IT is often mistaken for a place of pain and sadness.
But here at Macmillan Caring Locally, a charity which offers care to people with life-threatening illnesses, there are smiles and plenty of laughter - thanks to Dorset’s army of hidden heroes.
The charity volunteers have varied roles at the Macmillan Unit, an inpatient ward and day centre at Christchurch Hospital, out in the community where terminally ill patients are visited at home or at Bournemouth's The Grove, the only hotel in the UK for people with cancer or life-threatening illnesses.
However they all share the same aim as part of the 145-strong volunteering family - to ensure nobody has to face the end of life alone.
And now to mark Volunteers' Week, which celebrates the selfless acts of people in the community, they have spoken out about how everything from arranging flowers in the day centre and serving afternoon tipples from the 'jolly trolley' on the ward to holding hands as somebody takes their final breath makes a difference.
Anita Rigler, volunteer coordinator at the unit, said: “We just couldn’t manage without them - the drivers, the gardeners, therapists, fundraisers, ambassadors, people who help on the wards, the companions.
"It’s difficult to explain but everyone plays a part. The volunteers bring laughter into the building. Everyone laughs here and it's thanks to the volunteers. They really lift the patients. It is a very special and unique place.”
Mandy Preece, a former legal editor, began volunteering at the day centre after she cared for her mum as she died from cancer and coming to terms with losing her close friend at the age of 37 to breast cancer.
Now, after training as a ‘soul midwife’ – a holistic end-of-life companion, Mandy sits with people as they die and has enabled other volunteers to do the same.
Thanks to her, 'end of life companions' are available at the unit every evening and sit with people of all ages, some who have no friends or family, in their final hours.
Unlike medics who may be busy or friends and family who may be overcome with emotion, the companions volunteer hours of their time to help people find peace and listen to their greatest fears.
The mum-of-one, said: “My job is to make sure people leave this life without fear, loneliness or anxiety.
“People do say to me ‘how do you do that? Isn’t it sad?’ It can be sad but not depressing and if you didn’t feel sad, you shouldn’t be doing the job. But there are beautiful moments that offset any sadness and all the deaths I’ve witnessed have been beautiful. "To have someone smile when they are unconscious or for somebody to move a hand in recognition that they can hear their loved one’s voice is very special.
“Hearing what somebody's loved one really meant to them, that’s very powerful.
“It is a privilege to be there.”
Mandy has witnessed a man decorate his young wife’s room like a grotto, complete with fairy lights everywhere she looked. He even brought a screen to put family videos playing on a loop so when she did open her eyes, she would see her children playing or the family together on a beach.
Another woman spoke for hours about her work rescuing more than 1,000 dogs during her life.
“It’s very humbling. What is really interesting is that all the things that are really important in life come out.
“I’ve never sat with anyone who says they’ve got a nice house or wish they’d have spent more time at work.
“What they tell you is about being blessed with memories of their children or grandchildren or about the most amazing holiday they had, special days with the people they love or proud moments.
“The volunteers get so much out of it too. It has definitely changed me.
“Personally you grow and the appreciation of your life deepens.
“I don’t worry as much and I live much more for the moment and I’ve learnt to truly respect people, it is simple, it’s all about listening.”
Patricia Roberts and Jan Glew work on the 16-bed ward ensuring patients and relatives are comfortable by serving refreshments, an alcoholic tipple from 'the jolly trolley' and simply helping to brighten people's day by chatting.
Patricia has volunteered for 10 years after nursing both parents through cancer.
“I decided to come here to give something back.
“You help wherever you can. I nursed my mother at home and I couldn’t have done it without the unit. I’ve had friends pass away here and I’ve come in to visit them. Everyone works to ensure it’s a peaceful and pain free ending.
“It’s a feeling you have helped someone through a very difficult time or a very difficult day. That makes it worthwhile.”
Meanwhile Jan ensures there are always plenty of smiles at the Macmillan Unit.
She said: “I think end of life is part of life and if I can help in any way to make the passing easier, that’s rewarding enough. The atmosphere here, you couldn’t better it in the world!
“If someone like myself can look at someone dying with strength in my face and in my eyes, well I think that gives them strength. It’s a very rewarding feeling. It’s compassion.”
Trust secretary Neal Williams said the Macmillan Unit could not run without the volunteers.
"People always give far more than we ever imagined," he said.
"You cut this place in half and you can see volunteers are all the way through the service.
"People here are forever saying they feel safe and the family say they know they are in great hands.
"I lose count of how many letters we have but it is for the team out there. They are incredibly special people who volunteer again and again and still keep caring with the same smile on their face.
*Macmillan Caring Locally formed in 1974 is a small independent charity with no connection to the national organisation Macmillan Cancer Support.
For more information about volunteering for Macmillan Caring Locally or to donate go to macmillanlocal.org or call volunteer coordinator Anita Rigler on 01202 705353.