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The grief of nursing - 'it never gets easier'

A breast cancer nurse talks about grief and making
Photo: The grief of nursing - 'it never gets easier'
For breast cancer nurse Kerry Patford, the death of any patient is always hard - but the loss of a young mother is especially devastating.

“I particularly struggle - and still do to this day - with young families that are terribly affected. You know that their life is never going to be the same, because their mum has died.”

“It doesn't mean that life is going to be bad, but it's going to be different. For the rest of their lives, those kids are going to miss out on having a mum”, she told HealthTimes.

Ms Patford currently works as a breast cancer nurse specialist and Chief Clincal Leader for the McGrath Foundation.

She said that while the stories of every woman she's cared for have had an impact, there is one memory that will always stay with her.
“I was looking after a lady who had young children and she was being taken away in an ambulance to go down and have some end of life treatment in Melbourne.”

“I was walking down the corridor and I saw her sister and three kids standing by the window and I said, ‘what are you doing out here?’”.

“And they said, ‘our mum is in the ambulance and we're just waving goodbye to mummy'”.

“I said, ‘oh, I think we can do better than that’, and I grabbed the kids and I took them to the ambulance and put them in the back of the ambulance.”

“And that was the last time they saw their mum. And I hope that the kids remember that someone took them to say goodbye to their mum.”

“That’s one of those times when I thought to myself, ‘I've made a difference to those kids' story’”.

Ms Patford said the grief of losing a patient never gets less difficult over time – but that’s the way it should be.

“It never gets easier, and you don’t want it to because if it ever feels like just an everyday part of your job, then I think that you're in the wrong job.”

“Sadness is a human emotion. We don’t want to experience it, but it’s an emotion we all have when we lose someone.”

“For me, at a time when things get pretty ordinary, it's nice to think that you have made it a little bit better. Whether that is by making sure that the patient has their affairs in order, or helping them do something they’ve always wanted to do, and just making sure they can live well.”

Ms Patford said that caring for people against the backdrop of a global pandemic had changed the way that she works – and made the nurse-patient relationship even more important.

“It’s nothing like I ever could have imagined. I work within a rural community, where we're about an hour and a half from the border and a lot of our patients go over the border for treatment.”

“So initially we had to cope with border closures and getting patients to treatments. We were in what was called a border bubble, so patients weren't able to travel freely and often required a permit. But my patients were older and didn’t know how to access a permit.”

“There was always fear about people leaving their houses. I had patients ringing me when they needed blood tests, asking whether it was safe to leave their house.”

“I had one patient who had some wound complications and was coming to me twice a week for her weekly wound treatments.”

“Her son was her carer but he couldn't take any more time off work because he was working in an essential service.”

“So, I had to organize Red Cross transport for her – she would come to me, they would stop at the chemist, and they would go home.”

“And that was the only outing that she would have for the week. I was the only other person, besides the Red Cross driver, who she saw during lockdown.”

“So I had to make the most of that visit for her. I organized books, puzzles, DVDs, and wool for her knitting and everything like that.”

“I made sure that when she came to me, it was her safe spot where she had everything that she needed until she came to see me again the week after. The fear that people had was just enormous.”

Despite all the challenges these last 18 months have brought, Ms Patford loves her work.

To anyone that is thinking about pursuing cancer nursing, her advice is to “grab it with both hands”.

“It's been such a great career for me. I have been able to take it to levels that I never imagined – I’ve been working with national bodies, giving advice, reviewing key documents, working with strategic partners. I never thought I’d be able to do that.”

“I’m also so lucky that I get to work with a fantastic team. It's great to be in an organization like the McGrath Foundation, where you have one goal, which is providing care to everyone that's been directly affected by a breast cancer diagnosis.”

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Charlotte Mitchell

Charlotte is a published journalist and editor, with 10 years of experience in developing high-quality content for national and international publications.

With an academic background in both science and communications, she specialises in medical and science writing. Charlotte is passionate about creating engaging, evidence-based content that equips the community with important information on issues around healthcare, medicine and research.

Over the years, she has partnered with organisations including the Medical Journal of Australia, Cancer Council NSW, Bupa, the Australasian Medical Publishing Company, Dementia Australia, MDA National, pharmaceutical companies, and state and federal government agencies, to produce high-impact news and clinical content  for different audiences.