On Wednesday they told you
that the corner you thought
you were about to turn
was the last one
on the downhill road.
On Thursday you told me
that it was ok,
that you’d always known
it would come.
sooner than expected,
you turned the corner.
Hospice chaplain Andrea Williamson says her work is far from grim. It has enabled her to share some profound moments of intimacy and humour and witness the courage and serenity with which people face death.
Andrea is chaplain at North Haven Hospice in Whangarei. Hospices provide palliative care for people who are terminally ill and their families.
Palliative care may involve active treatment such as surgery or chemotherapy but it is aimed at providing dying people comfort and good function rather than a cure.
Working in a hospice is quite different than working in a hospital, Andrea says. In the hospital death is seen as a failure. In the hospice death is acknowledged, and the goal is to provide a good quality of life.
The medical policy of the hospice is to neither lengthen nor shorten the patient’s life. Pain relief is very important part of treatment. There is inevitably a balance between comfort and the side effects of strong medication."
North Haven has five overnight patient beds and facilities to treat day patients. It has facilities where families and whanau can stay.
"On average people are on our books for months though some are with us for years and some for just their last few days," Andrea says.
"People who are able to remain at home may come in to spend a few days or a week with us, usually to get pain or nausea under control. They may be exhausted, or they are not eating, or their care giver needs a rest. Once they get on top of things, they can go home again."
Andrea says North Haven hospice feels like a holy place and has an atmosphere of peace. The land where it stands has a history of healing. It overlooks a small river valley where local Maori brought wounded warriors to be cared for.
Nevertheless, laughter is frequently heard in the halls of the hospice as patients and staff use humour to carry on and cope with their situation.
"When I visit people in the unit I don’t ask if they want to see a chaplain, I ask if I can sit down for a chat. We may talk about anything – from rugby to whales. This can help form a relationship if more difficult times come.
"I meet people where they are and don’t force spirituality on them. We move into spiritual matters if it is appropriate.
"Sometimes I have a real sense of intimacy at being allowed to know the personal side of people’s lives. I may be a stranger but I enter the inner sanctum of their lives because of the situation.
"They talk about death and what is important in their lives. It can get down to the nitty gritty of meaning, purpose and values. People have to make huge changes as they move from being active and in control to feeling out of control and perhaps grieving that life was not how they thought it would be."
As chaplain Andrea at times leads funerals for people who do not belong to a faith community. She also coordinates remembrance services at the hospice twice a year to acknowledge those who have passed on.
Andrea has found that poetry provides a language that patients and their families as well as hospice volunteers and staff can talk about their experiences. She is collecting poems produced at the hospice and she too has written some.