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‘Letters for Loved Ones’ founder recognised for making a difference to patients and families

‘Letters for Loved Ones’ founder recognised for making a difference to patients and families

During lockdown a young boy in Australia looks into the camera and sings “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” for his seriously ill grandfather, who is thousands of miles away in St Helier Hospital.

Devastatingly, like so many others during Covid, he is unable to visit his beloved relative, unable to hug him, unable to hold his hand.

But, thanks to our ‘Letters for Loved Ones’ service – launched at the start of the pandemic by Patient Experience Officer John Needham – his video can at least be played at the bedside of his grandfather to let him know he’s in his family’s thoughts.

This clip was one of more than 2,000 messages shared with patients in our hospitals over the past two years - with family and friends sending letters, photographs, cards, recordings, videos, and even crosswords puzzles for their loved ones.

It had a remarkable impact on the senders and those on the receiving end – and now that impact has been recognised, with John shortlisted in the keyworker category at the BBC’s Make a Difference Awards.

“It was an absolute honour and privilege to help patients and their loved ones, and to play a part in making a difference during the pandemic,” says John.

“We would often be reading very personal things from families that they couldn’t say in words. It was very humbling.”

Many patients who received a message – like the grandfather with family in Australia – were seriously ill. He thankfully recovered and eventually returned home, but three in 10 patients, sadly, never did.

“We were constantly aware that we were probably relaying the final messages from families to their loved ones – and that probably the families knew that as well,” says John.

“One morning I set out with a dozen or so messages for patients. By the time I had reached the wards, half of them had died.

“I remember reading out my first message to a dying patient, trying to say out the words of love clearly, while unsuccessfully holding back my own tears. It never got any easier.”

John – who has worked for Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust for 12 years – could never have imagined, when he set up ‘Letters for Loved Ones’, how it would take off.

“Initially we envisaged one daily delivery, but this rapidly expanded to three deliveries per day. I also did emergency deliveries, including evenings, weekends, and bank holidays,” he recalls.

“There are some episodes I still find too tough to talk about. But my colleagues were so supportive, and I know relatives were very grateful, too.

“One Covid patient who was in an induced coma in intensive care told us that he could remember hearing one of my colleagues reading out the messages from his family, and being determined to get better so that he could see them all again. He survived.

“It's been a great privilege to be there to support families in their hour of need. I'll never forget it.”

The Make a Difference Awards celebrate people who are going above and beyond in the areas they live or work. John will attend the BBC Radio Surrey and BBC Radio Sussex ceremony on Monday 26 September.

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Healthy Workplace Achievement Award 2016 NHS Choices