Living with Cancer: 'Our night nurse was an angel in disguise for our dad and our family'
Caring for a loved one with cancer can be physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting. Having one person to take the weight off makes all the difference
To the uninitiated, Mary Nevin’s job may seem a difficult and even unpleasant one. An Irish Cancer Society night nurse, the 36-year-old from Beaumont, Dublin, sits with cancer patients through the long nights in the final days and weeks of life, providing crucial pain relief, solace and companionship to those facing death, as well as comfort and support to the heartbroken loved ones they will all too soon leave behind.
However, for Nevin, a nurse with 16 years of experience and a clinical nurse tutor at Trinity College, Dublin, the job is hugely rewarding both in terms of the people she meets and the important life lessons she has learned through her duties.
After working for years in the acute cancer care sector, Nevin transferred to the area of palliative care just over a year ago.
“You’re there to provide comfort and support, to manage symptoms and to give advice and support to the family so that the patient can maximise the time he or she has left and has a peaceful transition to death.”
Patients may have been on their cancer journey for as little as eight weeks — or for more than six years, she says.
“There is a lot of bravery in accepting that death is near. It can mean healing personal relationships, sorting out your wishes and maximising the time you have left by having meaningful time with the family, resolving any fractured personal relationships and telling people how much you love them.
“It’s important to say how much we love the people who are close to us, and to forgive wrongs that have been done.”
Offering and asking forgiveness helps people to let go, she explains.
“It’s better for the patient and the family when acceptance is there. I’m always amazed at the amount of healing which can take place in a family in a very short time — sometimes in terms of old feuds which may have lasted 30 years or more.”
Caring at home for somebody in the final stages of cancer can be very challenging as well as rewarding, says Nevin.
“It is a very brave decision to bring a person home. From a physical and emotional perspective it is 24/7,” she says, adding that such a commitment can have financial implications, as an employee may need to take several weeks off work to care for a loved one who is nearing the end of their life.
“Even the logistics of it all can be very difficult,” she reports.
“Such families are very brave. It’s a lovely idea to grant someone’s wish to die at home. About 75pc of people in Ireland want to die at home but only about a quarter of them get their wish granted for various reasons, from the challenge of dealing with the more complex symptoms of the condition to lack of family support or lack of dedicated palliative home care services.
“The ability to die at home is 90pc down to the family.”
Although a dedicated palliative care team will visit daily, she says, the burden of care is on the family, so it can be exhausting for the family.
But it can also have its rewards. June and Elaine Leavey nursed Maurice, June’s husband and Elaine’s dad
at the family home near Newcastle
Co. Dublin, after he became ill with lung cancer in 2008.
Fit as a fiddle all his life, Maurice worked right into his 70s in his plant nursery business. Maurice (75), a father-of-five adult children had been diagnosed with lung cancer in June of that year.
“He’d been ill for some weeks previously with a bad cold he couldn’t shift, and was sent for an X-ray,” recalls Elaine.
“Several tests followed and we got the diagnosis on June 12, which was my mother’s birthday.”
Maurice had chemotherapy and spent a fortnight in hospital, but the treatment was not successful. He decided to come home:
“He wanted to be at home with myself and my mother. We decided to look after him,” recalls the 47-year-old, who took four months off work to help her mother care for Maurice.
“We cared for him at home. It was a pleasure to look after him.”
However Elaine, who works in the insurance industry, admits that she found the going tough.
“I’m not a carer or a nurse, so it was a huge learning curve. We were on duty 24/7 and we took shifts.”
In late September they noticed a change.
“Dad’s mobility [worsened], and he became increasingly ill. The last month was very difficult,” she says, recalling however, that up to shortly before he died her father would enjoy anything up to 10 visitors a day. “He was a very popular man and well liked; a gorgeous person.”
He bore his ordeal with equanimity, she recalls.
“He never once complained. He was wonderful, even as he slowly ebbed away.
On Wednesday October 22, the Irish Cancer Society day nurses, who had been helping the family care for Maurice, informed them that he was “actively dying”, which means his body was steadily shutting down.
The family were told a night nurse would be calling, and at 11pm that night, Irish Cancer Society night nurse Kathy Kileen arrived.
“Kathy rang the bell at 11pm on Wednesday October 22,” Elaine recalls.
“She was with us for just two nights. She was like an angel in disguise. She brought an air of total peace to the house. It felt like you could just hand over control to her and put your complete trust in her.
“I suppose we were exhausted by then, but we were powered by adrenalin as we knew the end was near and we didn’t want to leave him for a moment.
“Kathy was completely in control and there was such an air of serenity; such a feeling of in-control and calmness, that it felt like you could hand over all your worries to her.
“Kathy sat with him through the night. It was like she was nursing her own child. Kathy was the captain of our ship for those two nights. She was a lovely personality.
“She spoke to Dad as if she always knew him, she gently held his hand and mopped his brow.
“She was such a comfort to us to have her there, she sat up all night at Dad’s bedside, holding his hand when we couldn’t, monitoring his breathing quietly, like a mother watching her child. She sat beside us and answered our questions — I’m sure I must have driven her mad with all mine.
“Dad passed away as he had lived, peacefully and gently, at 6.40am on Friday, October 24 2008.
“Kathy was wonderful. She stayed with us as Dad breathed his last beautiful breath.
“She made phone calls for us before she went home and it was sad to see her go, as she had shared a most vulnerable and tragic moment with us. She was now one of us, as far as we were concerned.
“But her job was done here, some other family needed her valuable help and her kindness and, as with Dad, we had to let her go.
“Those two nights with Kathy were unforgettable for the wonderful memories they gave us and for reassuring us that Dad’s passing was going to be as smooth and as easy as it could be.
“My Dad always swore that it takes a very special person to be a nurse, but it takes an extra special person to be a cancer nurse who will help someone die.”
Elaine and Kathy are now good friends who regularly meet for a chat over coffee or lunch.
“Dad’s legacy lives on in a new friend,” observes Elaine.
* See cancer.ie, or call the Cancer Nurseline Freephone on 1800 200 700
How the Irish Cancer Society can help you
If you or someone you know has been affected by cancer, the Irish Cancer Society can help.
At your next hospital appointment, why not visit one of the Irish Cancer Society Daffodil Centres, which are staffed by cancer nurses and trained volunteers who provide both
practical information and emotional support in 13 hospitals across the country.
If you’re undergoing cancer treatment, the organisation can help ease some of the strain of travelling to and from your appointments.
Cancer treatment often involves a good deal of travel for patients and if you’re finding it difficult, you can get help through the ICS Volunteer Driver Service.
If you would prefer to stay at home when you are very ill, an Irish Cancer Society night nurse can stay with you at night time to give you nursing care, practical support and reassurance in your own home.
If you’d like to talk to someone who has been on a similar cancer journey to you, the organisation can arrange that through its Survivor Support programme.
Free professional counselling to help patients cope better with your diagnosis. The counselling service is available through the group’s affiliated cancer support centres across Ireland. ICS is working with these cancer support services around the country to ensure that no matter where you are in Ireland, you’ll have access to support. If you have difficulty coping financially due to your cancer diagnosis you can contact the group, which we may be able to help.
The Irish Cancer Society provides information on entitlements, advice and support in coping with financial hardship caused by having cancer.
* For more information, call the call the Cancer Nurseline Freephone 1800 200 700, open Monday-Thursday from 9am to 6pm and Friday from 9am to 5pm, or go to cancer.ie
Health & Living