle. Returning to duties, he would go on to break it a few more times during his service, and thought nothing of it. But then he started to notice problems in his hands, finding himself unable to grip things and noticing they were swelling. After operations failed to fix things, he had to leave the Fire and Rescue Service in 1990.
“The brigade treated me fantastically well and gave me a full, enhanced pension, which made life a bit easier. I could have stayed in and worked in fire prevention, but I’d been an operational firefighter my whole career, and didn’t want to sit behind a desk. So I left. I hated coming out of the job and it caused me dreadful distress, still does; I’ve never been back on a fire station since because it’s just too painful. I still miss it, nearly 30 years later. I’m 71 in November, but I would go back in tomorrow if I could.”
Richard’s health started to deteriorate, and things reached a head in 1992 when he was hospitalised and put into an induced coma to try and prevent infections in his chest from spreading. It was then doctors discovered he had common variable immune deficiency (CViD), an incurable disorder that impairs the body’s immune system and its ability to fight disease, a condition he has actually had since birth. It was this that had affected his hands and general health, causing him to have six visits to the Intensive Treatment Unit in 11 years. And was also continuing to do damage to his old ankle injury.
“He had ten operations in 11 years on that one ankle to try and pin and place it, but CViD had attacked it and they couldn’t save it,” says wife Sue. “The bone just kept crumbling around what they were putting on it and his pain levels were getting worse, so in 2013 they said the only thing was to amputate. And it’s a good job they did, because it turned out there were gangrene cells in there, and with no immune system to fight it, he wouldn’t have survived.”
Having visited Marine Court for recuperation during his illnesses, Richard observed the work going on in the then-newly-opened rehabilitation wing. Thinking he would like to get fit again after his amputation and adjust to life with his prosthetic, he applied for physical support. Within a few weeks, was attending a two-week course at Harcombe House, just up the road from their home in Devon.
“They were absolutely amazing, they got me moving and gave me my motivation back. I was sinking quite badly at that point, but I’d get into the gym and I was challenging people with two legs, saying come on then, beat me. They gave me the confidence, to know I could do it, even with one leg. The help I received from The Fire Fighters Charity was utterly vital to me.”
Richard went on to make several return visits to Harcombe House, and went on to seek psychological support with counsellors. He began to open up about a painful and traumatic incident that had occurred in hospital, which was still causing him flashbacks and nightmares, as well as revisiting incidents he had experienced during his career and childhood.
“The help I received was utterly vital to me,” he says. “Without it, I don’t think my marriage would have succeeded. We were having problems, down to me, my mood swings and ignorance. I tried not to, tried hard, but something takes over.”
But it was a chance encounter during one of his visits to the centre – this time with Sue, who had started coming to help him with his mobility – where Richard had a profound experience.
An arts therapy trial was being introduced at Harcombe by Art Psychotherapist Daisy Rubinstein, where beneficiaries were invited to express whatever they were thinking or feeling, and Sue and Richard decided to take part. Inadvertently, Richard found himself drawing the scene of an event from his childhood that he had never told anyone.
“I was sat next to Richard, just doodling really, when I could feel a physical change in him, which made me look across at what he was drawing,” says Sue. “It was quite clear, even though I wasn’t aware of what had happened at that point, that it had sparked something for Richard and he wanted to put it down on paper.”
“Daisy asked if I’d like to talk, and I did and I just found myself opening up,” he says. “She was only the second person I’d ever told. That’s the thing about firefighters, you see and do things and you think you’ve buried it. But you don’t bury it. Your discipline and training carries you through at the time, but you don’t realise what’s going to happen to you when you get old, and I’m just realising that now. How much sparks a hell of a lot of other stuff, even right back to your childhood.”
Richard became a regular face at Harcombe House, and when his illness led to his second leg being amputated last year, he once more sought support from the Charity with his recovery, as well as to help him after a Leukaemia diagnosis two years ago. But he says he felt guilty at how much he was being given, concerned it was taking away from someone else. So much so, that when his occupational therapist suggested he could benefit from help of the Welfare team to make life easier at home, he refused.
“I said I didn’t want to ask for any more, because they’re not a rich Charity and I already had so much from them,” he says. “But after my second amputation, it became very difficult to get around our house. We paid for a beautiful wet room to be installed, and the local authority were brilliant, widening doors and raising our back patio to make it easier for me. But getting up and down stairs was really tough.”
“It’s so difficult to watch someone you love struggling,” says Sue, who retired early from her career as a legal secretary to care for Richard. “His upper body strength is good, but all his other conditions would make him so tired. He’d go upstairs on his bottom and then more often than not he’d just fall to the bottom while trying to get down. I’d have to stand behind him to make sure he didn’t slip.”
The occupational therapist suggested they ask the Charity for a contribution towards the £4,700 stair lift. Having already known Welfare Caseworker Jeanne D’Amario from his visits to Marine Court and time volunteering as a Welfare Volunteer, Richard agreed.
“I’ll never forget what she said when she got in contact,” says Richard. “She said the Charity would not be making a contribution to it. They would be paying for the whole thing. And they did. They put a stair lift in within a few weeks, and it’s life-changing. I don’t have the worry of going up and down stairs anymore, I can just go upstairs to my little office and be surrounded by my memories, without the worry of getting back down.”
Through all of his physical and mental struggles, Sue has been at Richard’s side. And she admits the last few years and his most recent illness have taken their toll on her: “You do feel helpless, when he’s got that big, old, black dog weighing down on his shoulders. It’s not easy, being with somebody who has always been so capable and done everything for themselves to suddenly be so helpless. It’s very difficult to watch, and I think I’m only beginning to realise just how much it has taken out of me. I don’t like to discuss things that concern Richard without him being there, because it doesn’t feel right. But I feel like it’s different at the Charity; they understand firefighters, so they understand where I am coming from without me having to go into details.”
“If anyone had said to me, 30 years ago, I’d end up with issues of depression or self-worthlessness, I have told them to get out,” says Richard. “Especially in the Fire Service where people make a joke of things, using black humour over a pint in the bar to try and get over it. But the only way to get over it is to talk about your feelings, to let people know how you feel and have the ability to say, in the face of all the mickey-taking, look, let’s talk about this. I’ve realised that by being here at Harcombe: they’ve saved my life, just as much as if they’d run in and dragged me out of a house fire.”
One thing Richard and Sue also have in common is how special a place Harcombe House has in both their hearts. From the serenity of the grounds and their specially-adapted bedroom to the compassion of the staff and the companionship of fellow beneficiaries, every time they stay, they feel a little better.
But it was their most recent visit to Harcombe House that they both agree was one of the highlights of their lives. And this was because they met and spoke with HRH The Duke of Cambridge, who visited the centre on Emergency Services Day in September to talk to beneficiaries whose lives have been changed for the better by their time with the Charity.
“Being able to speak with him and to share my story with him meant so much to me,” says Richard. “It meant I’m on the way up, and it was tremendous. I could talk to him. A few years ago, I couldn’t talk to anyone. But then I come here and I talk to strangers, and then next thing I know I’m talking to the future King of England. I still can’t get over it!”
There are those amongst us who go out of their way to try and give back to their local community by volunteering their time on top of all their daily responsibilities. Stuart Plaskett, The Fire Fighters Charity Service Coordinator for Cheshire Fire and Rescue, is just such a person
With 22 years of experience in the Fire Service, Stuart took on this important voluntary role with the Charity in 2016. Since then the 40-year-old has built on the great success of his predecessor in post and made a significant impact himself, drawing upon his personal experiences with the Charity, as well as an innate and natural ability to communicate with people from all walks of life, to reach more supporters and boost the region’s fundraising efforts.
Stuart began his career at Warrington Fire Station, where he served for 18 years over two watches. He had always wanted to be a firefighter. Starting on an apprenticeship he became a Rope Rescue Supervisor, Swift Water Rescue Technician, Animal Rescue Responder and an ATACC Instructor. Over this period he also did a huge amount for The Fire Fighters Charity, organising open days and car washes, as well as becoming a Station Rep, a role that helps to raise awareness of the Charity and coordinate fundraising for it on station.
Four years ago, Stuart moved to Knutsford Fire Station, where he recently took over as Service Coordinator, a role previously held by Pete Shields, who he respectfully refers to as a “legend” within Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service. Service coordinators act as the key point of contact for the Charity in each fire and rescue service. They provide a vital link between the Charity and the Fire and Rescue Service, cascading information down and acting as a point of contact for those looking to access the Charity’s services, as well as coordinating fundraising activity. So taking on the role from Pete was a decision Stuart didn’t deliberate over for long.
“For the last eight to ten years, I organised open days and car washes at Warrington and Knutsford,” he recalls. “I became a contact for Pete as I was the Station Rep, and then Pete retired and I stepped up. It seemed like a natural progression.
“Pete did so much for everybody, he still does, but my station-focused job and my commitments to my own family, mean that I just don’t have as much time as he did. Nevertheless, though, I’m hugely excited about the role. I love it. I’m going to stations to introduce myself and let people know about how things will work, and I’m putting a bit of onus back on the stations to do things.
“My main job at the moment is to make people aware of me and the services out there.”
Stuart has already made it to 12 stations and has a vision to recruit a rep on each station (100 per cent success so far). He is also keen to improve Cheshire’s intranet, ensuring there is a dedicated section of the homepage for the Charity.
“I thrive off challenge,” he says. “I do tend to think of myself as quite a caring person. If people need to use the services, I want them to tell me about it – my main job at the moment is to make people aware of me and the services out there. But fundraising is vital – it’s a must, so I do all the open days and car washes that I can. I also work with Jim Brown, the local Charity Fundraiser, to raise awareness of the importance of regular giving, of becoming a regular donor or of uplifting your donations. I’m keen to boost Cheshire’s record in this area. I was told that if every firefighter in the country paid £10 a month into the Charity, it would be self-sufficient and able to do so much more for beneficiaries. So that has to be the target.”
His approach may be different to that of his predecessor, but Stuart has been pleased with the reception he has been given by colleagues across Cheshire: “All the feedback I have had from the community has been so positive,” he says. “Every station has taken away something, whether that’s finding someone to agree to become a rep, or firefighters signing up to become regular donors.
“Whenever I’m doing this stuff I really enjoy it – I’m giving something back. I genuinely go home feeling good about myself.”
Stuart’s enthusiasm for and devotion to the Charity is clear to see and, when you consider his own first-hand experience of its services, it is easy to understand why.
“I’ve always known about the Charity,” he says. “My first experience of it came when I went to Jubilee for rehabilitation following an operation on my knee. It was brilliant, out of this world. I never thought I could do so much on a knee that had been operated on only a few months before. They’re long hard days, you’re not there to slack, you’re there to work, but I got back on the run sooner than I thought I would be able to.”
However, as his growing family were also eligible beneficiaries of the Charity, Stuart’s children were able to benefit from its services, as he explains: “Two of my sons, Luke (11) and Oliver, (7) have both been diagnosed with autism, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), Tourette’s and dyspraxia, and Oliver additionally with pathological demand avoidance. I found out about the Charity’s Child and Family Week at Harcombe House and have been twice with the boys. They’re out of this world, they’re fantastic. It’s more than you’d ever do with your kids in a week of your lives, but you’re doing it with people with children with the similar diagnoses. You’re made to feel that nothing’s an issue or problem.
“My father-in-law, a retired firefighter, has had two quite catastrophic brain injuries in the last three years which sadly left him severely disabled, unable to speak or walk. He and his wife Sheila have also accessed the services, first for recuperation and then for nursing care along with rehabilitation for Sheila just before Christmas.
“Three generations of my family have used four of the services, which has given me a great understanding of the Charity’s incredible work and spurred me on even more. I always said I’d help Pete, but why wouldn’t I take this on after using all of the facilities?”
Humble, hard-working and selfless, Stuart Plaskett is just one example of the exceptional Charity volunteers across the UK, all of whom are vital to our continued success. Without them the Charity simply would not be able to function, so if Stuart’s story inspires you, why not consider becoming a volunteer yourself?
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