14 December 2023
It’s not unusual to be dancing on the ward
Hospices are places to make memories, says deputy ward manager, Leonor.
It’s hard not to believe that it was Leonor Pacheco’s destiny to work at St Christopher’s.
The pieces started falling into place early. It was in Leonor’s teens that she became fully aware of palliative care when her mother took early retirement and started training to be an end of life care volunteer.
“My mum had a lot of bereavements and then would come back from the training talking about Dame Cicely Saunders. She explained how it was all about the person and not the illness and I just thought this was what I wanted to do.”
It wasn’t though until her final year at school in Portugal that Leonor changed her life plans to keep her on that path to where she is now. Having always wanted to be a doctor, she came to the realisation that the closer relationships with patients meant nursing was the right career choice.
Then, in her final year of training she attended a conference with her mother. Leonor was both surprised and delighted that one of the speakers, Dr Ros Taylor, spoke about St Christopher’s.
“It was an amazing presentation and I just turned to my mother and said, ‘I want to work there’.”
Add in the fact that when Leonor was in Year 8 she went on a school trip London and decided then this was to be her future home, and the die was well and truly cast.
When she moved to the UK Leonor initially worked as a Health Care Assistant at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge, while completing English exams. All the time she was there, Leonor was checking the St Christopher’s website for vacancies and as soon as a staff nurse job became available, she applied and was successful.
Four and a half years on, and she’s now a Deputy Ward Manager, doing the job she wanted to do in the place she wanted to work, in the city where she wanted to live.
“I felt so fortunate that I joined the team I did because I felt like I belonged from the beginning – like I was in the right place. They’re like my second family. Straight away I could see what they did, how they did it and the love they gave. At St Christopher’s that’s just how people are and I fall in love with the place over and over again.
“It just struck me immediately how different it is here. We’re free to give care to the person rather than the illness. I actually know the patients’ names, whereas in hospital I just knew them as ‘Bed 10’ or ‘Bed 11’. And that wasn’t the care I wanted to give.”
Being able to make a difference to people at this critical stage of life is what motivates Leonor every single day when she goes to work.
“People don’t die like they do on TV. I like talking to people in advance about what to expect, the journey to their last breath so they know what’s coming and can prepare mentally.
“Often people are very anxious and fearful but they don’t necessarily know what it is they are afraid of. It happens often, especially at night. They don’t know what’s coming and so I ask them if they want to know and I’m always honest with them. It’s reassuring and manages their expectations and empowers family members too.”
Increasing knowledge and raising awareness about death and dying has become something of a mission for Leonor. As well as taking collaborating with St Christopher’s CARE, and with the Community Action team, Leonor also has her own Instagram account dedicated to growing the conversation – @Weonlydieonce_.
“We need people to be thinking about these things way before they come to the hospice. When you’re in a crisis you’re already not thinking straight. The earlier we can have these conversations, the calmer we will feel about death, the less we will worry about it. Then we can take calculated risks and make more informed choices choices.”
Leonor certainly practices what she preaches – having frequent conversations with her family about her own and their wishes for the end of life.
While she likes the fact patients are pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere and range of care on offer at the hospice, Leonor wants this become common knowledge.
“Most people are referred here from busy hospitals and when they arrive they say how quiet it is and they can’t believe all the different things they can do here – like the gym and the physio. They can have their nails done and get a massage. People often imagine it’s a sad dark place, but in fact there’s lots of laughter and it can be a happy place. It’s not necessarily the last place either. Often people come for a short period and then go home.”
And when it comes to taking those calculated risks, Leonor’s recent dancing antics with St Christopher’s patient, Eddie Robinson, is proof positive of their value.
Leonor had got to know Eddie well over his stay on the ward and this included learning about his love of the singer Matt Monro – a singer Leonor now loves too.
“Sort of jokingly one day, almost dancing myself, I asked him if he’d like to dance and told him to pick a song or two,” she explains. “He called me and said he was ready to dance. He asked if we could film it and then we just did it like a spontaneous thing with him using his standing aid.”
The family loved the film and it went viral on social media.
Stretching the ‘calculated risk’ a little further, Leonor then helped Eddie fulfil his dream of having one last dance with his wife, Rita, in style – with prosecco, scones and flowers.
“I took two main messages away from this. Firstly, by getting to know people you learn what’s really important to them and you can then think outside the box and be creative in your care in a risk confident way to make things happen.
“The other main thing I want is for people to know that, actually, this kind of thing happens very often, these moments happen all the time. Hospices are places of opportunity to make memories, not just a place where you go to die.”
Feedback from families, often in the meetings held the day after their relative has died, provides Leonor with further affirmation of the value of the care she and her colleagues provide.
“I love these meetings because we tell each other stories about their loved ones, get to know the person even better and hear how our care impacted their lives and that’s really powerful.
“I also find having these meeting helps us with our grieving process, as in a way we lose them too. We need to allow ourselves to have our hearts broken because it’s such an intimate part of people’s lives that we’re playing a part in. We are part of their lives and they are part of ours. Of course, there are boundaries but sometimes we do cry and that’s ok.”
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