S&C Community Reporter Rosy Bremer interviews Jo Jennings, Centre Manager at Portsmouth’s MS Solent Therapy Centre about how lockdown and Covid-19 has affected the Centre and its community.
Rosy Bremer: What does the MS Solent Therapy Centre do?
Jo Jennings: We help people with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and we support them, so it’s not curing them it’s just helping them through. We’ve got people who’ve been coming for 36 years and then we’ve got new people coming in every week.
We get a whole range of people, mainly we’re here for people with MS and anyone with MS would have priority over those who haven’t. We’ve seen people with cancer or strokes, as well as people with sports injuries, wanting oxygen treatment to speed up healing their injuries. The main treatment we offer is High Dosage Oxygen Therapy. We have a chamber which up to four people can use at any one time. It’s like a diving chamber; we take the air pressure down and by making the air pressure go down, it squashes the red blood cells and makes them more absorbent. You get more oxygen saturation by going into the chamber at pressure than you would if you were getting oxygen therapy at surface level.
How did the closure of the centre during lockdown affect your clients and how did it affect the way you worked for the duration of the lockdown?
It had a huge impact. Normally we’re only closed for Christmas over about six days. Even if clients go on holiday or spend time away from Portsmouth they could go to another centre. We’re part of the National MS therapy centres group, so they could find one near to where they’re going and get their oxygen treatment. In lockdown though we were all closed, and they couldn’t get oxygen treatment and that was that. We’ve got a lot of people who said they managed ok, but now that people are starting to come back, we get people who have really missed it and they come back and say ‘I’m so desperate for oxygen’.
The good thing [in] regards [to] COVID was that I am literally just round the corner [from the Centre] so coming in here every day just to check up on the place wasn’t a problem. We obviously had to close the centre and we did an email out to everybody. We’ve got everyone’s email address and those that we haven’t we send by post just to let them know that the centre would be closed until further notice. It affected them and it affected the financial side of things because all of a sudden there’s no income coming in.
Keeping in touch with people was quite major, to make sure they were alright because we’ve got a lot of clients that live on their own. I made sure that I phoned around, just checked on them and made sure they were ok. We provide vitamin pills as well and they still wanted those, so I went out and about, took the vitamins to their home address and handed them over. I also made sure I was here at the end of the phone if they wanted to talk. We still had new clients contacting us, even though we were closed. They still phoned up and said ‘Oh, my wife would like oxygen’. So I answered all of those enquiries. It made no difference that we said on the website we were closed.
Plus we’ve got tropical fish in the centre and I had to make sure that they were being fed and, obviously I just wanted to keep an eye on the place.
How did people cope without access to oxygen treatment?
We had invested in some oxygen concentrator machines, we’ve got four here which people can use in the centre. That’s the sort of thing I think they were using at the hospitals to treat COVID-19. One of the first things we did was we allowed people to rent them out. We did that for a couple of months. We had over two hundred members at that point, you have to become a member in order to use the oxygen therapy or any of the therapies we offer. Membership is subsidised so if you’ve got MS it’s £20 a year and if you haven’t, it’s £30 which is very good. But we decided we wouldn’t offer the rental service [anymore] because we did have people saying they couldn’t bring the machines back, even though they’re ours and other people needed them.
Did the oxygen supplies for the chamber last through the lockdown?
Normally we get a delivery of oxygen every two weeks which costs about £600. We usually use it all the time but if we don’t use it, it vaporises. We didn’t realise this, that it just disappears if you’re not using it. Luckily we did a lot of checks before we re-opened, tests to make sure everything was working. When we realised we had no oxygen in there whatsoever we got a delivery and sorted all that out.
Has the pandemic had a lasting impact on the services you provide?
There’s very much a community feel to the place so people would come along as a carer or as a family member just to support the person using the centre, if they needed help. So it’s a communal place and it has had an impact because we can’t have people in the communal area, because of social distancing.
We do allow people to wait in the area that we have for carers, but now it’s outside in the courtyard. Everyone’s very good, they’re all saying ‘I’ll wait in the car’, or ‘I’ll come back in a bit’, but we’ve got a lot of people that do need a lot of help, fitting the masks on especially.
We have got protective equipment, we’ve got masks and face shields and everything. [We’ve] introduced a new cleaning regime inside the chamber and out, and it’s quite involved compared to what we used to do. We’ve got the cleaners back now, they’ve only just come back recently. Before that we were doing everything ourselves. They clean the communal areas and we clean the toilets each time a client uses the toilet.
Obviously we’re limited on how many clients we can have inside the [oxygen] chamber and we’ve had to convert some of the therapy rooms into oxygen concentrator treatment rooms. Although most of our clients are coming back now, we’ve got some who are still very scared and just don’t want to come, although they could.
Some of our volunteers have decided not to come back, whether that’s because they’re still shielding or for whatever reason and that has had an impact on our service. We always welcome new volunteers and would be happy to hear from anyone thinking of volunteering.
Is there anything people in Portsmouth can do to support the therapy centre, during the ongoing pandemic?
We are running a bit short of cleaning equipment, because of our enhanced cleaning regime for which we have no extra funding. We have a wish list on our Facebook page and people have been very generous. If anyone does have any wipes or kitchen roll to donate we really would appreciate it.
I would also say that if you are interested in finding out more about the centre, or if you’re interested in oxygen therapy, be it for treatment or wellbeing do please get in contact as there’s nothing we’d love more than showing you round the centre.
The Solent MS Centre is based at Bradbury House, 56 Hewett Road, Portsmouth. You can find out more about them at their website, Facebook and Twitter or by calling the Centre on 023 92 699116 or by emailing info@SolentMSTC.org.uk.
S&C has been awarded funding from the European Journalism Centre Covid-19 Support Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on diverse communities and sectors in Portsmouth:
- voluntary sector, including charities, community groups and social enterprises
- small businesses and self-employed people
- BAME communities
- people with disabilities
We have also been awarded funding from the Public Interest News Foundation Emergency Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on migrants, and asylum seekers and refugees.