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End of life care: my experience as a nurse and daughter

Nurse Alison Woods describes her contrasting emotions during her mum's final days
Picture shows Alison Woods with her mother. She describes her contrasting feelings as a nurse and a daughter when called to her mother’s bedside as she lay dying.

Nurse Alison Woods describes her contrasting emotions during her mum's final days

A phone call transported me from a career break abroad with my husband and young family into a state of fear and vulnerability when I heard my mum was seriously ill.

I travelled home to England and was soon within the familiar walls of Warrington Hospital, where I had been born, trained as a nursing student and visited on numerous occasions through mums long illness.

I was aware that other patients and visitors were around, but was unable to contain my emotions

A rerun of our life together played out in my mind like an old film and I felt a sense of panic that this might be the last instalment.

Mum was alert, but unable to talk to me

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Nurse Alison Woods describes her contrasting emotions during her mum's final days

Picture shows Alison Woods with her mother. She describes her contrasting feelings as a nurse and a daughter when called to her mother’s bedside as she lay dying.
Alison Woods with her mother Sheila Burgess

A phone call transported me from a career break abroad with my husband and young family into a state of fear and vulnerability when I heard my mum was seriously ill.

I travelled home to England and was soon within the familiar walls of Warrington Hospital, where I had been born, trained as a nursing student and visited on numerous occasions through mum’s long illness.

‘I was aware that other patients and visitors were around, but was unable to contain my emotions’

A rerun of our life together played out in my mind like an old film and I felt a sense of panic that this might be the last instalment.

Mum was alert, but unable to talk to me

I wasn’t sure what to expect as I opened the curtains around mum’s bed. She was alert, but unable to talk to me.

I was aware that other patients and visitors were around, but was unable to contain my emotions as I wept on mum’s chest and wished that she could envelop me in her arms once again.

It was awkward being in such an open space as there are so many private thoughts and emotions you want the freedom to express.

After a little while the curtains opened and my dad arrived. All of a sudden mum started to have difficulty breathing and was unable to clear her airway well.

I sat her up to no avail – I could see dad looking across anxiously as I called the ward sister. I thought to myself, ‘Please no, don’t let mum die in an open bay gasping for air among nervous onlookers.’ Fortunately, the ward sister was quick to respond, summon the registrar and get mum moved into a side room.

I felt so helpless as an observer rather than a participant

The nurse caring for mum was able to give her some deep suction, which gave her immediate relief – and us too. I felt so helpless as an observer rather than a participant. It was an awfully stressful position to be in.

Soon, a familiar cocktail of palliative care medications was prescribed and at this point I knew there was no turning back. There was a sadness inside me that I was unable to unburden as the nurse patiently explained the purpose of the medications to my dad.

He didn’t grasp the subtle messages and change of linguistics around making mum ‘comfortable’ rather than ‘better’.  I could see how overwhelming it was for him.

Following a restless sleep I returned to the hospital next day. The registrar I had seen earlier confirmed that mum was dying. He suggested that maybe I should let dad slowly see this situation evolve to ease the shock.

‘I needed to be composed to support my dad and draw on my skills as a nurse who had been through many difficult conversations with patients’

Yet I knew my dad. The uncertainty of it all was agonising for him. I had seen this before and was aware that lack of transparency usually led to confusion and mistrust.

The first time that dad saw me as both a nurse and a daughter

Within moments I heard the sound of my dad’s stick coming down the corridor. I suddenly realised I was going to have to tell him that mum was dying. I felt as if I was in a parallel universe. I needed to be composed to support my dad and draw on my skills as a nurse who had been through many difficult conversations with patients.

I know he was grateful for the honesty and sensitivity with which I gave him the news. It was, perhaps, the first time that dad saw me as both a nurse and a daughter.

The family gathered that evening. My brother had asked for the on-call chaplain to come. As someone who is not particularly religious, it was something I had not considered.

The chaplain’s arrival helped us to gather our thoughts and stopped the inevitable hubbub that occurs after the initial upset. He helped us to remember what a good life mum had enjoyed. It felt like a real moment of togetherness, which I hadn’t expected.

Nursing care was a fitting tribute to the kindness mum had shown to others

Mum had been an occupational therapist assistant for 18 years at the hospital where she died. She helped countless people I’ve never even met, and passed away peacefully in the place where she had spent so much of her life.

The nursing care she received felt like a fitting tribute to the kindness she had shown to others. As I exited the ward and turned a corner an advert for Macmillan Cancer Support started to play.

A voiceover of one patient’s testimony of how her Macmillan nurse had helped her drifted down the empty corridor.

It felt like mum’s way of reminding me how important nurses are, and not to extend my career break for too long.

Alison Woods’ learning points from her experience as a daughter and nurse

  1. The importance of privacy – those last conversations are so precious
  2. Talk to patients about pastoral care – it gave us a chance to reflect and come together as a family in a way that might not otherwise have been possible
  3. When caring for someone with a relative who is also a healthcare professional advise them to take a moment alone with their loved one. It will help them focus on their relationship and look past their professional role
  4. Recognise and take pride in the value nurses bring – having confident, calm, skilled professionals around us made mum’s last hours peaceful. It was a huge source of comfort to us

Alison Woods was a Macmillan breast cancer clinical nurse specialist at St George’s Hospital, London. She is currently living in Amsterdam and working as a voluntary clinical reviewer for Breast Cancer Now and is a peer reviewer for Cancer Nursing Practice

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