Monday 17 December 2018

Daffodil Day: 'Ordinary people do extraordinary things to help their loved one die at home'

Bernie Byrne is a cancer support nurse with the Irish Cancer Society night nursing team, Mayo

Bernie Byrne
Bernie Byrne

Bernie Byrne

I STARTED work as a night nurse with the Irish Cancer Society in 2015, after taking early retirement the year before from a cancer-care nursing role.

After 40 years of nursing, I came to my new found freedom with excitement and a re-energised zest for life, enjoying my time in the good company of family and friends, travelling and exploring new hobbies and interests.

As the year went on, I became aware of the need to care for patients again - this got stronger over the months. I missed the bond, the trust and the camaraderie with my patients and I applied to join the Irish Cancer Society night nursing team in Mayo.

This type of nursing was different to the acute setting I had worked in for many years. It is home-based and relies on excellent support from the local palliative care teams, public health workers, GPs and, most importantly, family involvement. It involves everyone working together to do what the patient wishes, as they reach end of life in their own home.

For patients who are suitable for palliative care at home, a night nurse offers one-to-one care, a listening ear, and support for the wider family unit.

Nurses often arrive when the family are frightened, fatigued and heavy-hearted about what may be ahead. Peace and time together are good medicines for an aching heart. A nurse will look out for an appropriate moment to allow a family member to be "the only one in the room" with their loved one. This time is very soothing, and often provides opportunities that allow individuals to speak and heal in the quietness of their home.

Many of those who work as Irish Cancer Society night nurses feel it is a privilege
Many of those who work as Irish Cancer Society night nurses feel it is a privilege

Night nurses are often the link between the living and the dying: as we hold the hand of the dying, we also hold the hand of the grieving family as they prepare to let go of one another. The family have the time to share tales of life before illness and that's when I get a glimpse of this someone who is loved and cherished, who had dreams, hopes and plans.

In the wee hours of the morning, we are the skilled companions to our patients and we listen to their story, for storytelling connects us and we are keepers of that story. In my patients' homes, I often try to see a photograph taken in the fullness of their health - this is the memory I hold, as I find it helps to visualise the person being whole again.

We share the darkness and relate to patients with our touch, our nursing skills and pastoral care. Sometimes we support even beyond that; we are often the first to share in the rawness of a terminal illness and bear witness to the grief and anger that can strip us as humans… but in that nakedness is our humanity and that is the core of nursing.

I know the value and comfort of companionship to the sick, and many nights I have had the company of dogs and cats as they keep silent vigil by their beloved master while maintaining a watchful eye on me, 'the stranger' in their home.

With diversity of cultures and religions in Ireland, I have witnessed many different rituals and customs within families, but have found the common denominator to be love, kindness and an overwhelming desire to do right by their loved one.

Through this work, I have seen ordinary people do extraordinary things to help their loved one die at home. I have witnessed heartbreaking situations and marvelled at the best and most beautiful things in life that have touched my heart, and I have been in the presence of courage, truth, reconciliation and decency.

People often say, 'I could never do your job', but for me, this is no job - this is my privilege.

See www.cancer.ie/daffodilday or text 'Daff' to 50300 to donate €4

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