Helen Pointer is part of a crucial team of volunteers at St Catherine's Hospice, who have been doing visitor screening checks so patients on the ward can still safely see their essential visitors at a time it matters most. Here, Helen shares more about her experience volunteering with the local charity.
"I've been volunteering doing visitor temperature checks and screening at the hospice on Wednesday afternoons. I welcome each visitor and invite them to wash their hands before proceeding with a temperature check and asking a series of questions regarding their health, COVID-19 symptoms, contact with anyone isolating, or a journey from an area in lockdown. If all the above is clear and negative I provide them with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and guide them towards the room for their loved one.
After months away, it's been so good to come back to the hospice and connect with St Catherine's and everyone here. In this role, there's a vital support from the hospice receptionists, and they've been absolutely brilliant. They've given all the screening volunteers valued guidance and help through ongoing changes. They're constantly busy, but always find the time to support us. The Catering Team at the hospice have really looked after us too, offering us cups of tea and cake even though we're sat separately to others.
I really missed the camaraderie of being around people during the first lockdown, and it was palpable coming back to volunteer at the hospice after spending so much time on my own in isolation.
Earlier this year I was very poorly with coronavirus myself. I had it at the same time as Boris and the Prince of Wales! But I coped far better than I ever would have imagined. The isolation I experienced increased my awareness and the importance of human connection.
I'm used to interacting with hospice patients from my time in my normal volunteer role, pre-COVID, as an artist drawing "bucket list" caricature portraits. I can't do them in the usual way at the moment because of COVID-19 but I'm still doing them for patients and relatives via Zoom. I even do some drawings in between visitors.
In the past I've been fortunate to sit with many patients at St Catherine's and draw them and their families. It's a real joy. Now, I'm drawing caricature portraits with patients where we write a list of all the things they have achieved during their lifetime and draw that in - almost like a reverse bucket list.
It's a privilege to be part of this crucial time for the visitors to St Catherine's and instead of meeting just patients as I did before, I'm meeting their families now.
During the time people are visiting the hospice, I develop quite a connection with them, and the families and visitors I meet are so inspiring. They all have an incredible outlook. To be there at the time when they need support the most and offer virtual hugs through words and body language is fulfilling.
Visitors talk to us as we screen them, and we're always there to listen. I treasure this time as a rapport develops over the weeks, and it's all about judging what I can offer someone in the present climate. There's been a young man staying at the hospice recently and his wife and young children often visit. I heard one of the young children ask their Mum, 'Will Daddy wake up?' It's so difficult, but I do whatever I can to make things easier. I drew a happy, little face on one of the masks for the child.
I always try to make the screening process as easy as I can for people. We have a chat about the crazy world we're in at the moment, and how they're coping. I demonstrate the PPE gently as first-time visitors can be distracted, emotional and overwhelmed by something new and invasive.
If someone isn't sure what glove size to take, I always advise them to take the bigger gloves, and I suggest people put hand cream on before they put their gloves on next time. Your hands then feel lovely when you peel the gloves off!
It's about dealing with things realistically and helping people to understand the changes. We get a lot of questions, but everyone appreciates what we're doing to keep them safe.
I find not being able to hug people difficult though, especially when they're upset. It's difficult that I have to stand back, instead of comfort, but I can still listen to people and empathise. People always rally and find the strength to pull themselves together and go back into the wards to the person they love.
In the past when I met patients to draw their caricature portraits, they'd often experienced peace. They'd normally gone through all the stages associated with their illness - denial, anger, distraction and acceptance but one thing I've learnt from doing the visitor screening is that their families often aren't there yet.
They're not at peace - they're having an excruciating wait for the inevitable. They know they can't put off what's coming, but they still come back day after day, sometimes week after week, because they know that the time with their loved one is so precious. I often wonder how on earth they remain so buoyant and positive for the patient. It must be so hard.
After someone has passed away, people obviously react in different ways. There's been the anticipation for such a long time, and sometimes, people have been visiting the hospice for months. Really, their life has been on hold.
One week when I was on shift, a husband whose wife had died at the hospice, came back to do a drive through. He couldn't come inside, but we stood in the car park socially distanced and talked. He felt he could come back to the hospice and be himself. Sometimes in the outside world, people avoid someone recently bereaved because they don't know what to say, but at the hospice there's an understanding and familiarity that's comforting in the initial days and weeks.
It's been so positive helping in this role. My friends often ask me if it's upsetting, and it can be. People do share their emotions and that can stay with me. I always listen, try to distract them for a few moments, and say something comforting. Every Wednesday, without fail, I'm galvanised by the families and visitors I've met that day. I make a lot of decisions on a Wednesday evening now. I think of the all things I've put off; I stop grumbling or coming up with distractions and make plans.
Volunteering at the hospice reminds me not to put anything off in my own life.
I'm ticking off my bucket list. None of us know how we'd react with life changing news.
And now, I don't ever put off the words I should say more often - Thank you and I love you."
If you would like to make a donation to support your local hospice please visit: www.stch.org.uk/donate or call 01293 447361 to donate over the phone. Thank you.