Helping to make a difference to patients in their final hours

A West Norfolk nurse is working hard to ensure that patients who are facing death fulfill their final wishes.

Helping a patient to see their beloved pet for one last time or trying to heal a family rift in the final hours of someone’s life are among the ways Heike Schaefer has helped her patients.

Heike is the End of Life Care Facilitator at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital and is hoping to raise the awareness of the importance of people having frank conversations with their loved ones about their preferences and final wishes.

She said: “As a human being we don’t have a choice about how we come into the world but I think we need to have a choice about how we leave it.

“Everyone has preferences of what they would like to happen and if I can help them along with that then I have done my job.

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“Sex used to be a taboo subject but now it is more openly discussed. That is what I would like to happen with patients who are approaching the end of their life. Many patients assume their loved ones know what they want, or are fearful of hurting those they love by talking about death. We can help and support patients to have this discussion.

“People need to think about how they want their end to look like and share it with those closest to them so they know what to expect. It will also give reassurance when the time comes as they know they are acting accordingly.”

Heike has already taken steps to ensure her family will have no doubt as to what her wishes are.

Five years ago, Heike took the decision to create a funeral box, which keeps important documents such as her Will and Legal Power of Attorney in one safe place.

Heike said: “It also has the clothes and a special pair of shoes I wish to wear along with my funeral plan and a list of people who need to be called if someone finds me.

“I made the decision to do this in my previous role as a Specialist Organ Donation Nurse. I had been called to help a number of patients who were younger than me. It made me think and I want to make things easier for my family.”

As the Trust’s End of Life Care Facilitator Heike’s role is vital for patients who are in their final year of life. She works with the medical teams to ensure that patient has a say on their future care along with supporting the patient’s family.

Heike said: “Palliative care is everyone’s business and it is quite easy to make it run smoothly for the patient by having those frank conversations as soon as possible. Sometimes people need a little help with that and I’m happy to provide that.

“I was involved in one case where the husband and wife both acknowledged that they needed to speak about funeral arrangements but were scared to speak to the other person. He had very specific wishes and we were able to pull them together to say it was ok to talk about this.”

When a patient is coming to the end of their lives, medical teams have a duty to communicate, involve and support the dying person and their families. It is also important for an individual plan of care to be produced, which includes food and drink, symptom control, social and spiritual support.

Helping to someone to achieve a “good death” is one of the rewarding aspects of Heike’s job as she helps to meet people’s wishes.

She said: “People often bring in pets for patients to say goodbye to which is important as these animals mean a lot to their owners. On one occasion we helped a lifelong smoker to have his last few cigarettes by wheeling him outside. He was so grateful for that and I think he died happy.

“Once I had a long conversation with a young girl before her death about her make-up and hair as her parents had requested that she had full make-up and hair done. After she had died I was there with the curling irons and make-up. This was an important thing to do as that was part of who this patient was and at that difficult time, it is essential to remember that.”

Heike, who grew up in Germany where death is discussed openly, has been a nurse for 28 years with extensive experience by working in ITU at Addenbrookes  along with a brief stint working in substance misuse.

She said: “I love nursing. From the age of four there was nothing else I wanted to be, apart from a short period of wanting to be a nun!

“I love all the science behind it and knowing how the body works but I’m also fascinated by the art of nursing. I find it interesting the difference a nurse can have on a patient experiencing their worst days or couple of hours. As a nurse, you have an intrinsic ability to make it as good as possible for the patient.”

– If Heike’s story has inspired you then why not join the nursing team at the QEH. We are looking for registered nurses who can make a difference to our patients. For more information contact recruitment@qehkl.nhs.uk

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End of Life Care Facilitator Heike Schaefer is helping terminally ill patients to fulfill their final wishes (Picture: Victoria Fear)

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