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"There is a very strong feeling that we really are all in this together."

We caught up with one of our Inpatient Unit volunteers Sue, who continues to volunteer at the Hospice during the coronavirus pandemic.

How long have you been volunteering at Thames Hospice and what is your role?

I’ve been volunteering for almost 2 years as a receptionist at the Hospice, mainly on the In Patient Unit. This involves answering the phone, welcoming visitors, taking patients’ menu choices, serving meals, making drinks for patients and visitors. We’re also there to listen to patients and visitors if they want a chat and help in any way we can.

Why do you choose to volunteer for the Hospice?

My mother had Motor Neurone Disease for many years and was cared for by our local Hospice when my father had to go into hospital. As her carer, he was completely exhausted from the relentlessness of having to look after her and the respite care the Hospice provided made such a difference. You could see the stress just falling away and he could be himself for that brief period.

Nothing prepares you for the shock of losing a loved one, even when it’s expected. My parents passed away within 48 hours of each other in 2 different care facilities and during that period there was often no-one on hand for me to sit down with to talk to. Even without realising it, having someone to help process what’s happening who understands what you’re going through can make such a difference. One of the most rewarding parts of the role is that we get to know our patients and their families and are able to be there for them.

Why are you choosing to continue volunteering during the coronavirus pandemic?

Because I want to help; being there really does help the families and takes the pressure off the nursing staff. I know many of our volunteers would love to be here helping but aren’t able to, so those of us that can work are keen to ensure we cover the additional shifts between us.

I’ve always done voluntary work; for me it’s a privilege to help other people, and never more so than now. You really do get back far more than you give. The medical staff have so much to cope with, I’m proud to do anything I can to help. By taking care some of the routine tasks, it enables the medical teams to focus on looking after our patients.

Please tell us how you have felt continuing to volunteer during the coronavirus pandemic?

Slightly anxious, especially at the start of the pandemic when we began taking Covid 19 patients. It’s absolutely right that we fear catching the virus and respect the risk. Its quite challenging, with operating guidelines that are frequently changing and the need to wear PPE, especially in this lovely weather, but as the weeks have gone on, it’s become easier now we’re familiar with the new ways of doing things.

It can also be emotionally challenging managing other people’s fears, and incredibly sad talking on the phone to families and friends who can’t visit loved ones. Inevitably, some conversations do stay with you at the end of a shift. There are obviously times when it can be upsetting and you just need to take a moment, but equally there are many uplifting moments.

The Hospice has such a warm atmosphere, and there’s still room for laughter. Every day we receive gifts and donations for the staff and patients, which really does raise everyone’s spirits and there is a very strong feeling that we really are all in this together.

What have been the key challenges for you during the current situation performing your role?

The main challenge has been adapting how we work to minimise the risk to everyone. You can’t practise social distancing when you’re with patients, so you have to be mindful of all your interactions with other people. Explaining the need for PPE to visitors, who themselves feel fine, can present challenges. Wearing PPE isn’t great, but you soon get used to it.

It’s certainly been more of a roller coaster of emotions during this period. It’s very distressing for families and friends when they can’t be with their loved ones, so we’re using technology such as facetime so they can see and talk to patients. For some people this is a completely new concept so it’s not always easy for either party; I’m having to improve my skills to ensure I point a phone’s camera in the right direction to capture the patient’s face, rather than the ceiling! It’s an indescribable privilege to be able to hold a phone up to a patient so their family can say their goodbyes, and unbelievably moving. There are also wonderfully happy moments, such as enabling a patient to see her new grandchild outside in our gardens.

Overall, it’s been an unforgettable experience that I feel fortunate to have been a part of.

Click here to find out more about volunteering at Thames Hospice.