Helen Pointer is part of a team of volunteers at St Catherine’s Hospice in Crawley who have been screening visitors so they can safely visit patients on the ward at a time it matters most. Here Helen shares more about what it’s like to volunteer with the charity during the pandemic.
I volunteer at St Catherine’s Hospice on Wednesday afternoons. I ask visitors questions about their health, COVID-19 symptoms, contact with anyone isolating, travel, and do a temperature check. If it’s all clear and negative I provide them with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and guide them towards the room to see their loved one.
It’s a privilege to be part of this crucial time for visitors to the hospice. I develop quite a connection with the families, and they all have an incredible outlook. To be there at a time when their support is needed the most, offering virtual hugs with their words, is so fulfilling.
The privilege of helping
We’re always here to listen to visitors as we screen them. There’s been a young man staying at the hospice recently and his wife and young children often visit. I heard one of the young children ask their mum, “Will daddy wake up?” It’s so difficult, but I do whatever I can to make things easier. I drew a happy, little face on a mask for them.
I always try to make the screening process as easy as I can for people. We have a chat about the crazy world we’re in at the moment, and how they’re coping. I do a demonstration with the PPE as first-time visitors can be overwhelmed by something so new and invasive.
After months away during the first lockdown it was so good to come back to the hospice and connect with everyone here. I’d really missed the camaraderie of being around people. The receptionists have been absolutely brilliant, giving all the screening volunteers valued guidance and help with the ongoing changes. They’re constantly busy, but always find the time to support us. The Catering Team at the hospice have really looked after us too, offering us cups of tea and cake.
Earlier this year I was very poorly with coronavirus myself, at the same time as Boris Johnson and the Prince of Wales, but I coped far better than I ever would have imagined. The isolation I experienced made me realise the importance of human connection.
I find not being able to hug people difficult, especially when they’re upset. It’s hard that I have to stand back instead of comfort them, but I can still listen and empathise. People always rally and find the strength to pull themselves together, and go back into the wards to the person they love.
I’m used to interacting with hospice patients from my regular volunteer role as an artist drawing “bucket list” caricature portraits. I can’t do them in the usual way at the moment obviously, but I still draw them for patients and their relatives via Zoom. I even do some between visitors. Drawing these is a real joy. We write a list of all the things they have achieved during their lifetime and I draw them – like a reverse bucket list.
Supporting people through grief
In the past when I met patients to draw their portraits, they were often at peace. They’d normally gone through all the stages associated with their illness – denial, anger, distraction and acceptance, but one thing I’ve learnt from doing the visitor screening is that their families often aren’t there yet. They’re having an excruciating wait for the inevitable - they know they can’t put off what’s coming, but they still come back day after day, sometimes week after week, because they know this time is so precious. I often wonder how on earth they remain so buoyant and positive, it must be so hard.
After someone has passed away, people react in different ways. Once when I was on a shift, a husband whose wife had died at the hospice came to talk. He couldn’t come inside, but we stood in the car park socially distanced. He felt he could come back to the hospice and be himself. Sometimes, in the outside world, people avoid someone who is recently bereaved because they don’t know what to say. Here there’s an understanding and a familiarity that’s comforting in those initial days.
My friends often ask me if my role is upsetting, and it can be. People share their emotions and that can stay with me. I always listen, try to distract them for a few moments, and say something comforting.
Every Wednesday, without fail, I’m galvanised by the families and visitors I’ve met that day. I make a lot of decisions on a Wednesday evening now. I think of all the things I’ve put off, I stop grumbling, and I make plans.
I’m ticking things off my bucket list. And now I don’t ever put off the words I should say more often: “thank you and I love you.”
Our Frontline is a partnership between Shout, Samaritans, Mind, Hospice UK and The Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. It offers round-the-clock one-to-one support, by call or text from trained volunteers, plus resources, tips and ideas to look after your mental health. Visit the Our Frontline site
Hospice UK’s Just ‘B’ Counselling & Trauma helpline. The service is a free confidential national helpline available 7 days a week from 8am to 8pm on 0300 030 4434, providing bereavement, trauma and emotional support for all NHS, care sector staff and emergency service workers.