There were eight months which were probably the most intense of all my working life. October 2012 – May 2013. They were tough! I was working in an infirmary caring for patients with terminal illness. I helped to train a team of volunteers.
We were caring for Abigail, a wonderful woman who was almost one hundred years of age and had been affected by Alzheimer’s disease for the previous ten years. She was a very special lady. The whole care team were absolutely devoted to her, but especially the most experienced of our carers (Penny – who everyone called “Matron”) I must write about both Abigail and Penny.
In October 2012 Abigail started to deteriorate rapidly. The number of patients had doubled in the past few weeks and I was having to train new carers to use equipment they had never seen before. We needed everyone to do extra hours to help with the round the clock support needed. I was with Abigail when she took her last breath.
Then my good friend Catrina came back from Africa with some puzzling symptoms. Less than two months later I was with Catrina as she was taking her last breaths. What a special woman Catrina was! One of my inspirations and role-models:
The morning she died, my manager had received a call to say that not one of the eight male carers I had trained for the past three months was available to assist Arnold, a ninety year old gentleman with Parkinsons disease. So I had to go straight from Katrina to assist Arnold. I was exhausted after being awake all night. But you just had to carry on. There was not time to grieve.
Penny, our most experienced carer had come down with a cold just after Abigail’s death, so she had not been involved with Catrina’s care. We were all concentrating on Catrina so much, none of us had stopped to think about how many days of work Penny had missed. Penny had been sending us text messages to encourage us, because she knew we were in a very demanding situation and that emotions were wrought.
When we lost Catrina, we finally realized something was seriously wrong with Penny. On the day of Catrina’s funeral, our manager had to carry Penny down the stairs from her bedroom and took her in his car straight to hospital. Three months later, we were all around Penny’s hospital bed while she was taking her last breaths. After two hours sleep I had to be be at work ready to help our other patients in the infirmary.
I think the day of Penny’s death was perhaps the longest of my life. I had been with Penny for around twelve hours and had alerted the team that I really thought this was it. You can tell. Her breathing had changed. There was that smell. If you are unfamiliar with being with someone when they slip away, you might find it hard to imagine (you may not want to imagine) but I had seen it before and I was sure she was going. Marta, Suzie and others close to Penny, made the journey into the hospital so that they could say goodbye to Penny.
At around midnight, we had to have a difficult conversation. Penny was still breathing. There was a crowd of us in her room, and most of us had to be up at the crack of dawn to start caring for the other patients we had in our infirmary. Marta was going to be on the late shift the next day. Marta had been devoted to Penny especially since she realized she was ill. We tore ourselves away from the bed and left Penny with Marta and a lifelong friend who had come down from Scotland to be with her. We all knew it was the right thing to do, Penny would have insisted on it, but it was very hard to leave her.
Suzie and I reached our flat after one o’clock in the morning. Penny stopped breathing a couple of hours later and Marta sent us a text message to say that Penny had gone to sleep. Suzie and I had harldy slept a wink but at five o’clock we had to start getting ready to be on the early shift at work. Suzie chose to stay in the main infirmary dining room with most of the residents of the infirmary and the night carers.
I had to go to be with Arnold and his wife. Arnold was especially disorientated in the morning and often had physical challenges. His wife found it very difficult and on entering their room, normally for the first half an hour Arnold’s wife would be offloading all of her stresses to is as we tried to help Arnold. I was not in the mood that morning I have to admit. Before she could wear me down any further, I mentioned to her that Penny had passed away. She was genuinely sad. She loved Penny. The two of us sat on the sofa holding hands and Arnold slept quietly. Then when Arnold woke up I started helping him.
I had to work all day. There were initially some hugs and tears together. But there was also a lot of upset because some of the infirmary team had clashed with Penny and were not as close to her. I think they felt a little guilt, I don’t know. But now they seemed to be a bit brutal about the loss of Penny. Some of the carers were upset that they had not been able to get to hospital to say goodbye. They seemed annoyed with me for not sending individual text messages to everyone of them. I had texted our infirmary managers and Marta and Suzie because they were my flatmates and had worked with Penny for years. There was a lot of work to do, and I had the feeling that noone was going to let us grieve that day.
I remember having to go down to the main kitchen with another carer, Lucia, who had been very close to Penny. (There were five of us who were known as Penny’s girls: Lucia, Milagros, Marta, Suzie and me.) Lucia and I were greeted by the boys in the kitchen with joking and teasing. We were not in the mood! They asked us: “what was the matter? why were we so glum?” One of the boys even asked “has someone died or something?” Lucia’s eyes filled with tears. I was shocked. I quietly explained that Penny had died during the night. The boys reaction was “who was Penny? was she one of the older ladies in the infirmary?” I was really shocked. Until just two months before, Penny had regularly gone down to the kitchen to obtain the food for the infirmary lunch just as Lucia and I were doing. In fact Penny had been doing that as part of her assignment as a full-time volunteer in the infirmary for over thirty years.
That day was hard because the five of us girls, Penny’s girls, were heart-broken. But that particular day was long and cold and hard. And strangely even some of those who had worked with Penny seemed to be saying to us “life goes on”, just a few hours after we had lost our wonderful friend. You know all of those awful phrases that you are never ever supposed to say to someone who is grieving…we heard all of them that day and for the next few days. It was sickening.
It marked the end of an era in many ways. I can’t explain all of the changes after we lost Penny right now; there were many changes. But fortunately, the directors of the charities we worked for had taken an interest in us, and saw that we were under intense emotional pressure and physical demands. So they tried to lighten the load for us, by diversifying our assignment and bringing more carers into the infirmary for us to train.
Aaaaaaaah! Those were some of the most demanding and heart-breaking months of my working life. Long hours, sleepless nights, repressing our grief, and of course none of us were being paid a penny for our work. For a while I felt as if we were expected to work like machines and not to allow any emotions to slow us down. There was always work to do, always other people to help. I did feel I was stretched almost to breaking point. I think that day when we had just lost our beloved Penny was probably the longest day of my life. Somehow, the heart of the infirmary had grown cold and stopped beating. It was not the same after losing Penny and we all knew it. The warm family environment that Penny had established disintegrated somewhat. We were glad of being sent on other assignments, but often we were working on our own in isolated locations…and that was a stark contrast to having close colleagues who were like family.
Just after we lost Penny, Jack moved into the flat I was living in and started to play strange games with me. Maybe if I had not been so exhausted emotionally I would have been able to cope better with Jack.