By Siobhán Holliman, Tuam Herald
NO one wants to have to face a challenge alone. Having someone to lean on,to know there’s someone there when you need them, can drive you forward and help keep life on track.
Homecare is the base from which all of the now extensive range of supports and services of the Galway Hospice grew. Offering care to, initially, cancer patients in their own home was unprecedented in the region but the pioneering efforts of those involved over 20 years ago have led to more than 640 patients being cared for throughout the county last year – all in the comfort and familiarity of their own homes.
Sisters Brid Thompson and Ann Coen of Waterdale, Claregalway, have experienced at first hand the kindness, support and gentle touch of the Hospice Homecare team who have been helping care for their brother Martin O’Brien.
Martin, who worked all his life in the building trade in Ireland and England, is very happy to continue to live in the house where he was born and bred.
“When I was told last November that Martin would not be attending UHG anymore and that the hospice were coming on board, I had no idea of what they were going to do for Martin,” explains Ann.
“They call once a week and are there at the end of the phone if we need them.”
Since Martin was discharged from UHG, Ann and Brid, along with Martin’s brother Padraic O’Brien, are his main carers, but they’re adamant they couldn’t do it without the overwhelming support of the homecare team.
The sisters used to fundraise for Galway Hospice and never thought they’d later be availing of their support.
The team’s biggest fan is Martin himself who can’t praise them and the daycare services in Renmore highly enough.
“I am very thankful to Galway Hospice for all the help they have given me. I attend daycare every week and the homecare team call to my home every week,” says Martin, who is in fine spirits and looks forward to his outings and visits.
The importance of having the homecare team was highlighted especially with Ann and Brid recently when Martin was in extreme pain and was in distress.
“We contacted them and said we needed more help. Martin was very stressed and needed assistance.
“Their response was unbelievable. They arrived at the house and would’t leave until Martin had the medication he needed and was comfortable and happier,” recalls Brid.
“If we didn’t have access to the team we would have had to call an ambulance. They spoke with the GP and arranged everything. It was unbelievable,” adds Ann, who says it’s brilliant to have such reassurance at the end of the phone.
Once a week a member of the homecare team visits Martin to see how he’s doing and if he needs anything or has any discomfort or concern. He looks forward to the visit and also once a week Martin avails of the daycare service at the hospice in Renmore.
There he often enjoys a haircut, chiropody, or aromatherapy as well as a hearty breakfast and lunch. He also chats with staff and people he has met over the past number of months and can also have a check-up if necessary.
Walking into Martin’s home it was easy to see the gratitude he and his sisters have for the work done by the hospice team. While some patients are wary of what the homecare team’s involvement in their lives will be, Martin has embraced it and sees his carers as his friends.
“It would be very difficult if we didn’t have the homecare support. Nothing is ever a problem for them, they are always jolly, in good form and kind. They’re extraordinary people,” concludes Brid.
All the homecare cases throughout the county are different and the assessment of each patient is organised by busy Clinical Nurse Manager Breda King, who is often the first person a family new to hospice will be contacted by.
The homecare team dates back to the early life of Galway Hospice in the 1980s to service a need for patients with cancer illnesses. Demand for the service grew rapidly and this remains the case. Last year the homecare team made 6,325 visits and was involved in the care of some 642 patients.
Galway Hospice is often associated with its in-patient facility and families are unaware of the homecare support until they need it.
There are currently 13 whole time clinical nurse specialists in the homecare team which is supplemented with a social work team and a pastoral care team. Breda explains that palliative care only became a recognised speciality in 1997 and while at first the hospice only cared for cancer patients, this changed in 2008 to extend to other life limiting illnesses.
The team, led by a medical consultant, work very closely with local GPs and the Public Health Nurses who would already have a good relationship with the patient.
Hospice can automatically be associated with death and dying but the palliative care it provides in Galway is very focused on a person’s quality of life rather than dwelling on imminent death.
Breda points out the more and more patients are living longer due to medical advances and support. The Galway homecare team also discharges patients from the service, and this was the case for 70 people last year alone. They and their families had adapted to coping with the illness.
However, the team is always there and Breda says patients do come back, perhaps a number of times, depending on symptoms. “We are bringing the service to them. They never feel abandoned as there is always access to us,” she adds.
The homecare team is a seven-day service that is completely free of charge and relies heavily on fundraising to survive. How many visits and the amount of time spent with a patient all depends on their needs. It can vary from twice a day to once every few weeks.
“It is humbling to meet someone in their home and be allowed in.” says Breda, who feels this is when you get to know the person rather than the patient.
While families are ever-praising of the hospice’s work, Breda stresses that families themselves do a fantastic job.
“Families are excellent. They come back to thank us but really they’ve done it themselves, we have been there to support and guide them,” she remarks.
Increasing demand for the service and resources isn’t the only challenge the team faces, the weather and the geography of a county as large as Galway ca also prove problematic.
Winters of horrific flooding and freezing temperatures with heavy snow have brought difficulties, and the homecare team had to call in the help of the army to ensure they were able to visit their patients on the mainland and the islands.
The distance between places in the county can also be a challenge according to Breda, who is charged with co-ordinating it all.
While the homecare staff meet their patients with an upbeat smile it can be a very tough job emotionally and Breda says not everyone can do homecare nursing.
Just as the hospice provides counselling to family carers, it also offers support to its staff who leave from and return to the hospice each day.
“Self-care is very important. Returning to base is an opportunity for staff to debrief and meet and discuss issues with colleagues. Of course cases effect you.”
Breda has been with Galway Hospice for 17 years and enjoys her work immensely. “Every patient and family is different and that adds to the uniqueness of it. They are getting on with life in the midst of turmoil. To say that we get something from the patients is an understatement. They enrich our lives so much,” she says.
It’s clear that this is a service that thrives and succeeds as a result the support patients and families and the homecare staff offer each other. And, when the illness journey comes to an end the hospice is still there to offer ongoing support to those who remain.