IN LOTHIAN, Marie Curie nurses work night and day in people’s homes and in the Edinburgh hospice providing hands-on care and vital emotional support.
Last year alone the charity visited 418 people living with a terminal illness in the Lothians at home or in a home setting through the community nursing team. That’s 4,152 visits and over 16,500 community nursing hours across the region.
Liz MacKinnon from Comiston was a district nurse for 33 years before she started as a senior healthcare assistant with Marie Curie two years ago.
A typical shift for Liz is overnight when she is at a family’s home from 10pm until 7am the following morning providing palliative care. She also assists with personal care such as washing, dressing and mobility.
As she approaches retirement this November, Liz reflects on her work with the UK’s leading charity for people with a terminal illness.
“I went into nursing straight from school and trained in Aberdeen, where I’m originally from,” says Liz.
“I came into district nursing in 1980 and was in that for 33 years in total.
“When I was approaching retirement I thought I’m not ready to give everything up and in my role as a district nurse I had lots of contact with the Marie Curie nurses so I got to know them really well.”
An average shift for Liz starts with a call to notify her of her patient. An hour before she starts work, Liz will call ahead to introduce herself.
“I arrive at the house at about 10pm and generally there’s a relative or carer who will run through what the day has been like,” explains Liz.
“Then it’s an introduction to the patient and a chat through their needs.
“Then it’s just a case of doing whatever the patient needs overnight. It could be a little or it could be a lot. They could be very settled and sleep all night or they could be in a lot of pain and have a lot of anxiety.
“The great thing is that I’m exclusively there for them. My nine hours are exclusively for them and with a nurse, for example on a ward, that rarely happens.”
As far as Marie Curie nursing availability allows, the charity likes to ensure continuity for patients.
“We do try to have continuity, particularly if it’s a long-term patient,” says Liz.
“It’s hard for the patient and the relatives if they have to keep repeating the story.
“It’s a real privilege to be involved in somebody’s care in their last months, weeks, days or often hours. I know that relatives appreciate it. You can actually tell that the relatives feel at ease when a Marie Curie nurse comes in.”
After working in general nursing for so many years Liz had to reassess her goals for when she started working with terminally ill patients.
“When I was in general nursing there was the satisfaction that the patients got better,” recalls Liz.
“In Marie Curie, the goal is different. The goal is to have the patient as comfortable as possible.
“Seeing the patient being settled is rewarding. I have often come into patients’ houses and the patient has been restless or anxious.
“At that stage the district nurse comes in to give them medication or an injection and I can then see them being more settled. It’s about seeing them being able to sleep.
“There’s a sense of satisfaction when you drive home in the morning knowing they have been settled and the relatives have had a sleep and are ready to face another day.”
Liz enjoys her work, but says it is never easy seeing patients in pain.
“If there’s a patient who has complex symptoms that are difficult to control like intractable pain, no matter how much pain control they get they don’t get better and it’s really hard to see,” she explains. “Fortunately that doesn’t happen too often.”
At Marie Curie the care provided is as much for the relatives and carers as it is for the patient.
The charity offers bereavement counselling services and in Liz’s role, she finds the family often just want someone to talk to.
“We are there for the family as much as we are there for the patient. It’s holistic care,” says Liz.
“Often the patient is settled and requires very little but the relatives want to talk or they have anxieties and worries. Sometimes you are the only other person they’ve seen all day. Sometimes it’s financial anxieties about how to pay for the funeral.”
Each patient cared for by Marie Curie has different needs and they come to the charity at different stages of their illness, some straight after diagnosis, others towards the end of their lives.
“Each patient is unique and individual and each case is different,” says Liz.
“You don’t ever forget any of your patients really. The ones that do stand out are the ones that touch you personally in a way that you can empathise with them.
“One person I nursed recently was the same age as my youngest daughter. They had quite complex symptoms and had very disturbed nights and it’s hard to watch that.
“In the morning he kissed me on the cheek and said “thank you Liz, I hope to see you again”. Sadly I didn’t see him again.”
Take a trip down memory lane
MARIE Curie is calling on food fans to hold a retro-inspired dinner party in aid of the charity this November.
Inspired by the surge of interest in retro food, Dinner Down Memory Lane, is about holding a dinner party and recreating your favourite nostalgic food.
By inviting friends to make a donation in return for dinner, fundraisers will be helping Marie Curie nurses provide care
and support to people living with a terminal illness and their families.
TO sign up and get your free fundraising pack visit www.mariecurie.org.uk/retronight or call 0800 716 146.
Marie Curie is the UK’s leading charity for people with any terminal illness.
The charity helps people living with a terminal illness and their families make the most of the time they have together by delivering expert hands-on care, emotional support, research and guidance.