A visit to the Chilterns MS Centre

PUBLISHED: 15:40 19 March 2018 | UPDATED: 15:40 19 March 2018

The purpose built centre is backed by fundraisers, supporters and volunteers © 2015 Steve Franklin Photography

The purpose built centre is backed by fundraisers, supporters and volunteers © 2015 Steve Franklin Photography

© 2015 Steve Franklin Photography

People attending Chilterns MS Centre never tire of singing its praises, and Sandra Smith finds a visit is an uplifting experience

Positive energy and a debilitating physical condition conjure up such contrasting responses you might query whether they even belong in the same sentence. At Chilterns MS Centre, however, the two coexist. For this modern, purpose built venue on the edge of Wendover is the hub of an holistic approach in which treatment and therapy provide physical help to Multiple Sclerosis sufferers, while the knock on effect of ongoing camaraderie and support enhances members’ mental, emotional and social wellbeing.

From the moment I enter the large, airy reception I’m aware of laughter and an upbeat atmosphere. As smiling volunteers direct visitors to clinical appointments, I make my way over to a table where PR Manager, Catherine Golds, awaits. Nearby, groups of members tuck into lunches and homemade cakes. A list of sponsors adorns one wall, a colourful backdrop of photographic portraits another.

“These are our 30 Talking Heads, representing people who come to the Centre,” Catherine explains. There are twice as many women as men, which is the demographic for MS in this country.”

Attractive, articulate and business-like, Catherine, who is also a trustee, spent the first couple of years following diagnosis coming to terms with her condition. The loss of a high powered job impacted on her, though gratitude for the Centre is repeatedly expressed.

“What I love most is hydrotherapy. Being in the pool gives you freedom; a lot of what you wouldn’t attempt to do on land, you can do in water. This also allows us to increase our heart rate, which is just as important to people with MS as anyone else.”

Members can choose from one-to-one or group sessions in the pool as well as physiotherapy to help mobility, posture and strength. Along with assisted bikes and rowing machines, one of the most popular pieces of equipment is a barometric chamber in which breathing 100% pure oxygen during one hour time slots encourages healing.

Such is the success of the chamber, which is run by trained volunteers, that 20% of users are non MS patients.

Catherine reveals: “Wycombe Wanderers players use it for their rehabilitation after injury; it halves their healing time.”

Anna Carter has been coming to the Centre for over 18 months and is also adamant about the positive effects of oxygen: “I started to feel benefits after the second session. I have more energy and my cognitive health is better. It helps me feel more normal, less spaced out. I also do a fatigue management course and now plan in rest times. Strategies are important, recognising when you need to sleep for half an hour. I didn’t realise fatigue was a problem until I talked to an occupational therapist.”

Encouraging non patients to use these facilities provides a valuable income for the Centre. When Head of Fundraising, Hannah Asquith, joins us she stresses the importance of developing a relationship with the community.

“We are a lean charity. Each year we raise just under £1m, £100,000 of which comes from the government; we have to find the rest. Treatments for members (in return for a £25 annual membership) are free but their donations make up 20% of our income. Fundraising events account for 20%. We put a lot of effort into three or four of these every year in order to do them really well. Then there are smaller events which others organise. There’s a growth in people doing things for us, which raises our awareness. Local charities now have more engagement because people can see where their money is going.”

Just then half a dozen recruits from RAF Halton (a Corporate Friend) walk by. Other visitors arrive to buy greetings cards. Financial support, you see, comes at all levels and from many directions.

Hannah continues: “Our Corporate Friends scheme costs £50 or £100 each month. This is a reciprocal arrangement; we explore what we can do for them. We were given a £20k donation for solar panels which generate our electricity. Our printing is done for free and Tesco’s Fair Share scheme enables us to benefit from food which is going out of date. It’s delivered to us and is an example of how we work to keep our costs minimal. We’ve also received funding from a Masonic group in Buckingham.”

Her passion for the Centre is echoed by Chief Executive, Robert Breakwell, whose admiration for patients is tangible: “They are such interesting people who never complain about the challenges that face them. For me, the Chilterns MS Centre is my ideal job. We are continually striving to care for more patients and provide vital services that the NHS can’t provide. This means that there is simply so much to do, but it’s great to go home at night feeling that you have helped to improve people’s lives in some way.”

The Centre’s staff are complemented by a volunteer force which numbers 101, some of whom are in regular roles. The Café’s annual contribution amounts to £20,000, meeting rooms are hired out and Oakwood Wellbeing holds regular exercise classes, yoga and waterbabies outside the Centre’s usual opening hours.

Multiple sclerosis was first recognised as a medical condition 150 years ago. Typically, people are diagnosed between their 20s and 40s. A connection with vitamin D is evident, since the further you live from the equator, the higher your chances are of developing MS. A genetic link isn’t yet completely understood and the condition falls into two categories: Progressive, or Relapsing Remitting, both of which affect nerve fibres, resulting in increased levels of disability.

The hundreds of members who come to this, one of the country’s largest MS centres from as far away as Harrow, Reading and Oxford, are first referred by a GP, neurologist or MS Nurse. To begin with everyone is assessed by a therapist and advised about the specialist areas they need to work on, such as strength or balance. A 12 week programme begins and ends with evaluation in order to gauge progress.

The welcoming nature, however, extends beyond treatment. Social groups meet here weekly for activities and games and it isn’t unknown for members to turn up for a one hour physio appointment and stay the whole day.

In fact, I decide to stick around for a hot chocolate and soak up the atmosphere for myself. Meanwhile, as Catherine heads off to a meeting she picks up her colourfully funky walking stick (she has several to match outfits) and smiles when recalling the high heels still stored at home.

“I have given some away; a lot I can’t bear to. But I sometimes wear them if I’m in my wheelchair!”

Such a lack of self pity typifies this constructive environment which provides real, practical care and encouragement for MS sufferers and where success is evident in the focus and approachability of every clinician, member of staff and volunteer. To run a charity, of course, is to run a business. The independent Chilterns MS Centre knows how to do both.



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