One of the best known figures in the town’s charity sector is planning to step back from his work after dedicating the past 32 years to revolutionising end-of-life care.
Graham Perolls, 66, is the founder and CEO of Hospice of Hope, which is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary. It has a charity shop in Camden Road.
The charity provides care for terminally-ill people in and around Romania free of charge.
Its education centre also helps to spread the word about the approach to treatment to more than 12,000 hospice staff from 17 countries across central Europe.
From offering companionship to Swedish cancer patients as a teenager, to receiving royal honours in his 60s, Graham reflects on a long career helping those who are coming to the end of their life.
“My father developed cancer in 1978. That’s how I became interested in hospice care,” he said. “He had a lot of pain, but when they took him to the St Christopher’s Hospice in London it was like a miracle to us.
“He’d been lying flat on his back for three months because of the pain. The next day, he was sitting up in a wheelchair.
“Within a few weeks he was able to come home again. He lived another year, and the quality of his life after that was so much better.”
Despite the shock of his father’s situation, Graham already had experience of looking after those with terminal cancer.
Visiting Sweden as a young man to see family friends, he found himself working on a ward in Gothenburg hospital.
“I remember a young patient who was dying. She told me that I was the only person in the hospital who had spoken to her, besides ‘do you want this or that pill?’
“That drove home to me that communication is the most important thing. You can have all the drugs in the world, but if somebody doesn’t communicate with you and treat you like a human being then you suffer even more.”
But it was the experience after his mother’s death in a private hospital in 1984 that really spurred Graham into action.
“They had not got a clue how to treat a dying person or their family. The first words spoken to me afterwards were: ‘Shall I call the undertaker?’
“I came from a close family who supported each other. For someone without that, the question would have been so devastating.
“After my mum died, I remember looking out of the window and thinking ‘now I’ve got to do something’.”
With this new, determined attitude Graham established his first charity, the Ellenor Foundation, in 1985.
He was chairman of the board for 20 years, eventually ‘handing over my baby’ to focus on the work in south-eastern Europe. He remains founder and Honorary President today, although he takes no active role.
Since then, ellenor has become one of the largest hospice charities in Kent, and was the organisation behind operations in Romania until 2000, when that part of it took on its independent identity, Hospice of Hope.
And it is Graham’s work in Romania over the last 25 years that has led to him receiving an OBE and the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) – awarded to those who provide extraordinary non-military service in a foreign country.
His relationship with the country began in 1975 when he went as a tourist for a ‘bit of an adventure’. Years later, when the revolution came in 1989 and the regime of Nicolae Ceauescu fell, Graham flew straight over in the chaos to ensure the friends he had made there were safe.
Once out there, he was made aware of the terrible conditions that the terminally ill faced. He asked his friend to take him to a cancer ward in Brasov, the country’s second biggest city, to see for himself.
“There was a young man dying in terrible pain and he told me they had no drugs and he couldn’t get any help. And that sowed a seed in my mind to do what I could to help.
“So we did a bit of research and found that terminally-ill people in Romania were just sent home to die. There was no pain control, no drugs, there was no care at all.”
Back in the UK in 1991, he asked the board at ellenor if he could raise money for Romania, although he adds: “I don’t think they really knew where it was at the time.”
Starting with just a team of one doctor and one nurse in 1992 as part of ellenor, they have now grown into an independent charity who receive the majority of their funds from Romania.
They began by conducting home visits to care for the dying. But they wanted to spread their expertise, and it wasn’t long before they set up an educational centre. It was named after Princess Diana, following Graham’s encounter with her.
“I was really fortunate to meet her,” he said. “She asked me about the problems in Romania and pledged to make a donation. So we named the centre after her. Unfortunately, she died just before it opened.”
The charity grew from there, opening its first hospice in 2002. They had to raise a million pounds, and initially nearly all donations came from the UK.
Graham admits people often question why he has raised money for Romania when the UK has its own problems.
“At the end of the day you can choose what you can support. I felt I had done both with ellenor. There are, of course, a lot of needs in the UK. But I saw the desperation in Romania and that’s what I felt I wanted to do.
“There is just so much need and they didn’t have a hospice movement at all. We provide out there completely free of charge and people are just so grateful.
“We have a truly fantastic health system in the UK. People moan about it, but they have no idea how lucky we are.”
With the second hospice opening in the capital, Bucharest, two years ago and now running at full capacity, the charity is continually looking to expand its operations. Next in line is Belgrade in Serbia.
Now, after 25 years as the head of the charity, Graham is looking to call it a day, enjoying more time gardening and travelling with his wife, Carolyn. However, he insists he still plans to dedicate a few days a week to helping out.
“You learn such a lot from people who are dying. People in Romania have lived the most incredible lives. It’s a real privilege to be able to sit with people and just listen.”
Looking back over the last quarter of a century, he is proud of what the charity has been able to achieve.
“We made this revolution in hospice care. We taught that you don’t treat the disease, you treat the person.”
Hospice of Hope presents Endurance: Shackleton’s Way Story-teller, Rob Caskie, discusses Shackleton’s famous attempt to make the first land crossing over the Antarctic continent over 100 years ago.
Friday November 4, 8am. One Warwick Park.
Tickets: £30 per person to include a full English breakfast. All funds raised will go to Hospice of Hope.