Life as a night nurse: ‘It’s a privilege … knowing that I am supporting people at the most difficult time of their life’
Anyone who has ever lost a loved one will know how hard those final days and hours can be — but while you want to spend every moment with them, getting a little rest is vital to help you through this very difficult time.
his is made harder when someone is being cared for at home, because it is natural to be concerned about leaving the patient alone for even a few minutes, let alone for the duration of a good night’s sleep.
However, thanks to the incredible services offered by the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) night nurses, families all over the country are able to get a couple of hours rest, safe in the knowledge that their loved one is being looked after — and if the situation changes in any way, they will be alerted immediately.
This free service is offered all year round, even during the Christmas period, which can be especially hard for anyone whose loved one is dealing with a serious illness or coming to the end of their life.
Irene Barr has been working with the ICS since 2021, having previously worked as a teacher before training as a nurse and spending several years in palliative care. Living in Louth with her husband of 41 years, she believes the work she and her colleagues do is really important.
“We provide overnight nursing care to patients in their own home, usually, but not always at end of life,” she says. “Families are offered 10 nights free of charge and we work from 11pm until 7am, but we would call the family early on in the evening to reassure them that they can ring to ask us to come earlier if the patient is unsettled or in pain.
“After arriving at the house, I make the patient comfortable and then chat to the family about what they want to do — stay up, stay in the room, go to bed — whatever they want to do, I will row in with it. But families who choose to look after their loved one at home really need support, so we encourage them to have a sleep, as we’re only there for eight hours and they will have another 16 hours in the day after we leave.
“Sometimes they go straight to bed, and I’m always touched when they tell me to make myself at home. It’s such a privilege — they don’t know me from Adam and yet they are trusting me with run of their house, and that is a really special thing.”
While families are getting a much-needed rest, Irene and her colleagues keep a close eye on the patients, constantly monitoring their breathing and pulse rate and giving medication where necessary — and sometimes the patient is awake and wants to talk. “They might want to chat about what is ahead of them, or any worries or concerns that they don’t want to worry or upset family members with,” she says.
The 62-year-old says no two days are the same and while it can be a challenging job, it is really rewarding to be able to help. “It can be difficult, particularly if a patient passes away during the night — there is a delicate balance between being professional and empathising,” she says.
“It can be particularly challenging if it is a young family and involves little children losing a parent — however, in our role, we have to remember that it’s not about us or our feelings. But after I finish in the morning, I get into the car and, after leaving a message for the clinical nurse specialist who will be taking over for the day, I find a station with music and sing at the top of my voice all the way home (sometimes driving for 45 minutes) as this is a great stress reliever and a balm for the soul.
“I know I’m lucky to be going home and getting into bed beside my husband and giving him a good cuddle — and I think that the best thing about my job is knowing that I am supporting people at the most difficult time of their life, even if that just means that they get to have a good night’s sleep so they are ready to face whatever is ahead of them the next day.”
Jackie O’Shea from Cork can attest to this, as she and her family availed of the ICS Night Service this year when her beloved father, Ted Kelleher, was in his final days.
“Our dad Ted was a man of the community and just loved life, his family, trad music, set dancing and his farm,” she says. “He got sick in April 2021 with cancer and was sick for eight months before he died on January 5, 2022. He was at home when he started to deteriorate but we didn’t want to let him go into hospital as we knew we might not have been able to see him again due to Covid restrictions. So, an extended family member who works in the health care system called, and it was through her that we heard of the night nurses — we had never heard of them and didn’t know what they did.
“But before we knew it, they had been contacted and a lovely nurse called Rebecca arrived at our doorstep on December 31, just a month after our dad’s 80th birthday. Words just can’t explain what she did for us. She was non-intrusive, left us alone when we wanted it, but guided us when we needed guidance. She made us all feel involved in caring for Dad, as she showed us what to do — including the right places to apply cream, how to turn him in the bed and how to position pillows comfortably around him.
I used to love seeing her stand back and look at him to see if he seemed comfortable. She used to move his hands and place soft materials under them to avoid sores — and would talk softly into his ear and let him know when she was going be moving him to make him more comfortable.”
“Rebecca watched over Dad while we got some sleep, and she also had a kind ear for all of us (Jackie, her siblings and her mother) when any of us needed to talk about Dad — and she always spoke to him with such care in her voice. It is really just amazing what they do. There is no way we could have kept him at home without her, as the care would have been just too much for us and too exhausting.
“Also, because of the support we got, we have just good memories with Dad as he was in no pain and totally comfortable in his own home with all his family around him — a night nurse is truly an angel on earth.”
It has been almost a year since the mother of two lost her father, and although the Christmas period is particularly difficult for them, they remain ever grateful for the support they were given in those last precious days.
“To be honest, this has been the first time ever that I wasn’t looking forward to Christmas,” she says. “Our whole family has always gathered at Mom and Dad’s house to give presents on Christmas Eve and I will always miss seeing him falling asleep on the sofa after the dinner. Christmas will never be the same again — it’s so hard.
“But we are really grateful for the care Dad got in his final days. It is still hard to imagine that he is gone, but we will forever be indebted to our night nurse for looking after him and the rest of us in our time of need. We held a fundraiser in November to raise funds for the ICS night nurses, as we wanted to highlight to everyone in the country that this service is available to anyone who is in the same position that we were in. So if anyone needs more information, I would encourage them to contact ICS or their local community nurse, as they offer so much support.”
Night nurse Irene Barr says they provide a vital service to people at a very difficult time in their lives, and encourages anyone who needs help to reach out — she also says the public can help to ensure this free service continues by making a donation wherever possible.
“I would like people who are considering looking after their loved ones at home during their end of life to know this service is available to them — because it is such a daunting challenge,” she says. “We can provide this service thanks to the financial support which comes from Daffodil Day and other appeals. These are really important and it’s wonderful to see how generous people are, even during the cost of living crisis we are in — so I would encourage people to make a donation if they can.
“During the Christmas period, the service can be especially important for families looking after a seriously ill loved one as the rest of the world is celebrating the joys of the season and for these families, it can be a really lonely time. So, the ICS night nurses help by bringing a little comfort and a few hours of respite.”
If you or a loved one needs support over the festive period, contact Freephone Support Line on 1800 200 700 or email [email protected] You can also help support cancer patients and their families this Christmas, by making a donation or visiting the online shop at cancer.ie/Christmas. For more information, see cancer.ie
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