NARROW corridors, bedrooms so tiny relatives have to wait outside and stairs so steep patients are trapped upstairs mean hospice staff are struggling to offer dignified care.
Patients and their families heap praise on the dedicated, attentive staff at Fair Havens Hospice in Westcliff.
But the limits of the ageing building, made from two converted houses that sit directly on the busy Second Avenue, mean patients sometimes have to wait up to a month for a suitable room.
Once they get a place they can be subjected to undignified, distressing situations from the start to the end of their stay.
For example, the majority of the hospice’s ten bedrooms are upstairs, but the building has no lift.
Most patients, who are very sick as they near the end of their lives, have severe mobility problems.
Some are too weak to sit on the stairlift meaning they have to wait – sometimes up to a month – for a bed downstairs.
As patients’ health deteriorates those that make it upstairs often cannot make it down again. This can be especially distressing for Christians wanting to spend quiet moments of contemplation as the hospice’s chapel is on the ground floor.
Corridors are only an arm’s length apart in places.
Nurses carrying trays of food who are used to navigating the cramped conditions wait with instinctive patience at passing places as the hospice throngs at lunch time.
But the halls are impassable for wheelchairs or beds, trapping patients in their rooms.
One room particularly isolated room is empty several times a year as it is only suitable for particularly mobile patients are suitable.
Undertakers have to carry bodies upright on stretchers to get them through the corridor and down the stairs. A door has had to be cut through to the dining room opposite a downstairs room to allow undertakers to do three-point-turns with bodies removed from the room. The dining room has to be cleared of patients at a moment’s notice so the morbid manoeuvre can take place.
Some bedrooms of the former family home are so cramped family members have to take turns to sit with patients.
The hospice has nowhere for relatives to stay overnight so they can be close by for their loved ones last moments. Instead many sleep bedside in a reclining chair.
The front door is barely a few feet from the busy Second Avenue, with family homes opposite.
Catherine Wood, head of patient services at Havens hospices, said: “If we had a patient who died the undertaker would come and back as close to the entrance as possible, but it’s still so visible and people walking past can see everything.
“They might see a really sick patient arriving. They might have tumours on their face or be really skeletal.
“They won’t want to be seen. It’s really undignified.”
Studies have shown that outdoor space reduces levels of anxiety and patients with access to a tranquil garden need less pain relief.
But the hospice’s beautiful garden – funded by the Echo – is inaccessible for anyone in a wheelchair and those who can walk out have to pass the recycling bins on the way.
Distraught family members having to make distressing calls after a patient has died often come to the garden, but they are in full view of Second Avenue.
South Essex has a shortfall of 18 palliative care cancer beds, according to a report by NHS Cancer Network.
Havens Hospices, which operates Fair Havens and Little Havens Children’s Hospice in Thundersley, wants to build a new £15million state-of-the-art 16-bed facility on green belt land off Belton Way West, Leigh.
Southend Council rejected the plans as it felt the charity failed to demonstrate a need sufficient to overcome the harm to the green belt.
But the hospice says a new facility offering privacy to patients and grieving families, tranquil views that could ease their suffering and all care on one floor with enough space for nurses to attend to complex medical problems is a strong enough need.
An eight-day public inquiry starting on June 18(2013) will decide.
MERLE Clarke saw a modern hospice when her sister-in-law needed palliative care two years ago.
So now Mrs Clarke, 82, of Southend, needs care herself after being struck down by cancer, she knows what Fair Havens is missing.
Describing her sister-in-law’s hospice in Weston-super-Mare, she said: “It was all on one floor. Everything was there.
“It had French doors that opened out onto the garden. She could even go outside.
“It’s essential that people can see a nice view. There’s a suggestion that they don’t want something nice to look at. What else are you going to think about? It’s ridiculous.”
Instead of views of a garden – or out over the estuary as Havens wants to offer from its proposed new hospice – Mrs Clarke’s cramped, narrow room has views over Second Avenue.
She said: “If the windows are open the noise from the traffic is incredible.”
There are only a couple of chairs, so if more relatives visit, they would have to sit in the en suite bathroom.
The hoist only covers the area between the bed and bathroom, so if a patient wanted to sit in the chair, staff would have to manhandle them.
Mrs Clarke is lucky. She is still fairly mobile - but the stairlift still terrifies her.
Staff have been amazingly attentive, Mrs Clarke says, always coming as soon as they are needed and filling up her water before they are asked.
But the building itself is letting staff, patients and visitors down.
She said: “The town deserves a better hospice.”