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Out of my comfort zone: supporting a boy whose mother was dying

How children’s nurse Michelle McKay's training helped her offer reassurance and support

How children’s nurse Michelle McKay's training helped her offer reassurance and support


Picture: iStock

I recently had the experience of supporting a boy whose mother was having her care withdrawn the following day in the intensive care unit (ITU). Being a staff nurse on an acute ward, this was not a situation I had ever previously been in or had even expected to be in.

The ITU team had phoned the children’s hospital to see if there was any specific support available for him. The ward I worked on was not particularly busy and I volunteered to go across to the ITU with one of our paediatric consultants to see if there was anything we could do.

The boy, who was 14, had not left the hospital for three days, and while it was clear that he had been given food and drinks, my initial concern was that he did not appear to have a named adult among the family and friends that was acting in loco parentis.

Meeting his needs

She was a single mum, and there was no second parent present. It also transpired that her son had spent the four weeks before her cardiac arrest acting as her main carer.

When I told him we were making a referral to social services he was visibly shaken – he believed that social services ‘split families up’ and that he was going to be ‘put into care’ – which gave me the further task of reassuring him that the services were there to support him.

‘My lesson from this experience is that when it comes to it our skills and training will kick in’

The other way I was able to meet his needs was to help him go into his mother’s bedspace and be with her. Although he had been at the hospital for three days he had only caught one glimpse of her.

Questions I knew would come

I let him know that we would do this in his own time and at a pace that worked for him. I could see that I would have to lead, so I went to her and spoke in a normal way, starting with the standard nurses greeting of ‘Hello, my name is…’ and then informing her that I had her son with me.

He came closer until he was standing next to the bed and at that point I was able to pull up a chair for him and show him that it was okay to hold her hand if he wanted.

Once we had been sitting there chatting for a while about his favourite football team, school, his friends and so on he started to ask the questions I knew would come. ‘Why does she have a tube in her nose?’ ‘What is that line in her neck?’ ‘How do you know she's comfortable if she can’t talk?’

Acting his age

By explaining to him what each piece of equipment was for, and how her vital signs were a good means of ensuring she was comfortable, he became more relaxed.

When we left the bedside after about 20 minutes he appeared to me to be lighter and more relaxed. I was pleased to see that eventually he started to allow himself to act his age again.

My lesson from this experience is that, when it comes to it, our skills and training will kick in whether we are in our usual place of work with our established networks in place, or in a totally foreign, adult-centric environment. Children are children and we are children’s nurses.


Michelle McKay is a staff nurse. The name of the trust is withheld at her request

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