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The working life of a lay worship leader

Author: Leila Hawkins
11 June 2018

Dianne Core volunteers at York Hospital offering spiritual support to patients at the end of life. A Franciscan tertiary and lay worship leader with the Anglican Church, here she explains what her work involves, the importance of helping patients die with dignity, and the misconceptions people have about spirituality.

“I have worked in the York Hospitals Chaplaincy Team for nearly eight years, particularly with patients nearing the end of life. This has been a natural progression for me. I care very much that all terminally ill patients should have a dignified death. Communication is important if questions are to be answered honestly and compassionately. Pain control is vital, and patients must be made to feel confident and trusting enough to speak openly with their doctors and the whole caring team. If people are given bad news badly, it can completely traumatise them and their family, and sadly the chaplaincy visitor is often given the task of damage limitation. Because of this sad situation I am always campaigning for things to improve.

I do not feel doctors are getting enough training in dealing with end of life. I think even in the enlightened NHS we have there are still young doctors who find it very hard to cope with the fact that there is no cure for the patient in front of them, and they find it very hard to actually tell that patient that this is the end of their journey. Sometimes it is not done with the greatest tact.

There is a lot of fear surrounding that disclosure. The patient is frightened and of course so is the young doctor, especially if it is the first time the doctor has to tell somebody they are going to die.

I get very frustrated because you only have one chance of doing it properly. If you do not, you are compounding the situation and making it even more traumatic. So it is vital that the first contact between doctor and patient is done properly.

I have seen two different situations, one absolutely horrific and one done beautifully. I was sat with a friend of mine who was dying, and it was quite late at night and the man next door unbeknownst to me was also dying. Then a young doctor came into the room and I heard this old man say “what is happening?” and the doctor said “you are dying” and walked off. I ran after her and said, “you would not talk to your mother or father like that if they were dying.”

In the second situation I was on the ward with somebody and I saw a consultant come in and sit down on the patient's bed so his head was level with the patient's.  The man said, “how long have I got?” and the consultant said very gently, “I am so sorry, but I do not think you are going to get to Christmas. You are very poorly, but there is such a lot we can do to help you on your journey. We will help you with your pain, and if there is anything we can do, if there are any questions you or your relatives want to ask me, please tell the sister and I will come back and answer those questions, and have a meeting with your relatives.” Now that is the way to do it.

We have the added problem that hospitals are getting rid of the chaplaincy teams. It is pure finance, and there are various people in high places in different hospitals who do not like the chaplains there and do not feel it is PC. There are a lot of political things going on with chaplains at the moment. I have said categorically that if anybody tries to take our chaplaincy team away in our hospital I will fight them tooth and nail.

People think we arrive on the ward and say we are here, we are Christian, and do not realise it does not matter whether you are Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, or humanist, there are no boundaries or barriers in our work at all. I have probably in my time spoken to more non-Christians than Christians. I had a long conversation with a witch once!  

I think it will be disastrous if we get rid of chaplaincy teams in hospitals. We do all kinds of things to ease the person's anxiety while they are on that journey, and we must try and help them to stop worrying about little things. We are a bridge between grief and support, and we are there to deal with the grief and also point people in the right direction practically, registering the death, helping them to get in touch with the right agencies if there is a problem, getting in touch with the vicars of various churches because they have not seen them for ages, taking communions, letting distant relatives know about the situation, even ringing the RSPCA to home their cat because the owner has died.  

I have had breast cancer and a couple of weeks ago they told me I was clear. Then they rang to say they have had another look and I have to have a biopsy. I have been there, come back and got the T-shirt, in as much as I have had cancer and I might have it again, but we understand, a lot of us have been through really bad illnesses, and we are there for people, whoever they are and whatever they believe in. That needs to be said.  

I will campaign for better dying and for the better handling of end of life till the day I die, because I feel so strongly about it.”

Views are Dianne's and do not reflect those of York Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

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