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Our last goodbye: How the hospice helped loved-ones

Three families tell Una Brankin of the fantastic care their loved-ones received from the Northern Ireland Hospice as it undergoes a £13m transformation.

It's somewhere that none of us ever wants to have to visit, and yet its reputation as a haven of kindness, care and devotion have earned it a place in the hearts of everyone in Northern Ireland. For around 30 years, the Northern Ireland Hospice has been helping terminally ill patients and their families cope with the difficulties they face, with selflessness and dedication, as they go through one of the most difficult episodes they will ever face. Since the first hospice nurse began work in 1983, and the building itself opened in 1985, the hospice has helped thousands of families through a range of services, not only at its Somerton Road base in north Belfast, but also through its care-at-home programmes.

However, the building is now no longer fit for purpose, and is currently undergoing a massive £13m rebuild, during which period the hospice has temporarily relocated to Whiteabbey Hospital in Newtownabbey. As work – and the fundraising to help to complete the project – continues, we speak to three people about their own experiences of the care that they and their loved-ones received from the hospice.

'My daughter got hospice workers out for Liz and they were fantastic'

Roy Armstrong's wife Elizabeth was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 and died 10 months ago, at the age of 62. Although the family live on the O'Neill Road close to the temporary NI Hospice at Whiteabbey Hospital, Elizabeth received care at home, with support from hospice nurses and Roy himself (66), who gave up his 43-year-career as a milkman to look after her. Elizabeth was a volunteer with the hospice for many years, after her sister Catherine, who also had breast cancer, was cared for at the Somerton Road premises in 2001. He says:

We were able to look after Liz at home, which is what she wanted. Her care was very hit and miss – diabolical sometimes – until the hospice took over. Liz took ill young and had to have a colostomy bag at 24. She had a double mastectomy in 2007 and then they found cancer cells in her ovaries in 2009, which wasn't good news. She was given two to three years to live. She also suffered from diabetes.

We went from scan to scan and she never complained, but last May I noticed she was unsteady on her feet, so I booked a private scan. She got the all-clear from that but the pain was getting worse. I didn't tell the doctor about the private scan so he sent her for another one in the City Hospital but that didn't find anything either. By that stage she was in a wheelchair but I couldn't get anyone to listen to me. The oncologist said she was fine – I couldn't believe they let her go home. She had such bad pain during the night I said to my daughter Sharon 'What are we going to do?'. She phoned a secretary she knew in the Royal and she advised us to get Liz into A&E. They gave her a CT scan and two doctors told us they couldn't find the cancer, and suggested a lumbar puncture.

Two days later I came in and she was sitting at the end of the bed and I just knew something was wrong. The cancer was in the lining of the womb. That night I got a call asking me to take my wife back to the City for more tests. The oncologist gave her six months.

She had tests back and forth and chemo, and when there wasn't room in the cancer ward they looked after her brilliantly in the dialysis ward. Then it was a bit of a farce trying to get her home. She'd had a bag all her life and I had to learn to change it. Sharon got the hospice carers out – they're fantastic people.

Liz still never complained. She had volunteered at the hospice for years. She had a very peaceful death in the end.

I was doing her feeds and slept in a bed beside her. She would have done it for me. She was semi-conscious but could communicate a bit. On the last day she struggled a wee bit but she didn't really suffer.

It's coming up to 10 months and it's very difficult. I try to keep busy and have gone back to work part-time, and we had a memorial cup day at the golf course for her recently. We raised £2,385 for the hospice – and I won the cup. My golf's awful but I found a ball that was lost down a rabbit hole and got extra points. I was looking out for a sign from Liz, and if that wasn't one, I don't know what is!"

'The nurses were very good to mum, I'd do anything for them'

Siobhan McEvoy's mother Frances received palliative care at home from NI Hospice nurses in the months prior to her death in November 2012. A friend of ovarian cancer awareness campaigner Una Crudden, who is currently a patient at the hospice, Frances also had ovarian cancer and was 69 when she died. Siobhan (45), an administrator, lives at home in Andersonstown with her retired father, Sean. She has a sister, Patricia, and brothers, Paul, John and Cahill. She says:

Mum was originally diagnosed with diverticulitis. Then she took really ill in April 2010 – she was in Paris with dad and thought she'd caught some sort of bug – and had to go to the City Hospital. They discovered that an ovarian tumour had burst and attached itself to the bowel, which meant she had to have a colostomy bag and an ileostomy bag for the small intestine. She also had a fistula (abscess) – it was very rough on her and very hard for everyone around her to see her go through that.

It made my sister and I worry about being wrongly diagnosed, so I've had my ovaries and fallopian tube removed, even though I don't have the BRCA gene.

Mum was diagnosed about five months after Una Crudden. They knew each other from the holiday caravans in Waterfoot, as we had one on the same site.

Mum was always healthy. She's stopped smoking ages ago and never complained about feeling sick, so it was a huge shock to find out she had cancer after she had the investigative surgery. We sat there waiting for five hours; then they told us the tumour was too near the aorta to operate on.

She had chemo and radiotherapy but they didn't really help her. The hospice care nurses started coming in September 2012 – she didn't want to go into the hospital or the hospice but they provided a special bed for her and the nurses changed all her drivers and tubes, and gave her the medication. They were lovely, and very good to her, and so helpful.

They told us when it was her time to go.

It was very peaceful ... she got that death rattle on the Friday evening and I remember her saying to the doctor 'I'm disappointed I never got better'. She had never talked about death before, she'd just said 'It's God's will'.

She had great faith and was always going to the Clonard novenas, but she hadn't the energy to go to Lourdes. In the end she just went to sleep.

The hospice made the whole thing easier for us. They were there every morning and gave us respite when we couldn't sit with her. They were very reassuring and great when you needed to talk. The hospice helped us to understand what was going on.

But it's tough. I'm a real home-bird and I lived at home – I could never leave her! When she became ill she said she wanted a new bathroom and kitchen. She got the bathroom but didn't live long enough for the kitchen. She did make it to see her youngest child, Cahill, get married, though, which was important to her.

Because of the great work of the hospice we had a fundraiser for them in the Fruithill Bowling Club and raised £5,500. They do so much good work, I'd do anything for them."

'It's not just a job for them, they really care'

Deirdre O'Neill's father Seamus (64) passed away at the NI Hospice two years ago, just three months after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Prior to becoming ill, Seamus worked as a volunteer in the coffee shop at Somerton House for many years. Deirdre's maternal grandmother Agnes McDonald had also died at Somerton, at the age of 64, in 1988. Since her father's death, Crossgar-based Deirdre (44), who runs the award-winning baby bonding/communication company Sign2Music, has helped raise over £10,000 towards the rebuild of the hospice. She says:

Dad had a bad motorbike accident years ago and suffered terrible nerve damage. He also had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and had to give up his job as a telephone engineer, but after granny died at the hospice in 1988, he volunteered for them. He died in a room just down the corridor from where granny died – it was like stepping back in time when I went to see him and the staff were still brilliant.

Dad and granny were both heavy smokers. We had an awful experience with dad up until he went into the hospice, to be honest. He'd had years of pain even before he was diagnosed with lung cancer in April 2012 and after that he was in constant pain at home, even with the medication.

He previously wasn't seen as a priority and had been told by doctors that it was just a bruised lung or his ribs, but when he lost a lot of weight he was sent for a scan. They told him it was terminal but he didn't let it get him down and kept on living as best he could. He and mum thought he had about a year but I had a feeling ... it was obvious to me he was dying.

Sure enough, three months later he suddenly deteriorated and was screaming in pain and suddenly jumped out of bed – he couldn't move for ages before that. They had a spare bed and took him in at 11 o'clock that morning. As soon as the doctor saw him, he explained the situation was very serious and gave him medication to manage his pain.

Dad went from chatting away in the ambulance to going into semi-consciousness within an hour. He had said he didn't want to go to sleep because he wouldn't wake up but his pain just vanished after the medication. He'd cried in pain before that; every breath was agony for him.

A nurse took us aside and explained what was happening in his body and the process of death, physical and emotional. Then it suddenly dawned on her that she knew dad from the coffee shop and she became quite emotional when it hit her. It was so touching that she remembered him. I remember thinking 'This is not just a job to you; you really care'.

All the staff looked after our emotional needs as well as dad's care. They were there but not there, if you know what I mean. They were so supportive but not intrusive. Dad had been quite friendly with another hospice volunteer, Hazel, and even though she was coming off her shift when he was admitted, she stayed with him until he died at 2.15am the next morning.

It was a very peaceful, dignified, pain-free death. I don't know what we'd have done if he had been at home, screaming in pain. Granny had passed away peacefully too. She was in longer than dad, a couple of weeks, and she loved the hospice. They treated her so well. I've unfortunately seen a lot of people in the family dying and it's not always a case of slipping away with dignity.

One of the most significant aspects of the whole hospice for me was being able to stay with dad for a while after he died. I'd been on holidays and had to rush back that afternoon. I'd been with him for the week before, and when I got back he was semi-conscious. He grabbed my hand and was able to communicate with me when I spoke to him, but when he died I panicked and asked them not to take him away so soon.

And, after they tidied him up and put a T-shirt on him, they allowed me to stay with him until the undertakers came at 1.15pm."

How you can make a donation

Currently based in the grounds of the Whiteabbey hospital in Newtownabbey, NI Hospice still needs to raise £2.3m to complete the rebuild of the adult hospice at Somerton Road in north Belfast, due to open late next year.

They're calling for the public's support for their Buy a Brick fundraising campaign – donors can buy a brick to help rebuild the hospice for £30 (incidentally the cost of a hospice care nurse's home visit). To find out more about the NI Hospice rebuild project, or to make a donation, visit www.buyabrick.org.uk or call the fundraising team on, tel: 028 9078 1836.

When completed, by late 2015, the new hospice will provide 18 modern single en-suite rooms, a physiotherapy and occupational therapy facility, a day hospice, an outpatient clinic and an education and research centre. The plans will also incorporate gardens, a children and relatives area, a sanctuary and a chaplain's room. The building will also be the first purpose built dementia friendly hospice in Northern Ireland.

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