Saturday 7 December 2019

'It was the best day of my life': High tea initiative offers relief for terminally-ill

Afternoon tea at Harold's Cross hospice is giving patients a slice of regular life and chance for social interaction, writes Chrissie Russell

Christy O'Neill from Ballyfermot. Photo: Frank McGrath
Christy O'Neill from Ballyfermot. Photo: Frank McGrath
Christy O'Neill from Ballyfermot, pictured with Hospice occupational therapist Jessica Duggan. Photo: Frank McGrath

Chrissie Russell

A t the age of 75, Christy O'Neill decided to try something new. "It was the best day of my life in a long time," he says enthusiastically of his new experience. "Honestly, I'm not exaggerating, it was so funny and so easy and I'm looking forward to the next one." What was this life-affirming event?

Well, it was Christy's first time sampling the delights of a traditional afternoon tea. But what makes his immense enjoyment of tucking into tiny scones and finger sandwiches more remarkable is that it was served to him in a specialist palliative care unit where he is receiving care for terminal cancer.

In April this year, staff at Our Lady's Hospice and Care Services in Harold's Cross, Dublin launched a new initiative, serving afternoon tea every Tuesday to between five and nine patients, depending on who is able to attend.

"Myself, one of the nurse managers on the ward and one of the occupational therapists had been discussing ways we could maybe get people out of their rooms and have a little bit more social interaction," explains specialist palliative care dietician, Yvonne Sayles. "People chat over a cup of tea and bit of cake more than they would in another scenario. It kind of normalises everything."

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Christy O'Neill from Ballyfermot, pictured with Hospice occupational therapist Jessica Duggan. Photo: Frank McGrath
Christy O'Neill from Ballyfermot, pictured with Hospice occupational therapist Jessica Duggan. Photo: Frank McGrath

Remarkably, and with a minimum of investment, they were able to launch the idea just one week after its conception. Staff and well-wishers donated china tea-stands, cups and plates for a dedicated china cabinet as well as tablecloths and serviettes. Volunteers agreed to help with setting up and serving and the catering team got on board.

From the outset, Yvonne and the team wanted there to be a 'wow' effect.

Tea is served in a bright room overlooking the gardens. Beautifully presented stands are laden with colourful macarons, little square cucumber sandwiches, mouthwatering scones with butter, cream and jam all decorated with edible flowers. Favourites that tend to fly off the plates are strawberries dipped in rich dark chocolate and little pots of Nigella Lawson chocolate mousse (there are always mousse options for guests who might have difficulty swallowing) While, in the background Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby favourites play unobtrusively on a record player.

"When people walk in, they kind of light up," says Yvonne. "They maybe don't expect it as something you'd typically see in a specialist palliative care unit - in fact, we've had positive feedback comparing it to what you'd get in a five-star hotel! It gives patients a little bit of normal life, a little bit of a treat to enjoy."

Dietetics in palliative care is in its infancy in Ireland, with just 2.5 posts for those working in specialist palliative care nationally, one of which is held by Yvonne.

From a dietitian's point of view, she's been pleased that one aspect of the afternoon tea's success has been a renewed interest in food for some patients. "A lot of times I would come across people who have a really poor appetite or food has become a bit of an off-putting thing for them and what you find is, when you take them into nice surroundings and a relaxed atmosphere, a bit of music, treat food, tea - that can actually stimulate their appetite a bit and they can start to enjoy the food that they're eating that little bit more.

"I'm not there to monitor what people are eating," she adds. "But I would notice that they are maybe eating a little bit more while they're chatting than what they would have if they were eating alone in their room."

But, although it's harder to quantify, it's clear the impact of the afternoon teas goes far beyond food.

Dublin man Christy was diagnosed with prostate cancer a little over two years ago and has been in and out of the specialist palliative care unit in recent months.

"It's gone into my bones now," he says matter-of-factly about the cancer. "It doesn't bother me, honestly. I've had a good innings, what will be will be."

He was asked if he'd like to come to the afternoon tea and decided to give it a try. "When they said to me to come there was a bit of me wondered would I be out of place, but then I thought 'well, sure I'll find out when I go in," he laughs.

"At this stage of life, you don't expect to be trying new things but I'm up for anything and the fun was unbelievable, it was magical."

What made the afternoon so special for Christy wasn't the food. "It was the company," he explains. "I met a couple of lads there and we'd nothing in common except that the three of us were from Dublin, but we found some common ground and I made great friends."

He continues: "I had worked at Jacobs and one of the lads had worked there as well, he was a van driver while I worked in the factory. One of the other guys was an usher in the picture houses around the city centre and we gave him a bit of stick over that, over who he barred and who it didn't bar! It was funny and I laughed myself silly. I honestly didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did but it was fabulous."

When Christy returned to his home in Ballyfermot, where he lives with one of his two daughters, he promised to make a return trip to the hospice for another catch-up.

"We did two teas and the third was coming up and I was looking forward to it," he says. "The week I came out I went back up to see one of them, because I'd made a promise I would, but he was gone. I went to his funeral and there were people there I knew who didn't know I'd known him from the hospice. It was very, very sad."

Death is, of course, a reality at the specialist palliative care unit. "We have a range of ages here, from 40s up to 80s, people who have advanced cancer, some with neurological conditions such as motor neurone disease, a variety of conditions, but all have the one common feature in that they are life-limiting," says Yvonne.

It is hard to deal with when there's an empty seat at the table, but what stands out for Yvonne is the amount of humour and joy she experiences with patients. The fact that, on different occasions, she has gone into the afternoon tea room to singing and laughter. That attendees who meet over the cake stand then start to call in to each other's rooms and bonds are formed. "People tend to look for joy and find it," she says.

Only patients - not family members (unless a patient's condition specifically requires a family member) - are invited to afternoon tea. "It's about the patients having a shared experience and allowing them to discuss what they're going through, which sometimes they do and sometimes they don't," says Yvonne. "Sometimes it's an opportunity to escape," she smiles, "we actually had to turn the record player off the other week because a sing-song had started up."

"We didn't talk about illnesses at all, that was shoved to one side," says Christy. "The three of us are all close to annihilation - is that the right word to use? - but for a guy that was so close to saying goodbye to have been so upbeat... it was a little bit of an inspiration."

Christy's wife passed away at the hospice nine years ago from stomach cancer, but thanks to the care she was given, his memories of that time are very positive. "She was minded," he says simply. "There was a wonderful nurse, Stephen he was called, and he was the nicest guy I ever met. He would do my wife's nails and hair, and just make her feel special," he pauses. "She would have loved the afternoon teas."

He says his doctor has 'hinted' at how much time he might have left. "But I've told him I don't want to know. I've two daughters and I don't want to be giving them that news; whatever will happen will be."

He chuckles remembering how, when his eldest daughter dropped him off to the last tea, she was peering in the door. "She was outside making terrible faces in at me - she wanted to be in with us!" he laughs, tickled by the memory. "And there was a young nurse sitting with a grin on her face - I think it might have been her idea or she had input - but she didn't want it to end... and neither did I."

Our Lady's Hospice and Care Services in Harold's Cross and Blackrock will hold their annual 'Light Up A Life' fundraiser next Sunday, December 1, with special guest Andrea Corr. See

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