The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many services to a grinding halt throughout the region. When one such vital resource was affected, NHS Grampian called on the support of Friends of ANCHOR.

The local charity launched a temporary initiative to provide vital accommodation and transport for patients who are required to travel to Aberdeen from further afield for their treatment. The scheme, ‘Home from Home’, was launched in mid-May to support cancer and haematology patients from the Highlands and Islands and further reaches of the North-east including Moray.

As the service draws to a close, Friends of ANCHOR has covered over 1,000 miles of patient transport and arranged more than 200 nights-worth of accommodation, both of which have been jointly funded by the charity and NHS.

The current travel and social restrictions have made it challenging for patients from further afield to reach ARI for their essential appointments. Usually, patients from these areas would be housed by Clan Haven while staying in the city centre, but the Clan service temporarily closed to allow for preparations for a full and safe reintroduction of its accommodation service.

NHS Grampian initially approached Friends of ANCHOR to help bridge the gap for the interim period. As one of the main users of the service, the radiotherapy department at ARI has patients travelling down from the Islands and Highlands for courses of treatment that can involve daily radiotherapy for up to six weeks at a time.

Nicola Redgwell, radiotherapy manager, said: “For patients who live in Orkney, Shetland, Moray or the further reaches of Aberdeenshire, the pandemic and resulting restrictions posed a real problem for getting to ARI for essential appointments.

“Our interim solution during CLAN Haven’s closure aimed to remove some of the understandable anxiety associated with travelling and being far from home whilst the patients were attending ARI for non-elective treatment or surgery. The ‘Home from Home’ service helped alleviate that and we are very grateful for donors’ support of Friends of ANCHOR, which enabled this service to run and be sustained for the period of time it was needed.”

Charity director at Friends of ANCHOR, Sarah-Jane Hogg added: “These last few months have looked very different to how any of us could have foreseen 2020, but throughout this time we have resolved to remain fully committed to ANCHOR patients and staff in supporting them wherever the need lies, with a good measure of adaptability in there too.”

“To be in a position to switch on a service like this is essentially down to our donors, who continue to sustain the charity with their generous support of the work we’re doing. On behalf of those who benefitted from the Home from Home service, we give our heartfelt thanks.”

The Royal Athenaeum Suites on Union Street offered NHS and Friends of ANCHOR a heavily discounted rate, with the fully-equipped apartments ensuring a safe accommodation option for patients during their stays in Aberdeen.

A daily, private transport service has been running, to provide ferry terminal and airport picks-ups and drop-offs for patients, as well as return travel for every hospital appointment. Friends of ANCHOR and NHS Grampian jointly funded this transport service, while employees of Friends of ANCHOR’s wellbeing team, which would usually operate within the hospital, took on the designated driver roles covering the 250 round trips across the eight week period.

ANCHOR Unit patient and mum-of-one Anna Lidderdale was one of the first patients to use the Home from Home service. Anna, who lives on Orkney with her husband and young son, said: “The service provided by Friends of ANCHOR was an absolute lifeline. I had to spend a number of weeks in Aberdeen, during the height of the pandemic, and without this support, it simply wouldn't have been possible.

“The name ‘Home from Home’ really rang true for me, there was nothing I couldn't ask for, and nothing was too much trouble. The accommodation was very comfortable, and the team was on standby at all times for myself and the other patients.

“I don’t have any family or friends in Aberdeen, so because of the lockdown, I had to stay in the city alone for the whole month while I had treatment. Friends of ANCHOR made me feel so well looked after and thus, much more safe and secure. It was truly comforting during a very complicated time. It was also a relief to my family back home, knowing there are people ready to help with whatever was needed. To the team who helped me, I just want to say a huge thank you.”

The Home from Home service involved the redeployment of two of the Friends of ANCHOR full-time members of staff, wellbeing coordinator Matthew Smith and volunteer coordinator Elena Aspe, who headed up day-to-day running of the service and daily support to the patients.

Miss Aspe said: “It has been wonderful to connect so closely with the patients who used the service over the last eight weeks. First and foremost, this service was about providing a practical solution in the most assuring way possible that everything would be safe and accommodated for them, but we also wanted to bring an additional layer of support as they were dealing with the ups and downs of treatment at a very daunting time. It’s been a privilege to support each patient and family who have used the service.”

From Wednesday, July 8 Clan Haven will reopen and recommence their valued accommodation and transport support for Highland and Island patients.

Friends of ANCHOR will continue to offer ANCHOR patient transport support, where and when required, for the NHS Highlands and Islands health boards until its safe for patients to utilise public transport once again.