The first patients were admitted on 12 April 1976. For those of us who were not there that day, it is difficult to imagine the feelings of Nursing Officer Vivien Pritchard, Sisters Alison Parry and Jane Harvey, and the other members of staff, as one of them stepped forward to say, ‘Welcome to Sobell House’. What led up to that historic moment has been described in A History of Sir Michael Sobell House: the early years.
I came to Sobell House in August 1976 as the first Medical Director and reading this the booklet brings back many poignant memories as a procession of people – many long since dead – step out to greet me: Frank Ellis, George Wiernik, Alistair Laing (radiotherapists at the Churchill Hospital), Donald Richards, Michael Kenworthy-Browne, Patrick Lawrence (local GPs), Tom Drought (architect), and Major Henry Garnett (Chief Executive of the National Society for Cancer Relief, now Macmillan Cancer Support) to name but a few.
But now its 2016 and a lot has changed, and is still changing. Not only at Sobell House itself but across the whole of the Churchill Hospital site. Who now remembers the Nissen huts to the east of Sobell House, put up to accommodate casualties from the Normandy landings in 1944, and still standing until the mid-1980s? Indeed, who remembers the original Sobell House, mostly demolished in 2002?
General view of the installations of the 91st General Hospital (Churchill Hospital)
It is strange to recall that Sobell House was built with the expectation that the patients, mainly with terminal cancer, would never go home. That was the view of hospice when Sobell House was planned, only a few years after St Christopher’s Hospice – Britain’s first modern palliative care unit – opened in 1967.
Then, with rare exceptions, hospice care was perceived simply as inpatient care with death as the end-point. In fact, even by 1976 that view was outdated and, within a relatively short time, 50% of admissions ended with the patient returning home.
Of course, Sobell House can never be as it was in 1976 – a 12-bed inpatient hospice tucked away by a golf course at the far end of the hospital. Expansion in response to need has been the ongoing theme and challenge throughout its 40 years.
The Outpatient service began in 1977 and the first specialist Community Nurse was appointed; eight further beds were opened in 1978 together with a small Day Centre; and a specialist Lymphoedema (swollen limb) Clinic in 1979. A bigger purpose-built Day Centre opened in 1984; the Bereavement Support service in 1985; and the Sobell Study Centre in 1987.
And so on up to 2016: a much expanded medical and nursing team; Specialist Support Teams in all the University Hospitals and a much expanded team of Community Nurse Practitioners. Not to mention the more holistic dimensions exemplified by complementary music and art therapies, and chaplaincy. Each year, more than 3,000 patients with their families receive specialist help and support. Some never set foot in the House; for them care is all in the community.
But this is only part of the story. Education, training and research have been integral to the mission of Sobell House since the beginning. Post basic courses for nurses began within a few years, and Oxford was the first British Medical School to make palliative care a compulsory subject. As a result of involvement in the evolution of the Comprehensive Cancer Control Programme of the World Health Organization, Sobell House was designated the WHO Centre for Palliative Cancer Care in 1988.
1988 was also the year I moved sideways into a newly established university post, and Sobell House welcomed Michael Minton as its second Medical Director – and the work continued to expand, as it still does.
This is one reason I am delighted that the Sobell House Charity, in conjunction with the hospital authorities, is planning to build a facility for the care and support of patients with more complex progressive conditions such as dementia.
So much of this has been, and will be, possible only because of the ongoing support of the community focused through the Sobell House Charity, and the army of volunteers contributing in myriad practical ways week by week.
Emeritus Clinical Reader in Palliative Medicine, Oxford University.
Honorary Consulting Physician, Oxford University Hospitals.