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Being ‘There’ – Palliative Care

Author: Dr Julia Ambler - Umduduzi, Hospice Care for Children
12 March 2018

A year ago I wrote a blog trying to explain what we do - what do we actually do in palliative care? But still folk are confused so here we go… I quite like this recent definition coming out of the USA.

Palliative care is specialised medical care for people with serious illnesses. This type of care is focused on providing patients with relief from the symptoms, pain, and stress of a serious illness – whatever the diagnosis.

The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family. Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses, and other specialists who work with a patient’s other doctors to provide an extra layer of support. Palliative care is appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness and can be provided together with curative treatment.

So how does this translate into real patients and families?

It has been a tough year so far. We have said good bye to too many children, some whom we had known for years.

Amazingly it’s never quite how or what we expect.

‘Peaceful’ I will call him, was a beautiful child with an exceptionally rare progressive disease. He outlived his prognosis by years – I had almost started to question the diagnosis! Month after month they would attend the palliative care clinic, and he would just lie peacefully in his mother’s arms. He never complained or moaned. Just peaceful. During this time, we helped the mom comes to terms with the fact he wouldn’t survive and supported her emotionally to live with the uncertainty of how that would look. We managed his itchy skin and his chesty cough and helped the mom to decide when to seek medical help. We gave her as much information as we could to help her cope. We found him a pram when he got too heavy to carry. Largely we were just ‘there’, a visit or a call away. He died very suddenly at home a few weeks ago at the age of 5. Since then we have provided the mum with bereavement support and a home visit. That will be ongoing if she wishes.

‘Sunshine’ was a gorgeous girl, full of joy and brightness. She touched every life around her. Despite years of unpleasant symptoms and treatments she always arrived with a smile and usually some sweets for the doctors on call. There was nothing like a sunshine hug to make my day. Sadly ‘sunshine’ had a difficult few months at the end, but again, having known her and the family for many years we were ‘there’; from casual chats to more serious discussions about yet more bad news; getting her assessed and supported when she wasn’t coping at school; allowing her to express her feelings and worries; giving the family options about where she should be when she died; visiting at home to make sure she was comfortable and that the family were coping; answering WhatsApp questions when things felt too much or too confusing.

There have been many more of these amazing children living, surviving and thriving for years with their rare diseases. Sadly dying comes too soon for many. But it is in the way these children and their parents live that they teach us all so much. Palliative care supports that.

So perhaps it is as simple as that. Palliative Care is being ‘there’ whatever that looks like.

To learn more about Umduduzi Hospice, please visit

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