NHS hero Debi McKeown tells us about the social movement that sums up the best of Middlesbrough
When Debi McKeown needs something for the hospital patients of Middlesbrough, it never takes long for it to turn up.
“It might be a dozen pairs of socks, it could be a DVD player, anything – I’ll put it on Facebook and I’ll have it in 40 minutes,” said Debi, who runs the Therapeutic Support team at James Cook University Hospital.
“Middlesbrough is quite a powerful place like that. Anything that we have needed, it’s like magic, we say, it just happens.”
But it’s certainly no accident.
On the wards and corridors of the massive Middlesbrough hospital, Debi’s unique team work hard to ensure that magic happens every day.
Being in hospital can be tough – especially with isolation and restrictions on visiting during a pandemic. That’s why the army of 60 staff and hundreds of volunteers and work experience students is absolutely vital.
“It’s a bit of a unique project, it doesn’t really exist anywhere else. What we have created is a bit of an extension of what I think Middlesbrough is about,” said Debi.
“It is about a community of people that have compassion and a caring nature, that’s our town.”
The team offer therapeutic care to patients – often spending hours, one to one, to help people feel comfortable and open up. It helps them get better.
“I’m dead lucky to be in the job that I am. It’s more than a service,” said Debi.
“People come to us from all over the place and ask how we’ve done it.”
Debi jokes: “We’re not about having endless meetings and writing all sorts of reports.
“When someone asked us if we had a model, we came up with the ‘mam and dad model’. To be honest, it’s that simple. Think about how you’d want your mam and dad, or a family member, looked after if they were in hospital. We treat everybody like that.
“Despite all the constraints that the NHS has, or that Middlesbrough has, it isn’t just about money.
“We’re always going to have a shortage of money. It’s about time. That’s what is precious.
“We try and put things in place to make people feel better.”
We suggest Debi is a ‘doer’, she’s modest but smiles: “I just haven’t got any patience.
“We have to react really quickly to events, that’s what our patients need.
“The Chaplain might come in and say ‘we have a wedding’. I’ll say ‘when?’ and she’ll say ‘erm, it’s in an hour and a half’.
“And we did it. In a pandemic we had people running down Linthorpe Road looking for balloons, because they knew there was a shop open down there. We got a tea set, cakes, we made it special for them. There’s things that we might take for granted. But we did it.
“Coming out of a pandemic, you start to evaluate what’s important. It’s not about ticking boxes, it’s about doing the right thing for our patients.”
Debi trained as a nurse in 1991 in Newcastle then came back to Middlesbrough and worked in the James Cook cardiology department until 2002.
Then, while heavily pregnant, she was asked to help ten new Spanish nurses settle in – it sparked something in her and in 2013, the Therapeutic Care service was started with Debi and just eight volunteers.
The work the team does is hard to define – it can range from something as simple as playing board games or doing crafts, trips off the ward, or pampering activities like nail painting and hair dressing.
But they also work with patients with challenging behaviours – helping people settle, and ensuring that medical treatment is effective. It’s about building relationships.
“We realised most people were scared coming into hospital, for hundreds of different reasons,” Debi continued.
“There’s many people with challenging behaviour. But everyone deserves to be cared for.
“A lot of patients, especially coming in with Covid during the pandemic, they’ve not been allowed visitors. They don’t have things like pyjamas and underwear. There’s only so many times you can put pants through an industrial washer!”
She praised local charities and community groups including the Teesside Philanthropic Foundation, the Teesside Family Foundation, and the White Feather Project – which has put together bags of essentials for those leaving hospital into an uncertain world of Covid restrictions.
Individuals donate all sorts of items to the service, knit clothes or blankets, or just offer their time.
“We never turn anything down – everything can be put to good use,” the mum-of-two continued. “We’re a very reactive town. When something happens, people get on board. People come together and it’s typical of the area. I don’t think I could do my job if it wasn’t in this community.
“Our team is made up of people from here. We have families working together.
“My sons help out, my husband spent the pandemic driving here, there and everywhere dropping stuff off and picking things up. Even my mam volunteers now!
“That’s how we’ve all been brought up, isn’t it? You might not hear it said much, but that’s what Middlesbrough means.
“We don’t give ourselves enough credit.”
But what makes a good volunteer or member of staff?
“It’s not about the qualifications, it’s about the person,” said Debi, 49, who lives in Acklam.
“I meet someone and I know straight away whether they’re going to fit in. We can look at the academic stuff later on. People have started as volunteers and trained with us, they’ve got good jobs now.
“Every time I see someone who’s ended up with a job after volunteering, I proper buzz over it.
“And then I see ex-patients coming into volunteer. Amazing.”
The team is spread out across the South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, including James Cook, East Cleveland Primary Care Hospital in Brotton, Redcar Primary Care and the Friarage in Northallerton.
Dedicated mental health staff are also being recruited – essential, as many more patients, especially young people, are presenting with things like anxiety and depression.
290 people volunteered their time during Covid – many of whom were furloughed. Some did things as simple as running items between wards, or delivering hot meals for staff.
Debi is proud to say that 93 of those have now got jobs at the hospital.
“It’s a bit of a social movement really,” she continued proudly.
“I find it a privilege, there’s nothing like it and I’ve been a nurse for a long time. I think sometimes people get complacent when they do the same thing day to day. But every day here is completely different.”
We are words by Mike Brown.
We are photos by Mike Sreenan.