In September 2019, the charity Hospices of Hope invited interested supporters on an insight visit to Serbia to see the new hospice building and meet the staff and patients. I have a family connection with Belgrade as my father was a Serbian pharmacist and our family supports the charity with the intention of trying to do something specific to help this particular site. There hasn’t been such an opportunity so far but this visit seemed a great chance to find out more in person. The group who visited included supporters who are volunteers in the UK for the charity, and a nurse and doctor who had worked in the hospices helped by the charity, originally in Romania. The charity’s CEO, Graham Perolls, started the Ellenor Foundation in Dartford, Kent and after a visit to Romania where he witnessed the complete absence of palliative care, he founded Hospices of Hope. He went on to assist in the formation of the Belgrade hospice, so we were delighted to know he was leading the trip.
Palliative care is in its formative stages in most Eastern European countries and is generally spearheaded by a small number of inspirational healthcare professionals. The growth of the movement is not so different from the history in the UK, starting small with the insight of Cicely Saunders and St Christopher’s hospice, but the infrastructure of the health services and economic status of some of these countries present enormous challenges. Where services exist, they are mainly limited to home care and this has been the case at the Bel Hospice where a team of nurses and social workers have set up a visiting service to people in their own homes. They now have their own building in a large refurbished house outside the city centre. It is very light and welcoming, with space reserved for a future ward. They currently run a successful day centre with the help of some volunteers. Much like the UK model, it brings people out of their homes to share thoughts, refreshments and pastimes while their carers sit and have a chat on their own. Doctors are present to consult with patients but the Serbian health service does not currently allow charities to offer in-patient medical care, although a licence to open beds in the hospice is promised in the near future. Whilst we were in Belgrade, Graham and medical colleagues, along with the new CEO of the hospice, went to a meeting at the health ministry to describe the history of hospice care in the UK and explain how they have been integrated into healthcare in the hope of speeding the licensing process along.
I had the opportunity to go on a home visit with one of the Bel Hospice nurses into the suburbs to visit a 40 year old woman with breast cancer who had sadly developed spinal cord compression and was permanently bed bound. She and her family were so welcoming and seemed to feel honoured to be visited by us, which wasn’t the idea at all – it was definitely the other way round! The patients’ symptoms seemed well managed and she had an incredibly positive outlook. The Bel Hospice team currently offer mostly psychosocial care and equipment at present and the nurse explained they did not work as a team with the patient’s family doctor.
The hospice is ready to support those people of Belgrade with a terminal diagnosis and we will continue to support them in their endeavour to increase the services they are able to provide. If you are interested in reading more about the work of Hospices of Hope, please visit their website.