On Sunday, January 29th, 2017, my Mum, Marie Woods, died. She died at home, surrounded by her family, masses of fragrant Spring flowers, and so much love it was almost palpable. We were able to experience such a magical time as a family, (we have all said we wouldn’t change anything about it), because our wonderful NHS gave such good end of life care that all we had to worry ourselves about was saying goodbye. We were so lucky.
There is so much negativity about the NHS at the moment that I hope you will allow me to tell you a really good and heartwarming story about the NHS at it’s very, very best.
My Mum was born in rural Kent in 1929. Her father, William Baker, was a stockman, looking after farm animals like pigs and cows; they lived in tied cottages and he went where there was work and the family followed, if they were lucky with all their belongings in a horse and cart, if not, on Shanks’ pony, i.e. on foot.
In 1948 the NHS was born, when Mum was 19 years old. She remembered a time when you paid for your health care and gave the local doctor what you could. In their case this would be a chicken, or home grown vegetables. Her generation always remained in awe and respect of the NHS and troubled it as little as possible. At her birth there was no medical support, just the neighbour. Because, my Mum said, that’s what you did, you looked after each other. The women did the caring.
Fast forward to 2017. My Mum had been diagnosed with a serious heart condition in 2012 and told she had probably just a few months left. That consultant did not know my Mum very well at all. Her motto was never give in. She didn’t and had 4 more years of a good life with ever increasing care from the NHS and unceasing and amazing care/love from my recently retired firefighter husband who became her primary carer while I worked. He took her everywhere; they laughingly described themselves as ‘The Odd Couple’. I can never thank him enough for that.
Last week it became apparent that the end was approaching. As I sat with my Mum in her home I suddenly thought, what if I’m wrong about wanting to keep her at home? Maybe hospital would give her better pain relief? I should have known better because I worked in a busy general hospital for many years; home is usually best if it can be managed. However, for that moment competent, professional 61 and a bit years old me became a scared little girl who was losing her Mum.
I began to let the immediate family know the end was near and my brother arrived. This was Thursday evening. On Friday morning one of her regular nurses, Liz, came. She immediately took in the situation (after hugging me) and said, of course we can keep Marie here. Gently she coaxed Mum into bed and set in train something rather wonderful. Within hours we had all the medicines she would require over the week end and other caring paraphernalia. Liz told us exactly what she would do and when she would do it, while carefully checking that it was what we wanted. She did her usual for Mum and then said she would be back later with Kim, another of my Mum’s regulars, to set up the pain relief. She gently but firmly told me night care would be a good thing and she could arrange this through our local ‘hospice at home’ service, Dorothy House (not part of the NHS as it happens but a charity). They had trained sitters who would arrive at 10pm, leave at 7am and be as helpful or as unobtrusive as we wished. I began to demur, not wanting to waste resources and knowing that we were all up for keeping vigil. Liz said it might not be available straight away and why didn’t we let her sort it anyway as she thought it would be helpful? We did and an hour or so later the hospice phoned and told me the name of our carer, Tammy, and when she would arrive. I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders.
Kim and Liz arrived later that afternoon and set up the pain relief, laughing and smiling with Mum, brushing her hair, and (this nearly broke my heart) moisturising her face and dabbing her wrists with her perfume. They gave so much more than just pain relief and standard nursing care. They told us the twilight nurses (NHS) would arrive that evening and check everything was OK and they gave us numbers to call if we worried about anything at all. Liz was going off for the week end but Kim was on duty and smiling Kim told my Mum she’d see her the next day. This was person centred care at it’s best; they always talked to Mum as if she was in charge, her usual self. By this stage everyone was hugging everyone and the loving atmosphere grew and grew.
Tammy sat with us through that long night. She was everything they said, quiet, unobtrusive and reassuring. She had seen many deaths and knew what to expect. We thought Mum would leave us that night, she was so frail, but we should have known better. She might have had a technically weak heart but she was always so strong. At one point during the vigil we all decided to sing to Mum; me, my brother, John, my husband, Alastair, my daughter, Laura and her fiancé Robert, my son, Feargus and his wife, Heather, formed a little choir around the bed. You might think we sang a gentle lullaby. We didn’t. We launched into some of Mum’s favourites, like Lonnie Donegan’s My Old Man’s a Dustman, (Google it), The Scaffolds Lily the Pink, and the Scottish ballad All for Marie’s Wedding. Tammy said it was a first for her to hear singing, which to be honest rather pleased us.
Throughout Saturday that same level of loving and competent care continued. Tammy was replaced that night by Caroline from Dorothy House and some new twilight nurses arrived, equally as professional and kind as the previous two. Kim was our constant. And in the wee small hours of Sunday Mum gently left this world. It was text book perfect.
Except you can’t teach what these nurses gave us from a text book. It hearkens back to a long tradition of women caring and nursing and it felt we’d come full circle with Mum being brought into this world by the ‘woman next door’ and helped from it by professional nurses who had all the compassion of their forebears.
These are the things they did so perfectly:
- They knocked when they arrived until Mum gave them permission to just come in whenever. Even then they always called out who they were and that they were coming in.
- Mum’s name was not pronounced Marie in the French way, but ‘Mar (rhyming with car) ee’ in the Kent way. Once told, even those who did not know her got it right every time.
- They seem to know that Mum liked giving (she was legendary for offering food and sweets to everyone) and allowed her to give them something back in the form of coffees, teas, and York Fruit Jellies. They made time for the niceties even when they had no time.
- They consulted us in everything but were experienced enough to know sometimes we were beyond decision making.
- They always cleared away after themselves so we didn’t see the old bandages etc, putting them in a bag and thrusting it deep into the bin.
- They arranged Mum so that the tubes and bags were hidden. In fact, they did this so well that the night carer took a few moments to find them!
- They always addressed Mum as if she was conscious and aware.
- When Mum had died, Kim came the next day and asked permission to kiss Mum goodbye. They never took anything for granted.
- They were extraordinarily kind. You cannot really teach kindness, you cannot value it. It is priceless.
Losing Mum is sad for us but part of the circle of life. It’s just sad for us and those who knew her.
Losing the NHS, denying others the possibility of this level of care would be a national tragedy and one from which we would never recover. The NHS is the very best part of us as a nation. The men and women at all levels of the NHS do not work there simply for the money. They are the nation’s caring soul, they are our kind and best self and heaven knows we need kindness. I know a lot of people in different areas of the country would not have had such care; we were so lucky. But shouldn’t that level of care be available as of right? How civilised it is of us to look after our sick without fear or favour? To offer care to people, regardless of status, income or birthplace. Of course, it costs. It is difficult, it’s unwieldy and difficult to manage, but it is so worth saving. Back in 1948 we created something rather wonderful. We must Save the NHS.
I dedicate this post to all those NHS staff who cared for Mum: the Bristol Heart Institute who first diagnosed and then prescribed life saving drugs, the doctors and staff at Hillcrest Surgery Peasedown St John, the village chemist who delivered her medicines to her door in dosette boxes, however late we got her prescription in, the night sitters from Dorothy House, and most of all to the wonderful nurses of Sirona who pulled it all together. Thank you.
Posted on January 31st, 2017 by Jane