HEALTHY LIVING: Complementary therapy’s positive role at hospice

Mike Sullivan, Head of Wellbeing Services at St Luke's Hospice, Whirlow.
Mike Sullivan, Head of Wellbeing Services at St Luke's Hospice, Whirlow.
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Hospice Care Week starts today - and in the second of two special features to mark the occasion, Star reporter Richard Blackledge speaks to the new director of wellbeing at St Luke’s Hospice in Sheffield.

BY his own admission, Mike Sullivan lives and breathes complementary therapy.

So to head up a team of dedicated practitioners carrying out treatments such as aromatherapy, massage, reiki and reflexology for terminally ill patients at St Luke’s Hospice in Whirlow is, he says, the ‘opportunity of a lifetime’.

“I’m not aware of another organisation that has this level of input in terms of complementary therapy,” said Mike, who recently took up the post of St Luke’s director of wellbeing.

“Because we are able to work in such a positive way with the patients then that has such a strong effect on how relatives not only perceive what we do, but also the level of care patients are receiving.

“They are very reassured when they see their relatives being so well cared for. That then has a knock-on effect on the nursing staff, it takes the pressure and stress off them.”

Patients are able to see complementary therapists free of charge at the hospice, receiving treatments for aches and pains as well as psychological symptoms such as anxiety.

Hairdressers are also on hand to boost patients’ spirits with a little pampering.

Mike oversees a 12-strong team including three paid therapists, two hair stylists and seven volunteers.

“There are other departments, we have physiotherapy and art therapy,” he said.

“We offer massage, aromatherapy massage and reflexology - massage is very broad, to do a full body massage would be very rare due to how unwell the patients are.

“We do foot, leg and back massage, or we’ll sit with somebody and do their neck, shoulders and scalp.

“A lot of the therapists are also beauty therapists so we offer manicures and pedicures.”

Patients are often referred for treatments by nursing staff and doctors.

“We often have nurses and doctors come down to the office and ask to see a particular patient,” Mike said.

“A lot of it is to do with anxiety, fear and worries. The patients are struggling with life-limiting illnesses, they can be aware of what they are approaching.

“We’ll come in and comfort them, it’s like hand holding but on a very deep level. We’re not involved emotionally. Families can have strained relationships, people may be sitting around a patients bed but feel unable to connect or interact.”

Mike said making patients more relaxed is often important in helping them respond to their medication.

He continued: “One of the benefits of doing massage or reflexology is it’s like creating a space. They forget they’re a patient.

“If a patient wants to talk they will sometimes voice things that are worrying them, get things off their chest.”

He said the wellbeing service was built ‘from the ground up’ by his predecessor, Sallie Rainbow.

“They’re big shoes to fill,” said Mike, aged 42. He hails from South Shields and studied biology and physics at Manchester Metropolitan University before spending time in the USA, living in New York.

“Living in a city like that, you get very stressed. I needed to seek out ways to help manage that stress.

“I had acupuncture and got into meditation and yoga. It was like I was discovering a new world.”

Mike moved to Sheffield 10 years ago, joining St Luke’s as a reiki volunteer. He lives in Crookes and also works for the Cavendish Centre as a therapist.

“I’ve really never looked back. The St Luke’s service has grown in leaps and bounds since then.”

Mike said he has so far concentrated on ‘bedding in’ at the hospice.

“Once that happens I’d like to look at what’s working well at other hospices, what’s helping their patients and explore options of bringing them in here.”

He said plans are being developed to take services out into the local community, visiting people at home.

“At the end of October we’re holding an event like a spa day. Very often cancer patients don’t feel like going to a spa day or salon, and beauty therapists tend not to have the right level of experience.

“We’re going to start bringing people in for a pilot at St Luke’s that don’t already access services through inpatient or outpatient departments.

“Actually going into people’s homes is further along the line.”

He added: “To have been able to step into a role such as this really exciting.

“I live and breathe complementary therapy, I just can’t say enough about it.”

Visit for more information about Hospice Care Week.