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Wessex Heartbeat provides home-from-home for cardiac patients' loved ones

Features | Published:

Reporter Zoe Fitch and photographer Sophie Rabey flew to Southampton to see at first hand the work of the charity Wessex Heartbeat, which aims to provide comprehensive, ongoing support for patients being treated at Southampton General Hospital's Cardiac Centre, as well as funding new medical equipment and facilities. In this first in a series of articles, they visit Heartbeat House, which offers short and long-term accommodation for the families of cardiac inpatients...

MEDICAL emergencies are frightening, unpredictable, stressful and often isolating.

But on top of that, they’re expensive.

It’s not just the cost of treatment that adds up, many people will want to be nearby to support their loved ones while they undergo surgery or treatment.

Staying in a hotel or bed & breakfast can prove very costly and is often for an undetermined period of time.

This is where the charity Wessex Heartbeat can help.

Islanders with a heart condition or heart emergency will often be flown to Southampton for checks, appointments, treatment and surgeries – really, whatever it is they need.

Picture by Sophie Rabey. 28-01-20. The front of Heartbeat House, just a three minute walk away from Southampton General Hospital. (27082623)

And as long as the patient is on any of the cardiac wards, whether it’s intensive care, high dependency, the paediatric ward or in recovery, loved ones can stay in Heartbeat House just across the road.

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The house is a three-minute walk from the entrance of the hospital.

Not three minutes give-or-take, but a genuine three minutes from inside the house to inside the busy corridors of Southampton General Hospital.

It is a 25-bedroom house with the charity’s offices attached.

Initially two semi-detached residences, the Wessex Heartbeat charity spent significant time and money pulling the inside of the houses apart and extending them to create a comfortable, spacious and fully kitted-out uber-house, which plays host to around 1,800 families a year.

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Picture by Sophie Rabey. 28-01-20. Heartbeat house kitchen area. (27082613)

In 2019, 238 Guernsey families alone made use of Heartbeat House when a loved one needed cardiac treatment at Southampton General Hospital.

With a cost of only £25 for the entirety of your stay, there is no need for the additional worries of expenses and travel to and from the hospital.

The charity takes care of things that don’t even cross your mind when your thoughts are primarily on the situation and stability of your loved one.

Picture by Sophie Rabey. 28-01-20. Heartbeat House lounge. (27082609)

Not only does it take the financial pressures off needing to stay in a hotel or B&B for an unknown period of time, it is decked out with home essentials, cooking facilities, comfortable beds and sofas, wifi, a television and a community of people going through a similar experience to you.

CEO of Wessex Heartbeat John Munro said as long as a family member is in the care of cardiac professionals at Southampton General Hospital, no stay is too long at Heartbeat House.

‘If we’ve got a room to give them, we never turn people away and we never put a time limit on how long they can stay,’ he said.

Picture by Sophie Rabey. 29-01-20. CEO of Wessex Heartbeat, John Munro. (27082647)

‘Some might only need to stay for the one night, others will be here a week or so and others might be a couple of months – one time we had a mother and father stay for two years while their little boy was receiving complex cardiac surgery and treatment on the paediatric ward.’

While the house is a neat, comfortable, calming and convenient place to stay, the state-of-the-art equipment and excellent professionals in the cardiac centre (some of which is funded by the Wessex Heartbeat charity) means Southampton has the highest success rate in the country for getting heart-attack patients better and back home with their families.

The house managers Ali Schofield and Mark Eden do a remarkable job of keeping it clean and tidy. There’s a well-equipped laundry and a car park for your hire car.

Picture by Sophie Rabey. 29-01-20. Mark Eden and Ali Scholfield, Heartbeat House managers. (27082653)

Having your own room in the house gives you the option to sit quietly, reflect and feel whatever it is you’re feeling. Residents in the house can relate to that and respect that need for privacy.

However, if comfort is something you’re seeking after a difficult and stressful time on the ward, the common areas in the house are well-used and residents bond over a glass of wine in the evening or while they’re cooking something for dinner. It’s something you wouldn’t get at a hotel, but it is something those who’ve stayed at the house say kept them sane and upbeat throughout their time in Southampton.

There is also an annexe, which houses five rooms better suited to families with children.

Picture by Sophie Rabey. 29-01-20. A view from inside the house looking out to the hospital building which is a mere three-minute walk away. (27082603)

The whole space, the people in it and the doctors and nurses across the road are inspiring. It is a hub of positivity with a warm, home-y feel.

Mr Munro said the charity takes a holistic approach.

‘Patients are receiving the very best care from the very best cardiac professionals in the country and one of the things that helps is not having to worry about their family’s whereabouts, expenses or wellbeing when they are at the house.’

Speaking to residents, it is clear how genuinely appreciative they are of the charity and the safe space it provides. The £25 that people are asked to pay covers the cost of any lost keys and the re-fitting of locks. That, combined with small donations left in the house, contributes about £16,000 to the £80,000+ cost of running the house.

The magnificent fundraising efforts of the team covers the rest of the expenses and has raised enough money over the years to enable the charity to help support the cardiac centre, develop new facilities, provide the latest equipment and renovate wards.

Picture by Sophie Rabey. 28-01-20. Heartbeat House garden. (27082607)

Heartbeat House has no restrictions on where you come from, whether you’re a Channel Islander flown over in an emergency, a Poole or Bournemouth resident desperate to avoid the stressful drives to and from the hospital in visiting hours, or a relative of a cruise-ship passenger who needed emergency cardiac treatment while docked in the busy port – all are welcome.

John Munro: Wessex Heartbeat CEO

John has been involved with the charity sector for 16 years, after losing his first wife to cancer.

He has worked with a few different charities but used to only stay for a couple of years at each.

Having lost his father to heart disease, John’s latest move was to Wessex Heartbeat and after being there for five years says he has only just begun to scratch the surface of what this charity is capable of.

His colleagues sung his praises and said how much they valued working under his laid-back, empathetic, understanding and approachable leadership.

Picture by Sophie Rabey. 29-01-20. Heartbeat House staff L-R, Vanessa Eden, Ken Wilde, Jenny Kenny, Nicola Nash, Tina Richardson, John Munro, Tina Hawke, Callum Munro. (27082657)

Since joining the Wessex Heartbeat five years ago, John has made tweaks to the charity, giving it a real focus and understanding of what it wants to achieve.

He hoped the connection with Guernsey would grow ever-stronger and islanders would know that Heartbeat House is a home-from-home and somewhere they can turn when a loved one is admitted to the Southampton cardiac centre.

It is with open arms that people are welcomed into Heartbeat House.

Zoe Fitch

By Zoe Fitch
News reporter

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