When COVID closed the wards to palliative care volunteers, they opted to 'check in and chat'

Volunteer Raewyn Proctor keeps in touch with palliative care patients via phone during the pandemic. Picture: Robert Peet
Volunteer Raewyn Proctor keeps in touch with palliative care patients via phone during the pandemic. Picture: Robert Peet

Raewyn Proctor travelled back to her homeland, New Zealand, to be by her mother's side in the last months of her life.

That time was painful, but precious, and the support of nursing staff and volunteers was priceless.

That's why 12 months ago the 61-year-old from Wollongong decided to volunteer at Port Kembla Hospital's palliative care ward. To lend an ear to those at the end of their lives, and also provide some comfort and support to their loved ones.

And though during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ms Proctor - and the rest of the hospital's 70 volunteers - are not able to enter the hospital, they're still able to connect with patients.

A new initiative, coined Check-in and Chat, means that those who are terminally ill still receive regular phone calls from a volunteer to check on their well-being and just catch up.

"I recently had firsthand experience of being with people who were dying - my mother and a former teacher colleague of mine," Mrs Proctor said.

"So I thought that experience would help me contribute in my community, I thought it would be a worthwhile thing to do."

While on the ward, Mrs Proctor and her fellow volunteers would bake cakes for morning and afternoon tea for the patients; they'd offer a hand or foot massage; do some laundry for those without the support of family; or just simply sit down and talk to them and their loved ones.

"When you're sitting with someone approaching death it's about slowing down to that pace, recognising when they're getting tired, and learning when they're keen to have a chat," she said.

"Sometimes they like to tell you about their lives, some of those pivotal moments. Those things that their family and friends may have heard many times, but they can tell someone new afresh - while reliving those memories at the same time."

When the pandemic struck, volunteers like Mrs Proctor still wanted to help out, and now she makes regular calls to a few people, living out their last days at home with palliative care support.

"Palliative care volunteers are very aware that these people are terminally ill, so it's about making their lives as positive and rich through to the end as we can," she said.

"It's more important than ever at this time, a time where loneliness and isolation can be huge for those who are restricted in their movements anyway because they are sick, or elderly, or immobilised.

"Many thankfully have loving family and friends, but you're just another friendly, caring voice on the end of the line - someone who's not family who can maybe facilitate a different kind of conversation."

Port Kembla Hospital volunteer co-ordinator Cynzia Dei-Cont said volunteers worked in many areas of the hospital, and the benefits they brought were "immeasurable".

"They bring community spirit, community support into the hospital," she said. "They've got the time to sit and listen and bring that extra level of care that healthcare professionals just don't have time to do."

Volunteers get up to 50 hours training, and spend time with a 'buddy' on the ward before starting.

The Check-in and Chat program extends the care to those palliating, or rehabilitating, in their own homes.

"Primarily it's offering emotional support and some reassurance to patients," Ms Dei-Cont said.

"Volunteers can also be our ears on the ground - to let us know if anything is changing that a healthcare professional should know about."

There's a whole range of people who volunteer - from retirees, to those still in part-time work, to university students. "What they all share is a genuine regard and care for people," Ms Dei-Cont said.

And while the feedback from patients is overwhelmingly positive, so too is the experience of volunteers.

"For instance in palliative care, it's not all doom and gloom - there's also light and laughter," Ms Dei-Cont said. "Our volunteers say it's an absolute privilege to be present with patients and families at this very poignant, very special time in life."

This story Palliative care volunteers find a way to conquer COVID first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.