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Sharon Kelly

Our social worker Sharon Kelly’s mum Joyce Wood was cared for at our former site in Shrublands Road 30 years ago this year and Sharon says the care that her mum received made her want to become a social worker specialising in palliative care. “Mum was only at the Hospice for less than 24 hours but what was achieved in those 24 hours is amazing,” she says.

Here Sharon shares her story...

Sharon Kelly

It was April 1989 and my mum had been in Hemel Hempstead Hospital (St Paul’s as it was then) for about a month. She’d been diagnosed with breast cancer four years earlier and had other co-morbidities but the doctors wanted to try to treat her, to find out what was going on and where the cancer had spread to.

In those days the hospital was in old Nissan huts with long corridors and when someone died they put them in a tin box, pulled the curtains and wheeled then down the corridor. My mum said, ‘Take me home, don’t let me die in here - don’t let them put me in one of those boxes.’

I was about 35, married with two small boys and living in Hemel Hempstead. I wasn’t a qualified social worker then but working as a day care social worker working with adults with learning disabilities, but I knew it wasn’t appropriate to keep her there.

She went into heart failure and had kidney failure. There was too much wrong with her and she’d been ill for a while. 

We considered the possibility of her coming home but my family felt it would be too much for our Dad so out of desperation we rang The Hospice of St Francis.

Someone came to the hospital to assess my mum and they said they had a bed available but the hospital doctor wouldn’t agree to the discharge because he didn’t think she was well enough, so we had to sign her out of its care and organise a private ambulance to bring her to the Hospice.

Something in my head just told me it was the right thing to do. It must have been midday or early afternoon by the time she arrived and as soon as she did, she immediately relaxed. They took out the drips and tubes and made her feel comfortable and she just looked so peaceful and calm.

She shared a room with another lady who was sitting having her nails done and it was lovely, but the best thing about it was that all the time she’d been in hospital, only two people were allowed round the bed at any one time - which was hard given that I’m one of eight siblings! 

In hospital we used to go home at night after visiting time and often the phone would ring and it was a nurse calling to  say ‘we don’t think your mum is going to last night’ so I’d go and pick up my dad and we would sit in a hard chair all night without a drink or any reassurance. 

At the Hospice we could visit when we wanted and we took it in turns going in and out of Mum’s room out of respect for the other patient. You could help yourself to tea and coffee. There was also an enormous lounge near enough directly opposite Mums’ room so we could all be there. We were never made to feel we weren’t welcome or that there were too many of us and that was good for Mum and Dad felt comfortable. We all got to say our ‘goodbyes.’ 

I remember Mum squeezing my hands as if in thanks – she was so relaxed she might as well have been at home in her own bed. 

It got to the evening and people were making their way home.  I said to my husband ‘I think I’m going to stay’ and he said ‘you’ve been with her for the last five nights she’s safe. You should come home and have some sleep.’ 

I’ll never forget one of the nurses saying to him ‘If your wife wants to stay it’s important that she stays. We’ll look after her, she’ll be fine.’ 

Looking back I think she knew Mum didn’t have long, so myself and my brother and his wife stayed and we were with her until the early hours of the morning when she drew her last breath. She died at 3:30am with the three of us at her bedside holding her hands. It was lovely, not scary at all and she was so peaceful. 

We let Dad know and he came back with my sister. It sounds quite small and even though it’s 30 years ago I can remember every detail. How your loved ones die stays in the memory of those who live on and to me it’s a very special memory. That whole experience made me want to become a social worker and work in palliative care. 

I thought if I could give back a tiny bit of what we’d experienced, then that’s what I should do and here I am 30 years later...I qualified in 1993 and for seven years I worked in a local authority disabilities team, specialising in children with disabilities - some with palliative care needs, living with life-limiting conditions. 

When Keech Hospice opened in Luton in 2000 I went to work there until 2009. Then my husband and I moved to the Falkland Islands and I worked there for three years.  When we came back in 2012, a friend told me that The Hospice of St Francis was advertising for a social worker. I sent my CV off as soon as we landed and here I am. 

Working at the Hospice has been everything I hoped it would be and more. I became a social worker to make a difference but when I was a statutory social worker I didn’t feel that I made much of a difference because of the limitations in working for a local authority.  But here at The Hospice of St Francis and in the charity sector I truly believe you can make a difference even towards the end of life. It’s about being alongside people and the privilege of being able to support someone at such an important time in their lives.

It’s a privilege to work here in such a supportive organisation providing holistic, psycho-social support to patients and their families and carers - whether that’s practical support within the home, talking about future care planning, giving advice on potential financial support available to them, making wills, paying for a funeral, or looking at lasting power of attorney. 

That nurse who spoke to my husband was spot-on and that’s what this work is all about for me – being alongside people, having an intuitive feel for their needs. 

My mum was only at the Hospice for less than 24 hours but what was achieved in those 24 hours is amazing. 

I miss my mum every day but knowing that she had a good death and that we kept our promise to her not to let her die in hospital, is a great comfort.”

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