Our special nurses are central to the care St Luke’s provides 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including over the Christmas period. But how does it feel to be providing such essential care at this time of year, and how does Christmas impact their patients and families?
Karen Thorrington is part of the team at our specialist unit at Turnchapel, where we have 12 beds for patients with with complex needs that are proving difficult to manage in other settings.
Karen said: “It’s an extremely special time of year, especially for our patients as for many it will be their last. We try to create as many happy memories as possible as it’s important they get to experience everything they can with the time they have left. We make sure there’s a really jolly atmosphere on the unit. It is bittersweet, but us being happy at work helps our patients and their families. There’s definitely more laughter than tears. We remain sensitive to everyone’s needs, decorating the unit towards the middle of December as too early can be a reminder for many that they may not see Christmas. Around that time, staff can be spotted with tinsel in their hair, wearing Christmas-themed tights – often a talking point!
The best way to describe what we do at Christmas is to give people the gift of time – time to open presents, time for a meal together, time for sharing stories and laughter. There’s nothing more important than time for those who are spending their last days with us. Sometimes we have to make the decision to bring Christmas forward as we did for a patient and her family last year. The catering team provided a fantastic buffet, including special treats for the patient’s grandchildren.
The family brought in their ukuleles and played Christmas carols for hours. There was a real party atmosphere – lots of laughing and singing. It was a very special occasion and she talked about it for days after.”
James Mills is part of the St Luke’s team based at Derriford Hospital. The team offers specialist advice and support for any hospital inpatient with a progressive life limiting illness.
James said: “We provide a palliative care service to the whole hospital seven days a week, including over the Christmas period. We work closely with staff and patients on Brent ward (oncology), who are very good at creating a positive and festive atmosphere. Christmas can be an emotionally charged time for people, and of course this is even more true for patients and families faced with a life limiting illness. There’s an awareness that this might be their last Christmas together. A nurse in our team spoke recently of a patient signing Christmas cards now so her family have one to open from her this year. We also see patients and families bringing their Christmas forward in order to be able to celebrate with loved ones.
Personally, Christmas evokes memories of those I’ve cared for over the past year, those who’ve died and how their families must be feeling during this time. As a team we have a heightened awareness of their situation, and we try to keep a sense of normality and remain upbeat for them.”
Jenny Evans works with our Crisis Team, which provides terminally ill patients with a 72-hour window of specialist care at home, including those in residential and nursing homes, at a time of crisis.
Jenny said: “Working over the Christmas in healthcare feels different to most other professions, as we often miss out on our own family celebrations, which can be sad. This doesn’t compare to the feelings our patients and families are experiencing though. It’s a great privilege to be involved in a patient’s care, particularly at this time of year.
While we can’t change the fact that the person is dying, we can help make it as dignified and comfortable as possible, providing holistic care, as we do all year around. A particular memory that stands out is from 2005, when I spent Christmas Eve helping facilitate a discharge home from hospital. The man was in his early 40s, with children. He was in the last days of life and both he and his family were desperate he should get home.
The patient’s wife was very much in denial of his prognosis, thinking he was going to get better. I spent lots of time with her, giving support. We did manage to get him home late in the evening, and cared for him in his own bed. The night staff then also spent time with him and the family, and managed to gain symptom control. Although he was unresponsive on Christmas Day, he was much more comfortable, which enabled his family to have one last Christmas with him at home. He died peacefully on Boxing Day, surrounded by them. While this was a very tricky situation, it was wonderful we were able to make a difference so that he was with loved ones and able to see the hundreds of decorations his children had made. The house looked like Santa’s grotto!”
Julie Hicks works as part of the St Luke’s at home team, which offers specialist advice, care and support to people with progressive life limiting illnesses in the comfort of their own home.
Julie said: “When someone needs our care at home, it is understandably a difficult time for both them and their loved ones, regardless of the time of year. I’ve noticed though, that in the run-up to Christmas they can be experiencing the strain of extra concerns. Christmas is a special time of celebration, but for some people with life limiting conditions and their families, it can be a time of reflection and great sadness.
Frequently, taking the time to help them make a plan can alleviate some of their anxiety and enable them to focus more on having the best possible Christmas. The Community Team continues to provide the same supportive service whatever the season.”