The night nurse service was our family’s lifeline

The Irish Cancer Society Night Nurse Service offered huge support to the family of Gerry Hanley, who died aged 42 of cancer, writes CHRIS DUNNE
The night nurse service was our family’s lifeline
Gerry Hanley, who died aged 42.

MUM of three Julie Walsh never expected to be a widow at the age of 41. She never expected her husband of 15 years, Gerry Hanley, to die in his prime.

Julie never expected to be a single parent of three young children when they lost their beloved dad.

“Gerry will be eight years dead this March,” says the mum, who lives in Cobh.

“He was 42. When he passed away from pancreatic cancer, the children were aged seven, four, and one and a half. You have to get on with it, continue with life, when you have three children to rear.”

Gerry’s tragic death was made that bit more bearable with the support of the Night Nurse Service, the Irish Cancer Society and the Mercy Hospital staff and social workers.

“Our friends and family were a huge support to us as well,” says Julie. “The Night Nurse Service was like a lifeline.

“When someone chooses to die at home, your house becomes the hospital, but without the 24 hour medical professionals — and as a main carer, you become all things to all people; as you can imagine, it is an incredibly stressful time,” says Julie.

“It was during this time that I first heard of the Night Nurse Service.

“Aside from the obvious medical reassurance that this service brings to a family that is coping with a terminally ill member, whose death is only days or hours away, the nurses bring with them a support that cannot really be measured,” says Julie.

“Anyone who has been through a time nursing a family member at home will know the stresses it brings.”

Death can be a lonely station.

“It is a lonely place at night when all the visitors, doctors, palliative care team and family have finished calling and you are left in the house with the person you love whose time is finite,” says Julie.

“Whether the nurse becomes almost another member of the household, or just sits in the kitchen and reads a book; those hours from 11pm until 7am, are a lifeline to the carer.”

Gerry’s wish was to die at home, where he was happiest, surrounded by everyone and everything that was familiar. He had one other option in mind though.

“Gerry kept his humour throughout,” says Julie with a smile.

“He said he actually wanted to die in a hotel in Paris. It was a dream that he had. He must have thought he was Jim Morrison!

“As Paris was out of the question, Gerry decided he wanted to die at home.”

There were two things that he decided he didn’t want.

Julie said: “He didn’t want to go into Marymount Hospice or he didn’t want to be covered in tubes.”

But let’s go back to the beginning of their journey together. Julie met the good-humoured Gerry while she was holidaying with cousins in Cobh.

“Those summers were special,” says Julie, who is originally from Manchester.

When the couple married, they settled in Cobh, the town they loved so well and the town where they fell in love.

“Gerry was happy-go-lucky and healthy, he was a keen rugby fan,” says Julie, recalling those halcyon days before cancer struck the close-knit family of five.

Julie Walsh and her husband Gerry Hanley and their three children, Muireann, Saoirse and Fionn.
Julie Walsh and her husband Gerry Hanley and their three children, Muireann, Saoirse and Fionn.

“Gerry had started a new job at the airport and he complained of being tired,” says Julie. “We thought it was just teething problems, and we didn’t take much notice.

“Back in 2010, Ireland did great at rugby; they won all the major competitions. Gerry was celebrating the victories like the rest of the country. When he went out with pals for a night out; I didn’t expect to see him back home at 9pm. He said to me, ‘I can’t drink. I can’t do it anymore’.”

Gerry went to his doctor, suspecting IBS or something similar.

“The GP wasn’t exactly sure what Gerry’s complaint might be, so he referred him for more tests to a specialist.”

Julie recalls when her life changed forever, when cancer stole the couple’s happiness.

“Six to twelve months to live is not something anyone should have to hear,” says Julie. “But that is what myself and my late husband were told eight years ago.”

They had no idea.

“I remember when Gerry went to the Mercy Hospital for tests,” says Julie.

“He said, come and collect me when I’m done. He spent the following eight days in the Mercy undergoing tests. Cancer wasn’t mentioned, but it was something that had to be checked out.”

Professor O’Sullivan delivered the devastating news to the young couple.

“He said Gerry had a terminal illness. It was the hardest news,” says Julie.

“Chemotherapy was on the cards to reduce the pain and to keep him alive for longer, and palliative care was what we were looking at.”

Their future with their three children had been wiped away.

“We drove home from the hospital in a daze,” says Julie. “We were stunned. Parking the car, we wondered what we could tell the kids or tell our families. We asked ourselves and each other, was this real? It was just bizarre and traumatic.”

Gerry died ten months later.

“The doctors were correct,” says Julie sadly. “In those ten months, the whole cancer machine of tests, scans, consultants, oncologists, and chemotherapy and daily medicines rolled into our lives. There was no cure. We told the kids dad was sick. We didn’t tell them he was going to die or when. Gerry rallied a bit with the cocktail of drugs. He didn’t suffer hair loss, just very cold hands. From April to December he wasn’t desperately sick.”

And he could still enjoy being with family and friends sometimes.

“We went to a hotel in Killarney in October with friends,” says Julie.

“They asked when we’d meet up again? Do you laugh or cry?”

The cancer didn’t let up.

“When Gerry had a scan in the January, it showed that the cancer had metastasized. He knew it was the beginning of the end.”

He wasn’t alone on his sad journey.

“Palliative care was provided to us from Marymount during the day,” says Julie.

“The time came when the Night Nurse arrived. The service is given on a need basis. The nurse provided a great source of comfort for all of us. She stayed awake all night, allowing the family to sleep. The nurse stayed by Gerry’s bedside for 10 nights, from 11pm to 7am.

Julie Walsh and her husband Gerry.
Julie Walsh and her husband Gerry.

“Whether the nurse becomes almost another family member of the household, or just sits and reads a book, those hours from 11pm to 7am are a lifeline to the carer.”

The Night Nurse Service is vital for families in time of need. “The service is in such demand that they can only offer the nurses for ten nights,” says Julie. “Although this can be extended if there is a need. Each case is different.”

Gerry was happy to be in his own bed, knowing his nearest and dearest were not far away.

“I could take this time to hand over some of the constant worry and care of Gerry and get some rest,” says Julie.

“The nurses not only looked after myself and Gerry, but also myself and the kids. They always listened to my problems of the day, they made cups of tea, and they would chat and answer any questions. Many nights I would head up to bed a little bit lighter.”

It was difficult to prepare the children for their father’s imminent death.

“Gerry nearly passed away, but for three nights he rallied,” says Julie.

“He really loved his family. When we brought Gerry home from hospital, we thought we had only days left with him. But he held on for nearly four weeks and he died on March 8, 2010.”

Julie wasn’t alone either.

“The Night Nurses were with me in the beginning of those weeks and at the end,” says Julie.

“The weeks in the middle were filled with family and friends. The organising and briefing of the people who were there each night proved stressful. Sleep was very limited.”

The Night Nurse Service was a godsend.

“Life goes on,” says Julie. “Yes, there were times after losing Gerry that you wanted to just lie down and stay there. But you have to carry on.”

“Myself and my kids are eight years older now and we are getting on with our lives.

“The Night Nurse Service is also eight years older and the nurses have moved on to another husband, wife, mother, father, brother, sister,” says Julie.

“The work they do cannot be under-estimated. Without the Night Nurse Service, the last few days of a person’s life and those caring for them would be so much more difficult.”

Julie often thinks of the carefree summer days when she fell in love with the happy-go-lucky guy from Cobh.

“We had 15 happy years together,” she says. “Losing someone to cancer changes your life. Nursing someone you love and watching them waste away in front of you, often in pain, not being able to do things for themselves is a very tough and emotional time.

“A price cannot be put on the support of these nurses and the whole palliative care team. They offer a vital service.”

ABOUT DAFFODIL DAY

Daffodil Day takes place on Friday, March 23.

Supported by Boots Ireland, the annual flag day raises crucial funds to support cancer patients and their families.

Every three minutes a person in Ireland get a cancer diagnosis, and in Cork, 3,828 people were diagnosed with cancer in 12 months.

A total of 175 cancer patients in Cork received 679 nights of care through the Cancer Society’s Night Nurse Service last year.

The Irish Cancer Society can be contacted on 01-2310573. The Cancer Nurseline Freephone is 1800 200 700.

For more information visit www.cancer.ie/daffodilday

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