Overcoming the fear of death at the end of life - from the perspective of a palliative care nurse

Palliative care is so much more than dying. It is a privilege to be with someone at the end of their life.

The natural human response to death is distress, with many patients, family, and friends struggling to understand a terminal illness and come to be at peace with it. 

This International Nurses Day, Friday 12 May, Mercy Hospice is calling attention to a looming crisis due to an acute shortage of palliative care nurses, one the organisation says threatens the provision of free palliative care in New Zealand.

Collette Parr-Owens, Head of Nursing and Clinical Services at Mercy Hospice, leads a team of empathic nurses who support hundreds of New Zealanders and their loved ones through their final days of life. She says that, while nurses are the backbone of the country’s healthcare system, palliative care nurses are often overlooked.

“This International Nurses Day, we are specifically shining a light on palliative care and the powerful journey these nurses go through with their patients to see out their end of life.”  

‘Moving’ is one way Collette describes a day in the life of a palliative care nurse. “Each patient and their story affect our nurses in different ways. Nurses are able to build compassionate relationships with patients, families and whānau which brings about connection and satisfaction, and that is what is so beautiful and powerful about the job,” she says.   

Palliative care nurses at Mercy Hospice describe their job as a ‘privilege’ to be with someone at the end of their life.

“A palliative care nurse makes a person’s end of life experience the best it can be,” says Collette.

Being a palliative care nurse is more than caring for just the patient, they are also caring for families and whānau. They are with patients during their final days of life, helping someone through their palliative illness needs, so friends, families and whānau can focus on being with their loved one.

“Some people don’t know anything about dying, so our nurses can explain this process to them, and put them at ease,” says Collette.

“We are looking after family and whānau, and their interests and wellbeing; our palliative care nurses provide reassurance, answer questions, and support incredibly distressed people during a traumatic time in their life and turn it around,” she says.

A terminal illness can naturally leave patients and their families and whānau scared and frightened.

“Our nurses start by speaking with them, answering their questions, and explaining what will happen, they also provide care and support including managing their patients’ symptoms such as pain. This is able to make a real difference to everyone’s journey,” she says.

“There is a specialism and expertise that is required caring for someone at the end of life. It isn’t something everyone knows. This is a truly purposeful career and one we would strongly encourage nurses to explore.”

With over 300 patients on our service at any given time and an ageing population in New Zealand, there is a pressing need for palliative care nurses.

“Most of our patients are in the community and as their condition deteriorates, care and support from nurses becomes more frequent,” says Collette.

Mercy Hospice is in demand for both the Inpatient Unit (IPU) and Community Palliative Care Unit (CPC) teams.

“There is currently pressure within the nursing workforce across Aotearoa. We are short of staff created through vacant nursing positions, and this is the reality for our team right now as we see many nurses heading overseas or choosing other career options,” she says.

Mercy Hospice takes graduate nurses, qualified nurses, and those on placement during their studies. It takes a special type of person to be a palliative care nurse, to ensure each patient that is under care with a terminal illness has a good death.

Collette says it is an honour to be with someone during their final days of life and ensure it is a peaceful and beautiful experience, and a palliative care nurse can do this.

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