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The Night Nurse: Caring for cancer sufferers on Christmas Day is a privilege that helps me appreciate life

The Irish Cancer Society Night Nursing Service provides palliative care to cancer patients at the end of their cancer journey during the night, so they can stay in the comfort of their home, surrounded by the ones they love.

Image: Shutterstock/Ocskay Mark

I WAS ASKED to write a piece about a day in the life of a nurse working over Christmas… in my case it’s a night in the life of a nurse working over Christmas!

Where to start? I started nursing on 7 November 1983 in St James’s Hospital in Dublin and consider myself to be one of the lucky ones who knew what direction I wanted to follow after leaving school and, to be honest, I have never regretted my choice. I qualified in the middle of a recession and after six months gathering experience between ICU and Accident & Emergency, I took off to the UK where I spent almost three years in the world-renowned Stoke Mandeville Hospital, where I undertook a postgraduate course in spinal injuries.

By this time I had met the man of my dreams and followed him out to the Middle East where I spent a very happy six years on a male orthopaedic/spinal injury unit in a military hospital. Throughout those years I had frequently worked on Christmas Day, always as part of a team, complete with Santa hat and attempting to bring festive cheer to my patient’s day.

My husband and I returned to Ireland in early 1995 and our first baby was born in May of that year. I chose to remain at home but when my second child was six months old I really wanted to dip my toes into nursing again. What to do? An agency pointed me in the direction of Irish Cancer Society Night Nursing Service which provides palliative care to cancer patients at the end of their cancer journey during the night, so they can stay in the comfort of their home, surrounded by the ones they love. However, I wasn’t really convinced – after all, my experience was with injured bodies and not really sick people.

I took off tentatively on my first shift, hands shaking on the steering wheel as I followed directions to a lovely, neat little house in Dublin inner city. The door was opened by an elderly man who gave me a warm smile and informed me he thought his wife had passed on a few minutes earlier. A moment of panic hit before my training kicked in and I spent the next few hours in that house attending to the practicalities of calling the GP and the funeral director, preparing the deceased to leave the house and sharing a pot of tea with this kind gentleman as he chatted and reminisced about his wife and the years they spent together. That was September 1997 and I have been hooked ever since.

It is such a privilege to do this job and I don’t mean that in a saintly way. People open their front doors to us and invite us into their homes, they trust us with the care of their loved ones without having ever met us before. When I started working for the Irish Cancer Society, the funding provided three to five nights care per patient, over the years thanks to the generosity of the public on Daffodil Day, we have been able to increase the number of nights to 10. These nights are used in different ways to suit individual requirements.

Sometimes we provide respite to a family when they are struggling with lack of sleep if their loved one is awake a lot at night, and other times we are present for the last few nights as someone slips away in the care of their family and friends. Increasingly, people are choosing to die at home and the Night Nursing Service, in conjunction with the other palliative care services, allows for this to happen, and for patients and their loved ones to feel supported on this journey.

I am on call on Christmas night this year and may very well be preparing to go to work as you read this. My family has grown over the years as I have been in this lovely job. Fortunately, the hours I work, 11pm to 7am have allowed me to continue to blend the job I love so much with raising a family of five. I am able to juggle school runs, after-school activities and running a home so long as I get some good quality sleep.

Luckily I have always been a great sleeper and found that night duty suited me from day one back in St James’ Hospital. I love when the lights dim, and a wakeful patient seizes the opportunity to discuss their feelings or concerns without upsetting or worrying a family member, sometimes it’s just to know someone is there, to hold their hand as they sleep. Other times, it’s a family member or friend who needs me more, when they just need to talk or shed a tear or have a little vent of pent up feelings. Whatever I’m required for, I am so grateful that this lovely job came my way and that I could tailor it around raising my family.

In the beginning I worked just two nights a month and now I can work whenever I like, I can stay with a family to provide continuity. I have cared for a wide span of ages over the years, from a newly born infant to a lady just shy of her 100th birthday, from young mothers fighting an untimely death and children being taken before they have a chance to truly fulfil their potential, to mature people very accepting of their fate.

I worked for six years in Dublin and the surrounding counties of Kildare, Meath, Louth and Wicklow and, following a move to Co Clare in 2003, I now know the highways and byways of Limerick, Clare, Tipperary and parts of Kerry and Galway too. I have never minded working Christmas night, I get  to spend a lovely day with my husband and children, have shared food a plenty and opened gifts together, stretched on the sofa in front of the fire. Going out to someone’s home, to assist at possibly one of the most difficult periods in a family’s journey together helps me appreciate life. We have but one life, this is not a dress rehearsal, live life to the fullest. Nollaig shona daoibh go léir.

Hilary Neville, Irish Cancer Society Night Nurse.

To support the Irish Cancer Society’s free vital services for cancer patients this Christmas, visit www.cancer.ie or Callsave 1850 60 60 60.

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Hilary Neville

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