Twelve months ago, Daz Howells was happily playing golf and looking forward to his impending retirement from a successful career in engineering.
But a year later he is unable to move and is facing the end of his life after being cruelly struck down by the degenerative condition motor neurone disease.
Daz, aged 60, from Chapeltown, has started visiting St Luke’s Hospice in Whirlow, where staff ease his symptoms in a restful environment.
Now the hospice has provided Daz’s family with a lasting memento of his cherished memories and achievements, as well as helping him to talk about his life and consider the thought of dying, through its new Oral History Project.
The project involves patients at the Whirlow hospice sitting down with volunteers and making audio recordings of their reminiscences, which can then be turned into individual CDs featuring their interviews.
Patients are also given the chance to create a ‘memory book’ filled with photos charting the course of their lives.
Clare Williams, service user co-ordinator at St Luke’s, said she thought the project was ‘really beneficial’, while Daz said the interviews were an opportunity for him to ‘leave something behind’.
“It’s helped me put together the parts of my life I will remember,” said the dad-of-two, married to wife Elaine, 58, for more than 40 years.
“We’ve gone through my whole life - getting married, when my kids have grown up, my work, holidays I’ve been on, even meeting the Queen.”
Music fan Daz was also the first patient to make his very own Desert Island Discs CD, featuring his most cherished songs linked by messages explaining the particular importance of each track.
Clare said she set up the project after realising it was ‘a service St Luke’s didn’t have’.
“I thought it would be a resource that would be really good to have,” she added.
“I persuaded my manager that we could try it out here and we did a little pilot where we did a couple of interviews. I interviewed two patients and did a little questionnaire afterwards, and they said they really valued taking part. So we decided to roll it out as a service. We’re very clear that it’s not therapy, we’re not trained counsellors, but it can be very therapeutic.”
Clare said 29 patients have taken part so far, with 40 interviews completed.
“Patients often do more than one interview, they might get tired or might feel they have more to say. We had a family who were in just before Christmas and their relative recorded his final CD just two days before he died.
“I had a call from one of his family who said when they listened to his CD it felt like there was a part of him still with her.”
She continued: “Quite often, a lot focus in on their illness, but the oral history service is interested in them in their whole life. Some patients choose to talk about their illness, but others talk about what they did before, and the things that made them the person they are.”
As the service has grown, more volunteers were needed, so 20 have now been trained up to interview hospice residents.
“For some patients it’s an enjoyable reminiscence session, but others have recorded messages for their children and grandchildren. It can be hard sometimes. Some patients have difficult memories, and listening to their final messages is very emotional as well.
“But it’s the most rewarding part of my job now. You can see how much the patients get out of it.”
The Star has pledged to raise £100,000 for a new £5m inpatient unit at St Luke’s. Visit www.stlukeshospice.org.uk to donate.
Brave Daz faces up to mortality with greater awareness
Daz Howells isn’t completely sure how long he has left to live - but he has made a point of talking about his death openly and making plans for when the time comes.
An awareness event called Dying Matters Week is running until Saturday, aiming to encourage people to take small actions such as planning future care, signing up as an organ donor and telling loved ones their wishes.
“I know I’m going to die,” said Daz, who is living with motor neurone disease.
“I just know for me it’s coming quite a lot sooner. The prognosis for me is quite bad but it could be at any time, so we’ve made quite a lot of decisions that needed sorting out.”
Daz said he became very depressed six months ago following his diagnosis. He first visited his doctor complaining of weakness in his hands and breathing problems.
“I asked two doctors if they could end my life for me, I was that down, but they said no, basically,” he said.
“Now I’ve decided to stay at home and let nature take its course. We’ve made a will and they’re putting my ashes in the garden.”
Janet Owen, clinical lead for the end of life care team at South West Yorkshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, said: “It’s really important to talk openly about dying and bereavement as it can help ensure that we get the care and support we want at the end of our lives.
“A lack of conversation is often the most important reason why peoples’ wishes go ignored or unfulfilled.
“Dying Matters week is an opportunity to raise awareness about end of life issues and ask people to consider their attitudes towards death and bereavement. It’s also a good way to highlight where people can go to for support if they need it.”
Visit www.dyingmatters.org for more details.