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Interview: Graham Perolls, founder, Hospices of Hope

19 January 2024

‘The health system in all the ex-Communist countries was in a perilous state. People were simply sent home to die’

I went to Romania as a tourist in 1975, when Romania was in the grip of Communism. While I was in the city of Brasov, I got lost and was shown back to my hotel by a guy who also invited me to come and meet his wife, and we became friends.

In 1978, my father had cancer, and I became his main carer.
He was admitted to St Christopher’s Hospice, in London, where his pain was controlled, so he could come home again.

While he was sad that he was never going to live to see his grandchildren,
he believed God had a purpose, and urged me to find it. He died peacefully in 1980. I took over the family business in the motor trade, but, after my mother died four years later, I felt a call to establish a hospice charity in my home town of Dartford, and called it Ellenor Hospice after my parents, Ellen and Norman.

I returned to Romania a few days after the so-called revolution in 1989.
My friend took me to the cancer hospital in Brasov, where I saw a young man dying in terrible pain. This sowed a seed in my mind about the possibility of introducing the hospice concept to Romania. I asked the trustees of the Ellenor Hospice if they’d allow me to raise funds for this, and, when the work in Romania started to grow, a separate charity, Hospices of Hope, was formed to develop access to palliative care in all the poorly resourced countries of South-Eastern Europe.

The health system in all the ex-Communist countries was in a perilous state.
People with a terminal illness were not considered to be worth helping, and were simply sent home to die. The hospice concept was completely unknown; so families coped as best they could, often watching their loved ones suffer terrible pain. We held the first palliative-care conference in Brasov in 1992, and set up Hospice Casa Sperantei: Home of Hope.

One of our Ellenor nurses agreed to train the first Romanian nurses,
and some amazing Romanian doctors and nurses quickly took hospice care to their hearts. When we opened the first in-patient hospice in 2002 in Brasov, a UK doctor agreed to come and train the new staff for six months. She stayed seven years.

Patients in these countries are much more eager to receive spiritual care than in the UK,
probably because religion was suppressed during the Communist period. The main suspicion came from the Orthodox Church, which did not want outside influences.

Patients often think illness is a punishment from God.
We have non-denominational spiritual-care co-ordinators who are good at explaining that God is a God of love, and illness is part of the human condition. They ask people’s Orthodox priests to come in, if that’s requested. We start each week with a “Thought for the Week” and invite local clergy from different Churches to lead it. Orthodox staff like hearing from the non-Orthodox ministers, and Evangelicals start to realise that Orthodox priests have a real faith. Our spiritual care is about building new relationships after so much hurt left after Communist times.

Now, Hospices of Hope is a UK charity
whose mission is to increase access to hospice services in Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, Albania, Greece, and Serbia, through advocacy, training, technical expertise, and funding. We set up an independent legal charity in Romania from the very beginning, as we wanted to encourage self-sustainability and ensure that we could also get government funding.

We get funds through grants, individual and corporate donations, events, charity shops, and legacies.
For many years, the Romanian hospice depended entirely on donations from the UK. Now, more than 90 per cent of funds are raised in Romania — a budget of €8 million — by local fund-raisers trained by us. Romania has 270 staff who are paid normal salaries, and the government now funds around 15 per cent of the budget. In Serbia, all the funds now come through donations, and about 60 per cent of funds are raised locally. Moldova and Albania are very poor countries; so the majority of funding comes from the UK.

In Ukraine, the government pays 80 per cent of staff salaries,
but Hospices of Hope helps with the remaining 20 per cent, plus other costs, like food, utilities, and maintenance. In Greece, our two partner organisations have home-care services with small budgets. They are the only palliative home-care teams in the country; so we’re helping them to grow.

My grandfather started one of the first Ford garages in the UK in the 1920s.
I carried on the business, but I gave less and less time to it before selling it in 2008 so that I could concentrate full-time on the hospice work, which I enjoyed more. That experience gave me a lot of useful tools for starting and running the hospice charities.

I was surprised by the huge interest in palliative care from so many health-care staff, due to their own personal experiences.
They’ve been eager to embrace a more compassionate way of caring, and our training courses are always fully subscribed. I’ve also been surprised by the resilience of patients, some of whom have had to endure the most difficult situations and circumstances. I always make time to visit patients, and they’re the ones who’ve inspired me to carry on the work over the years. Anna, my daughter, is now the CEO of Hospices of Hope, and she’ll continue my work with passion.

Working in Ukraine is a real privilege.
The team from the Ivano-Frankivsk hospice had come to Brasov for training; so, when the war started, we reached out to them. Their first needs were for an ambulance to transport patients from the war areas, and a generator to keep the lights on. We appointed a Ukrainian manager, and I really enjoy working with him to help sustain the hospice during this terrible war. I hope we can develop things there.

Princess Diana gave us the first donation towards our Hospice Education Centre in Brasov,
which still bears her name. The Royal Family has been very supportive of our cause over the years. The Queen sent a message when we opened the hospice in Brasov; the Duke and of Duchess of Edinburgh visited our new hospice in Bucharest; and King Charles visited it in 2017, on the 25th anniversary of our work in Romania.

A young volunteer nurse who went out to Romania got engaged to a GP,
who happened to be Oliver Postgate’s GP. One day, Oliver said: “Bagpuss has found himself with a surplus of funds, and would like to help some sick children. Do you know of any?” Bagpuss paid for the children’s wing of the hospice in Brasov, which bears his name, and “Emily” came out to cut the ribbon. Oliver was, indeed, a very special man.

I’m the eldest of three,
and grew up in a strict but close Christian family in Dartford. It was a very happy childhood. My parents were extremely hospitable, and I met people from all walks of life. They taught us to value every human being, no matter their background or status. I have an amazing wife, who supported me throughout the hospice journey, five wonderful children, including a son adopted from Romania, and seven grandchildren.

We go to a lively church in London,
and I volunteer as a pastoral chaplain for the Leadership College, London. I play tennis and go to the gym. I love travelling and gardening.

I asked Jesus into my life when I was four
— probably because the preacher made hell sound very real, and not a place I wanted to end up in. I rebelled in my teenage years, but found a faith of my own when I was 21. I wanted to serve God, and spent many years involved in helping young people addicted to drugs.

Romanian and Serbian politicians who hold the country to ransom make me angry.

Spending quality time with my good friends makes me happiest.

I pray most for my family and the people going through hardship:
refugee friends, a friend with MND, a friend whose son took a drug overdose.

I’d love to be locked in a church with Joseph from the Book of Genesis.
I’m a bit of a dreamer like him, and he’d inspire me.

Graham Perolls was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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