First Impressions of a South African hospice

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There are many misconceptions of hospice that create negative stigmas. Hospice is often associated with the elderly, weakness or giving up, and is believed to be a process where death is accelerated.

These misconceptions were the basis for my visit to the Stellenbosch Hospice, as I accompanied HPCA’s Advocacy Officer, Eric Watlington, and award-winning volunteer photographer, Damien Schumann. 

Geraldine Nicol, manager at Stellenbosch Hospice, took the liberty of guiding us through the passage of the Butterfly Ward, where we met with only a few patients, as the nurses and staff tend to do more home visits. There was an incredible level of calmness running throughout the ward, with the sisters and carers making us feel welcome and, most of all, comfortable. 

Geraldine explained how she was originally involved in various NGOs before a friend of hers told her about the need for a temporary manager at the Stellenbosch Hospice, a position which she would only need to occupy for about two months. Some 20 years later, Geraldine still works at the hospice and seems as if she couldn’t be happier. With a team she refers to as “angels”, it is no surprise that she considers her job very rewarding. I was able to get a glimpse of the kind holistic care patients receive in order to improve their quality of life, and it changed my perspective of how I see hospice today.

We were then taken to the nearby township, Kayamandi, where Damien was able to capture such palliative care in action. Damien is currently studying at UCT in the Film and Media department. As a photographer, he has been active since 2005, and he too has done work for NGO’s which have been mainly associated with helping patients living with HIV/ AIDS. 

It was interesting to note the number of house visits the carer-workers do on a daily basis. They explained that they tend to battle when it comes to referring a patient to the hospice as, due to the stigmas attached to it, many families fall into denial about the patient’s need for palliative care. Additionally, many patients themselves do not want to be associated with Hospice and what they believe it to stand for. 

Because of many patients refusing to be referred, the care-worker’s work has become based on 40% prevention, 40% promotion and 20% homecare. It becomes important to train the primary care-givers, for otherwise the community could become too dependent on hospice, as there is a shortage of carers and a rapid increase in the number of patients needing care. Through promoting awareness and prevention, however, hospice endeavours to ensure a healthier community, where carers are no longer in such demand. Hospice should therefore not be seen as a department of sickness, but rather a department of health.

Shaakierah Muller, the patient care secretary of Stellenbosch Hospice, lead us to the next township of Cloetesville. Shaakierah spoke of how her passion for community work came through her admiration for her grandmother, who was extensively involved in helping the community. It was clear that the patients we met with in Cloetesville have a strong support system, which Shaakierah described as one of the most important aspects of holistic palliative care. There is a certain fear that many families believe when their loved ones are referred to hospice that that will be the end. 

This is not what hospice stands for. Hospice aims to provide relief for suffering and promotes quality to the lives of people living with life-threatening diseases. The carers and staff work towards bringing dignity in death and offer support to those in their bereavement after the death of a loved one. The end of a life does not, in fact, have to mean a time of pain and loneliness.

I take my hat off to everyone involved in hospice, for they put their heart and soul into giving the ultimate gift of palliative care. I realise now that, before walking into Stellenbosch Hospice, I had a complete misunderstanding of what hospice actually meant. It represents a loving and compassionate approach to death which is provided by some of the most remarkable people I have ever met. 

My experience opened my eyes to a new understanding of the benefits that hospice offers to those who are in need, but, most importantly, it taught me to appreciate those who do such selfless work so that they can bring about such happiness to the lives of others.

This article was originally published on the South Africa edition of ehospice

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