Fiona Dolman

"The Hospice really is heaven on earth”

We’re honoured and proud that actress Fiona Dolman’s experience of our care for her late father Gordon has inspired Fiona to be the guest speaker at our AGM in October.

While her father was ill, mum-of-one Fiona, 49, who stars as Sarah Barnaby, wife of DCI John Barnaby in TV’s Midsomer Murders, took up running to save her sanity. After his death, she completed the London Marathon for Hospice UK in his memory, raising £7,450 for the national charity for hospice care so that more people can receive the same love and care that he received.

Here Fiona shares her story...

“In 2013 my dad, Gordon Dolman, was 78 when he was diagnosed with myeloma, or cancer of the blood. It was a terrible few months resulting in multiple hospital admissions, the cancer team juggling different doses and types of chemotherapy to find one that would work. The cancer attacked two of his vertebrae, which needed surgery.

My mother – the love of his life and wife of 54 years - was obviously distraught and the rest of my family (two brothers and one sister) rallied and organised round the clock care. For me, this terrible chaos occurred. I am by nature pretty (very) emotional. Trying to juggle my emotions, remain useful and attempt to organise help, at times, felt completely and utterly overwhelming.

It was then that the team at The Hospice of St Francis came into our lives. They were there through everything. They visited Dad at home in Kings Langley and in hospital; liaised with doctors about medication; talked through symptoms and expectations. They ordered and provided equipment; sat with me and made lists; they provided round the clock contact numbers and there was ALWAYS someone at the end of the phone who knew what to do. They were practical, caring, sensible and full of empathy. They were a lifeline.

Dad recovered well and through a regular chemo regime the cancer was kept at bay. For the next four years the team at St Francis kept in regular contact, visiting him, providing physio at home and at the Hospice when he was well enough to start driving again. They remained by his side, offering advice and help whenever it was needed.

The myeloma began to accelerate in November 2017 and Dad was put onto a different chemo regime. He had a bad chest cold through January and then collapsed in February. The Hospice team came back in full force and eventually admitted him to St Francis to care for him as he was too weak for us to manage at home. They nursed him through his pneumonia and got him strong enough to return home. 

Dad spent the next year on and off chemo, depending on his tolerance and his oncologist, nurses and the team at St Francis worked hard to help him find a balance and get back on his feet again. He managed to have a good summer and we spent a lot of family time together.

But in November 2018 when Dad collapsed and was admitted to hospital, it became clear that nothing more could be done and that we were looking at making his last days as comfortable as possible. Again, the team at St Francis rallied round and at the end of November Dad was admitted for end of life care.

Dad had known that he wanted to spend his last days at St Francis and it was very clear why. He had a beautiful room with a view of the incredible garden and the numerous bird feeders covered in little birds and squirrels.

The exceptional nurses took their time to really talk with Dad - many knew him from before and he was very fond of them as they were of him. Every single member of staff - the cleaners, volunteers who brought in his meals and drinks, physios, nurses, consultants, chaplain - ALL of them took their time and gave their respect and patience to Dad and to all of us. 

I live in Kent and had felt so helpless being so far away but the peace that came from Dad being cared for at St Francis was immeasurable. Every phone call I made (there were many!) was handled beautifully.

I did a couple of midnight runs to be with him and was greeted like a friend by the staff and given tea and toast at 2am. The flow of information was clear and steady, no question was ever deemed too small. There were much needed hugs on offer too.

When it became clear that Dad didn’t have much longer we felt fully informed. I moved into Dad’s room and remained with him for his last week. My sister stayed over a few nights too. My brother and mum visited each day and my other brother managed to return from abroad to be with us. It honestly felt as though we were the only family that were being cared for, such was the level of focus and attention. My sister and I met a few other relatives of families during our stay and they all said the same.

We were able to just be family and spend our time together. There were lots of tears and a surprising amount of laughter. On what turned out to be his last day we ended up playing charades - Dad’s favourite game - over his bed. Dad had stopped opening his eyes but we knew he could hear us - in fact the whole Hospice could hear our shrieks of laughter and no-one minded one bit. In fact one of the consultants came in and joined us for one round!

One of the nurses had said to me that many people like to die alone and choose the moment when their loved one has left the room so it wasn’t such a terrible shock when I returned from outside to find my sister saying that Dad had left us while she’d also been out of the room making tea.

The absolute love and empathy from all of the staff over the next eight hours was incredible. They gave us all the time we needed, the chaplain wrote a beautiful blessing and included a few words we had asked him to add.

One of my strongest memories is of the nurse who, as she talked to us about the next steps, gently held my dad’s hand and stroked it. She referred to him with such love and compassion it was overwhelming. She and another nurse also came to Dad’s funeral.

I hate the fact that I am writing ‘nurse’ and not referring to all of these extraordinary people by name. I wish I could remember all of their names. I will never forget their faces and their love. For a time they were part of our family, or we were part of theirs. They held us together.

My understanding had always been that a hospice was there only at the end of someone’s life - I had no idea of all the work and care they also provide during a person’s life. Our experience with St Francis was of being supported the whole way and to have had to make this journey without them would be unthinkable.

I feel we were very blessed and I know that Dad was exactly where he wanted to be at the end and at peace. The Hospice of St Francis really is heaven on earth and we will be forever grateful.”