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Interview: Angela Painter, CEO, Burrswood

15 January 2016

‘In health care, there’s a real danger of hitting the target but missing the point’

Burrswood to me is much more than a Christian hospital. It’s a beautiful place where people are able to meet others at their point of need — or, again, at their point of strength or interest — as I believe Jesus did.


The idea of actively being a channel for the love and healing power of Christ to flow through was very appealing. Love in action.


Whole-person care has been a genuine passion of mine since the days when I was 17, volunteering in India — particularly when I was working in a leprosy hospital, seeing people who had a range of needs and strengths: physical, emotional, social, and spiritual. It’s impossible to separate them out, as the medical model tends to.


I trained as a children’s and general nurse at Great Ormond Street, then later became a health visitor, then became a nurse board-member on my primary health trust, and moved into some management roles.


At one time, I thought I was being called into ordained ministry, and did two years training with the Methodist Church, but I became chief executive of the Kenward Trust for seven years.


It was something about wanting to be out there in a community setting rather than in a church building: reaching people at their point of need. My understanding of Jesus’s ministry was very much about being “out there”; not waiting in the synagogue for people to arrive, but at the bottom of the tree, at the well, at their place.


We offer health and social-care provision, but with financial constraints, as in both the NHS and the charity sector. Burrswood can also be explicitly Christian and evangelistic in a way not possible in the NHS, or at Kenward — a Christian charity that works with people who have drug and alcohol problems, and works with offenders and the homeless — because part of our charitable purpose and commission is to heal the sick, comfort the sorrowing, and give faith to the faithless.


I do believe — partly as a former clinical-governance lead in the NHS that quality standards and evidenced-based care are vitally important, and outcome measurements are key to demonstrating the positive difference any health, social, and spiritual care provision is making to people’s lives. Unfortunately, the NHS and any commissioned service has got caught up in being asked to meet targets that may be meaningless and unhelpful in truly showing improvements in quality of life or care provision. There’s a real danger of hitting the target but missing the point.


Here, we have time to care and time to listen, to really value and believe in people, and there’s more opportunity to be genuinely innovative, and to have the scope to test things out in a way that is seldom possible in such a centrally driven organisation as the NHS.


A central part of Burrswood has always been the Church and the Christian healing ministry, and the outpatients’ services, including physiotherapy and counselling sessions. One of the unique things is that we have this lovely hydrotherapy pool with stunning countryside views, and people enjoy being with others there, and having a cup of tea afterwards. We offer prayer and pastoral support, fully integrated with professional health-care.


There’s a danger of losing your ability to provide patient-centred care when accepting any form of substantial funding, be it NHS, local authority, major donors, or grant-making trusts; and that the funder will dictate the service provision or model of care. I’ve seen this happen to many charities who have allowed “mission drift”. It’s vitally important that we assess every funding stream or opportunity, and ensure that we can still meet our commission, charitable objects, mission, and vision, and keep our values and Christian ethos intact.


One of our huge challenges is how to convey the message that we are open to everyone, and welcome everyone in. We don’t want to be seen as just for the “religious”: we believe that all people can benefit from the whole-person care we have to offer.


We are looking at a whole range of conditions which will benefit from a holistic approach: like long-term ME, for which we’ve gained a good reputation, multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease, Parkinson’s, PTSD, depression, stress, anxiety, and addictions. Another area is rehabilitation, where we assist people in becoming mobile and independent again after surgery such as hip or knee replacement.


We can also offer support for carers, because we have accommodation and retreat facilities. People can come and spend time here, and have some treatments or counselling, too, if that’s helpful. People come with loss and adjustment issues, such as bereavement. And we have particular packages for clergy and their families.


I’ve been a patient. When I was two years old, I had a serious burn to my shoulder and arm, and was in Queen Victoria Hospital for many months, and attended outpatients for several years following. I’ve had more recent operations there for a repair to the skin graft. When I was five years old, I had Perthes disease, which affected my hip, and I was in Erith Hospital for three months on traction; and then I had to wear a caliper for 18 months. I also had a breast lump removed when I was 18. I also know what it’s like to be a carer, because my younger daughter was very unwell, and was hospitalised on several occasions as a teenager.


I suppose that, as the daughter of an Anglican vicar, I knew of God from a very young age, but my first personal encounter with God was at the age of 17, in India, all alone, sitting under a todi tree, having been reading a lot of C. S. Lewis.


That absolute certainty has never left me, but I’ve been on a spiritual journey with many dry periods, and many spiritually overflowing times. I’m encouraged that this seems to reflect the experience of so many of those described in the Bible, and people of faith.


I am the youngest of four. When I was 11 years old, my father left the Church, and we moved to Pratts Bottom, in Kent. I started going to the Methodist church, where I met my future husband at the youth club, although I had no idea I would end up going out with him. We have two daughters, and, in the last six months, I have become a grandma twice, which is an absolute delight.


I love travelling, and my favourite place is Tanzania, where I went last October. I’d love to go back to Africa again soon.


I’ve lots I still want to do: more travelling, making a difference to people’s lives, offering my skills and experiences, such as they are. I’m currently a trustee of a domestic-abuse charity, but I’d like to be involved with a young people’s charity, too, when I have more time. I’d also like to do prison work in some way.


What makes me angry? My husband’s snoring last night. . . Actually, it takes quite a lot to make me angry, but I do find consistently negative or pessimistic or pious attitudes hard. Prejudice and stereotyping of any group of people also makes me angry, and far-right politics. Perhaps there are a few more things than I care to recognise at first.


I love the sound of the sea. The rougher the better — the happiest by the sea, contemplating life, writing poetry or journalling, and people-watching. I love being with close family (cuddling my gorgeous grandchildren), being with friends, sharing a meal, or going to the theatre or cinema; also travelling with fun companions, seeing new sights, and learning about new cultures — and, yes, feeling that we at Burrswood are genuinely making a difference to somebody’s life.


I also used to love playing football, and running an open youth club. Now, I enjoy watching West Ham winning a match on a Saturday evening, and when I have the chance to kick a ball when helping out at our church outreach kids’ club.


My youth-club leader was a great influence, and he’s still a good friend, and godfather to my daughter. Other influences are my first and my current minister, my tutor when I was training for ordained ministry, and my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, who came into my life when I was about 11 years old. On a wider scale, Martin Luther King probably stands out, and Gandhi, Maya Angelou, and a whole range of Christian writers, such as Philip Yancy and C. S. Lewis.


I pray throughout the day, and always have a quiet time in the morning, with a daily reading of some kind. I pray most for wisdom, courage, strength, and guidance, and often with thanks for so many blessings. For me, it is like a conversation with a friend: sometimes we don’t need to say a lot together, but it’s great to know that they’re always there to listen.


If I was locked in a church with any companion of my choice, I would go for Eddie Askew. He writes a lot of prayers and poetry, illustrated with his own artwork. He was involved with the Leprosy Mission; so there’s that connection, but I love his reflections, wisdom, spirituality, common sense, and his art. I’d love to know much more about the man.


Angela Painter was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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