Anyone who has ever lost a loved one will know how difficult these final days and hours can be – but while you want to spend every moment with them, it’s important to get some rest to get you through this very difficult time help.
This is made more difficult when caring for someone at home, as it is natural to worry about leaving the patient alone for even a few minutes, let alone the duration of a good night’s sleep.
However, thanks to the incredible services provided by the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) Night Nurses, families across the country can get a few hours of rest knowing that their loved one is being cared for – and if the situation is any way, they will be notified immediately.
This free service is offered year-round, including during the holiday season, which can be particularly tough for any loved one who is seriously ill or is in danger of life.
Irene Barr has been with ICS since 2021, having previously worked as a teacher before qualifying as a registered nurse and spending several years in palliative care. She has lived in Louth with her husband for 41 years and believes the work she and her colleagues do really matters.
“We care for patients overnight in their own homes, usually but not always at the end of life,” she says. “Families are being offered 10 nights free and we work from 11pm to 7am but we would call the family early in the evening to reassure them that they can call and ask us to come earlier if the patient is concerned or is in pain.
“Once I get inside, I make the patient comfortable and then have a chat with the family about what they want to do — stay up, stay in the room, go to bed — whatever they want to do, I’ll row with them. But families who choose to look after loved ones at home really need support so we encourage them to sleep in as we are only there for 8 hours and they will have an additional 16 hours the day after we leave.
“Sometimes they go straight to bed and I’m always touched when they tell me to make myself comfortable. It’s such a privilege – they don’t know me from Adam and yet they trust me to run their home and that’s very special.”
While the families get some much-needed rest, Irene and her colleagues keep a close eye on the patients, constantly monitoring their breathing and pulse rates and administering medication if necessary – and sometimes the patient is awake and wants to talk. “They may want to talk about what’s ahead or any worries or concerns that they don’t want to upset 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 task, it’s really rewarding to be able to help. “It can be difficult, especially when a patient dies at night — there’s a delicate balance between professionalism and empathy,” she says.
“It can be especially challenging when it’s a young family and young children are losing a parent – but in our role we have to remember that it’s not about us or our feelings. But after I’m done in the morning, I get in the car and after leaving a message for the clinical nurse who will take over the day, I find a station with music and sing the whole time home at the top of my lungs (sometimes a 45 minute drive ), because this is a great stress reliever and balm for the soul.
“I know I’m lucky to go home and get into bed next to my husband and give him a good cuddle – and I think the best part of my job is knowing I’m supporting people through the most difficult time of their lives , even if it just means getting a good night’s sleep so they’re ready to face what lies ahead the next day.”
Jackie O’Shea from Cork can attest to this as she and her family used the ICS Night Service this year when her beloved father Ted Kelleher was in his final days.
“Our father, Ted, was a man of the community and just loved life, his family, traditional music, stage dance and his farm,” she says. “He was diagnosed with cancer in April 2021 and was ill for eight months before dying on January 5, 2022. He was at home when his condition worsened but we didn’t want to let him go to hospital as we knew we would not be able to see him again due to Covid restrictions. So a family member who works in healthcare called and through them we heard about the night nurses – we had never heard of them and didn’t know what they were doing.
“But before we knew it, they had been contacted and a lovely nurse named Rebecca came to our doorstep on December 31st, just a month after our father’s 80th birthday. Words just can’t explain what she did for us. She wasn’t pushy, leaving us alone when we wanted it but guiding 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 spots to apply the cream, how to turn him in the bed and how to comfortably position pillows around him .
I used to love seeing her sit back and look at him to see if he was comfortable. She moved his hands and placed soft materials underneath to avoid getting sore — and spoke softly in his ear, letting him know when she was going to move 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) if either of us needed to talk about Dad — and she always spoke to him that way concern in her voice. It’s really just amazing what they do. Without her there was no way we could have kept him at home as the care would have been just too much and too tiring for us.
“Also, because of the support we’ve had, we only have fond memories of Dad as he wasn’t in pain and was completely comfortable in his own home with his whole family – a night nurse is truly an angel on earth.”
It has been almost a year since the mother of two lost her father and while the holiday season is a particularly difficult one for them, they will always remain grateful for the support they have received during these last precious days.
“Honestly, that was the first time I wasn’t looking forward to Christmas,” she says. “Our whole family used to gather at mum and dad’s to give presents on Christmas Eve and I will always miss seeing him fall asleep on the sofa after dinner. Christmas will never be the same again – it’s so hard.
“But we are really grateful for the care Dad received in his final days. It’s still hard to imagine he’s gone, but we will forever be indebted to our night nurse for looking after him and the rest of us in times of need. We held a fundraiser in November to raise funds for the ICS Night Nurses as we wanted to show everyone in the country that this service is available to anyone in the same position as us. So if anyone needs more information please contact us. I would encourage them to contact ICS or their local community nurse as they offer so much support.”
Night Nurse Irene Barr says they are providing 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 ensure this free service continues by making a donation wherever possible .
“I want people who are considering leaving home to care for their loved ones at the end of their lives to know that this service is available to them – because it’s such a daunting challenge,” she says. “We are able to offer this service thanks to the financial support from Daffodil Day and other calls. These are really important and it’s wonderful to see how generous people are, even during the cost of living crisis we’re going through – so I encourage people to donate when they can.
“During the holiday season, worship can be especially important for families caring for a critically ill loved one as the rest of the world celebrates the joys of the holiday season and it can be a really lonely time for these families. So the ICS Night Nurses are helping by bringing a little comfort and a few hours of rest.”
If you or a loved one need assistance during the holiday season, please contact the toll-free support line on 1800 200 700 or email email@example.com. You can also help support cancer patients and their families this Christmas by donating or visiting the online store at Cancer.ie/Christmas. For more information, see Cancer.ie
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/life-as-a-night-nurse-its-a-privilege-knowing-that-i-am-supporting-people-at-the-most-difficult-time-of-their-life-42243528.html Life as a Night Nurse: ‘It’s a privilege… to know I’m supporting people at the most difficult time in their lives’