“If we’d stopped and thought about the scale of the task, we’d have fallen over…but we did it”

After many years of planning, Sue Ryder Neurological Care Centre Lancashire opened, in spring 2020 and during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Centre Director Terry Mears and Neurological Rehabilitation Therapy Lead Hannah Halliwell share their experience of such a difficult, yet rewarding, time.

Sue Ryder Neurological Care Centre Lancashire from the front gardens

Opening the doors

Opening a new specialist neurological care and rehab centre is a seismic task in any climate – but to do so at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic is probably a feat few would attempt.

But having been badly wanted and needed in its area for over 15 years, and after an 18-month construction and development project, the Sue Ryder Neurological Care Centre Lancashire opened its doors to patients in April.

The purpose-built centre, which has 40 bedrooms and four apartments, offers level 2 post-acute rehabilitation support in a state-of-the-art environment – alongside palliative and end-of-life care – tailored exactly to the needs of its residential and day clients.

It is a first for Sue Ryder in terms of the breadth of its facilities and holistic rehab offering, and has been hailed as a beacon on a UK-wide basis, both in terms of the quality of the centre and its offering, as well as the local strategic partnerships it has established.

“We had daily anxiety about whether this would happen”

And while the plan, revised in light of the pandemic, was to delay its opening to patients to ensure the 180-strong team had time to settle in to their new roles and adapt to stringent safety procedures, demand for its specialist facilities and services meant they had to take its first clients rather earlier.

“We found out on April 23 that we would need to take our first rehab patients the very next week. We took seven people initially, which rose to 14 shortly afterwards, some of whom had very complex needs,” reflects Terry Mears, Centre Director at Sue Ryder Neurological Care Centre Lancashire.

“National lockdown came three weeks before we were due to move into our new building. We had daily anxiety about whether this would happen and had to completely redesign our project plan. Moving was scaled back from seven days into two, and recruitment was speeded up and interviews took place by video.”

A patient lying down next to a Sue Ryder Nurse at Sue Ryder Neurological Care Centre Lancashire

An amazing team effort

“I think if we’d have stopped and thought about what we were doing, and really considered the scale of the task, we’d have fallen over. But we did it, and it was the most amazing team effort, absolutely everyone in our team played their role in getting us in and geared up to take clients.

“We hadn’t realised the speed at which we’d need to mobilise. We came here with a robust project plan and anticipated taking our first clients in maybe May or more probably June. This was a new centre and most of our team were new to Sue Ryder, so there was a huge amount to get right in a very short time,” says Hannah Halliwell, Neurological Rehabilitation Therapy Lead at the centre.

“However, our role in taking patients was very important in supporting our partnership strategy through providing valuable bed capacity at the height of the pandemic. We played our role very well.”

In the best interests of our clients and their families

While many centres were closing to new patients during the period, several of the initial intake at Sue Ryder have already been discharged, having achieved strong outcomes.

“We really have worked around the clock to keep everyone safe,” says Terry. “My biggest fear from the very beginning was having COVID in our centre, particularly with so many staff and being in a Tier 3 area, as well as admitting from an acute hospital.

“We have done absolutely everything we possibly can to get it right, but the work will continue and there’s an added intensity now not to let our guard down.”

“We have had to take measured risks, including in being able to deliver discharges, but we have looked at these situations individually and did what we felt was in the best interests of our clients and their families.

“We have been earmarked to be at the front of the queue for vaccinations and are also getting lateral flow testing kits, so they will help us to finally be able to welcome families into our centre. We know how desperate they are to hug their loved ones, we’re desperate for them to do that too, and we can’t wait to show what we have here.”

Life-changing outcomes

Hannah adds: “While it was a challenging time, admitting our first patients was also a special and memorable time. I’ll always remember those first few patients and their stories.

“One of them was a young man who had suffered a sub arachnoid haemorrhage on the day the country went into lockdown. He came to us having to be hoisted and with significant speech and language and cognitive problems, but when he left four months later, he was moving independently and had huge life-changing outcomes.

“In those initial few weeks when he couldn’t move his arms to hold his phone, to video call his wife and children, we held it for him. We supported him with absolutely everything we could, in every way we could.

“We are so proud to have returned a husband and family to his wife and children, having achieved such amazing outcomes during one of the hardest times imaginable for healthcare.”

Forward into the future

Going forward, in the short term, the centre hopes to welcome more patients once it is safe to raise capacity from its current 14, as well as opening its apartments, which are to enable patients to experience independent living pre-discharge.

Longer term, it hopes to become an example to others as to what is possible.

“We are so proud of what we have here,” says Terry. “Our strapline is that we will change things for a generation, and that’s what this centre will do.

“I think Lancashire has the potential to be a centre of excellence in the UK and even on a European basis through what we have created here, including the strategic partnerships that have been created and our community infrastructure. It has all come together into something which can inspire others.

“We have lit the torch paper and I believe this is the beginning for us to take forward.”

Find out more information on Sue Ryder Neurological Care Centre Lancashire, the expert neurological care they provide and ways you can help to support them.

The original article by Deborah Johnson originally appeared in NR Times, 9 December 2020.