When Gina Vallis’s grandmother Josephine Vallis died in May from congestive heart failure, it was a difficult time for herself and her family.
© Brodie Thomas photo
Nurse Marina Parsons stands in Room 120 at the LeGrow Health Centre. The room was designed with palliative care in mind and aims to provide a comfortable atmosphere for the dying and their families.
But the atmosphere and services provided to Josephine in the last days of her life had such a positive influence on Ms. Vallis, she felt compelled to tell others about it.
“As heartbreaking as the situation was, I walked away with a respect for health care and the professionals who spend their lives dedicated to it,” she said. “I cannot believe the compassion and respect that we were shown on the three days we spent in Room 120.”
Room 120 is officially just another room at the LeGrow Health Centre in Port aux Basques, but it is often used for palliative care the term for care provided at the end of life. Not every patient put in the room is there to receive palliative care, nor is every palliative care patient placed in that room. But ideally, it is where hospital staff aim to place palliative care patients.
The large, comfortable room was designed with both patients and families in mind. There is a leather sofa set and TV with end tables. A small kitchenette sits behind closet doors. The bathroom has a stall shower for loved ones.
Ms. Vallis said it was at first difficult to accept the news that her grandmother was dying.
“That day was an emotional one for us as a family. We then knew that there was nothing left to be done to keep the person who we all loved so dearly alive. It hit us that she was never going to get better or get to leave the hospital and return home.”
However once it was accepted that her grandmother would be receiving palliative care, Ms. Vallis said the staff did many things to help both Josephine and the family members present.
On the second day, Josephine requested a visit from a clergy member. Ms. Vallis said Rev. Hannah Dicks provided communion to her grandmother.
“This act, which seemed so insignificant to me at the time, had a deep impact on my grandmother’s mood for the rest of the day,” she said. “She was at peace - complete inner peace. I then in turn felt peace. She was going to be taken away from us, but like they say, she was going to a better place.”
While being with a dying loved one was a new experience for Ms. Vallis, she said the doctors and nurses had seen it many times before and they had helpful advice and suggestions.
She said the most important advice came on the final day when her grandmother was not awake, but seemed to be holding on to life. She said a nurse suggested all family members say their goodbyes and tell Josephine it was OK to let go. They took the advice and within the next couple of hours she passed away.
Nurse Marina Parsons said palliative care is all about accepting the fact that death is part of the life cycle. She said once a patient and family members accept that a love one cannot be healed, there are many things that can be done to make a patient comfortable.
Mrs. Parsons is not a full time palliative care nurse because technically there is no palliative care unit at the LeGrow Health Centre. However, when the need arises she does assist with dying patients and their families.
She can remember a time when there was no palliative care, but now she sees it as an important part of the health care services provided at the LeGrow Health Centre.
She said the large room makes families and patients more comfortable.
“The idea is for the family to stay and participate in the care.”
While every death is different, there are similarities and patterns which nurses and doctors are knowledgeable about. The staff have three pamphlets about the dying process which they provide to loved ones. One is specifically about how many people stop eating in their final days.
“Some family members will try and get their loved one to eat or drink,” said Mrs. Parsons. “Our literature about the process explains that food is not always needed at the end of life.”
She said once a family member understands that the lack of appetite and thirst is part of the process of dying, they stop stressing over the fact their loved one has stopped eating.
Mrs. Parsons said pain control is an important part of palliative care. Doctors may also provide medication to prevent the sound of the death rattle.
For Mrs. Parsons, the most important thing about palliative care is acceptance. She has seen patients and families who are in denial until the very end. She said it makes for a much more stressful time.
“When people accept they are dying, and when you take the approach to make it comfortable, the experience does become a better one.”
Ms. Vallis couldn’t agree more.
“I decided I wanted to share my experience not because it is a negative story, but because of the complete opposite: it’s positive.”