A Christmas Eve companion

Denise is a Marie Curie Companion at Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton, Somerset. She is one of 13 recently trained volunteers who provide support to dying people and their loved ones at the hospital. 

Update: BBC Radio Bristol featured the Marie Curie Companions pilot project on its breakfast show on Sunday 21 December. Visit the BBC website to listen to the interview(begins at 02:24:50). 

On Christmas Eve, I will be volunteering as a Marie Curie Companion at Musgrove Park Hospital. That involves visiting people and supporting their families at the end of the patient’s life, while they are an in-patient in hospital. 

The people we visit people are dying – often a heart or chest related condition, cancer. We also support people who are brought into the emergency department – perhaps they have had a sudden collapse. 

How a companion helps

If they are on their own and able to communicate, I’ll take a seat and ask how they are and whether there is anything they need – for example a drink. And then I strike up a conversation and let them take the lead in what they would like to talk about. 

We might talk about their illness, about how they are that day, ask about their friends and family, about their background or the job they did, where they live. Usually that leads to other topics. 

I usually stay about an hour. One of the volunteers has stayed with a patient for three hours, and they chatted about everything under the sun. We often spend time with people who don’t have any relatives, chatting to them and supporting them emotionally. 

Sometimes patients are very poorly and not able to communicate, so I sit with them. If family are present, again, we ask people how they are and whether they need something to eat or drink, offering to stay with the patient so that they can sit outside or go to the restaurant. It can be a very long day for a husband or wife if it’s just them and their spouse in a side room, especially if the patient is not able to communicate. That’s where a volunteer can help. I can sit with them and talk to them or offer them a break. People don’t want their loved one to be alone when they are dying. 

A satisfying role

Although nursing staff at the hospital want to be there to support patients and their families, it’s impossible for them to do so due to the demands of the job. Being an ex-nurse I know that Christmas Eve is an extremely busy time when there is extra pressure on staff. The Marie Curie Companion volunteers feel that if we can help on the key days over Christmas, we will provide really vital support for nursing staff. 

I enjoy it. That’s a strange thing to say, but it’s very satisfying that you did something to help someone else, and when I walk away I usually feel that I have made a difference to the person or their family at what is a very difficult time.