THIRTY years ago Philip and Judith Price walked through the doors of Oxford’s Helen House with their sick daughter, Melissa.
They were the first family to be cared for at the East Oxford hospice – the world’s first children's respite hospice.
Yesterday, on the 30th anniversary of the hospice opening, they were reunited with the team that looked after Melissa, more than 27 years after they last visited – and met one of the families who are currently using the hospice.
Mr Price, 63, said: “It seemed remarkably familiar. “I could find my way around immediately and the atmosphere is exactly the same.”
His wife, 64, said: “It’s a mixed feeling coming back, there is the joy and spirit we found here but there is an emotional side to it.
“I can visualise Melissa here – when I think of Melissa at Helen House it makes me smile.”
Melissa, who had Battens Disease, a rare disorder of the nervous system, was 13 when she first came to the hospice.
The family travelled from their home in Anglesey in North Wales to receive respite care regularly over the next year, and chose to spend Melissa’s last days at the hospice, where she died in October 1983.
Mr Price said he clearly remembered their first visit.
He said: “We didn’t actually know that it was the first day and we didn’t know what to expect, because we had some very bad experiences with respite care – but we were desperate.
“It looked remarkably smart and I remember as clear as day the overpowering thing was the smell of paint and there was actually a guy painting the door.”
The couple described the hospice as “a very happy place”.
At the anniversary yesterday, they were introduced to Jane and Jason Smith, from Bampton, their son Jack, nine, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, and baby Noah, six months.
The family have been coming to the hospice for seven years, and Jack spent a week there to give his parents time to deal with baby Noah’s arrival. Jack and his father feature in a photo exhibition celebrating the hospice’s anniversary.
Mrs Smith, 38, described it as “a lifeline”.
She said: “When you are plodding along and your head’s down and things are getting tough, they are always there.”
She said it was “an honour” to meet the Prices and said: “I was a bit nervous but very eager to meet them and to hear their stories.”
Hospice founder Sister Frances Dominica said when she first came up with the idea she never envisaged it would lead to children’s respite hospices opening all over the world.
She said: “It’s such a very simple idea resulting from my friendship with Helen’s family and a little bit of practical help I was able to offer them.
“It is still that concept of friendship, practical help and of course professional care while always recognising the families know best.
“We are always on a steep learning curve and the care we are asked to give now is without a doubt more complex than it was, with many children surviving longer with very complex needs.
“Today is very special.”
Helen House was the brainchild of Sister Frances Dominica, who was inspired by her experience helping provide respite care for the parents of Helen Worswick.
It was the world’s first respite hospice when it opened in 1982, and was followed in 2004 by Douglas House – the first hospice aimed at young adults aged 16 to 35.
At any one time the hospice cares for more than 300 young people from Oxfordshire and surrounding counties, providing respite, emergency and end-of-life care. Staff also support about 60 bereaved families.
It costs £5m each year to run, with 85 per cent of the money coming from voluntary donations, and also has the fastest-growing charity shop chain in the country with 37 shops.