Work In Their Shoes with Sophie - Demelza South East London

31 March 2019

Hello! I’m Sophie, and I work in the Marketing Team at Demelza. My role is to share the wonderful goings on here, from children, families, volunteers, fundraisers and more. I find it a real privilege to get to know the people of #TeamDemelza, as everyone comes with a unique story.

This year, inspired by our #NewYearNewYou campaign, I set myself a challenge to spend a day every month with one of the many teams that make up our organisation. Through a programme we have for staff called ‘Work in Their Shoes’, I’ll be showing you the many different facets it takes to make up Demelza as a whole, and recording it in a vlog.

March 2019 has been a special month for our South East London team as Demelza celebrated the 10th anniversary of the opening of our hospice in Eltham. For this month’s Work in Their Shoes day, it couldn’t have been spent anywhere more fitting than with the care team at Demelza South East London.

The Eltham hospice offers much of the same facilities that can be found at Demelza’s first hospice in Sittingbourne, albeit in a much more compact setting. We often joke that the building has a TARDIS effect, as first-time visitors are often amazed by how much we’ve managed to fit into the space – especially thanks to the Space to Grow project; adding an extension in 2017 made possible with the generous support of Osborne.

I pulled up on a Saturday morning in the subterranean visitors car park decked out with jolly farmyard murals and took the lift up to reception. I chatted with the lovely volunteer receptionist, Veera, for a few minutes before I headed to the nurses station in the heart of the building to catch up with the Lead Nurse on Duty, Mel, to find out what was in store for me. I was to spend the day working in the shoes of Debbie, a Palliative Care Assistant affectionately known as ‘Debbie Doo’. I was given a run-down of the children who were staying that weekend and the activities that were planned in for the afternoon.

There is an unfortunate assumption that a hospice is a miserable, gloomy and sombre place. A fear often shared by parents who are referred by healthcare professionals to Demelza is that the very word hospice means the worst possible outcome; that a hospice will be a horrible, joyless place to take a child. I can vouch that you will find the complete opposite is the case, as it was when I made my way to the playroom to meet Debbie, only to find her Irish dancing in the middle of the room with fellow Care Assistant Emma. Music Therapist Victoria was holding a session themed for St Patrick’s Day. Thankfully the tunes were a little more authentic, and I watched as Victoria interacted with the children using her voice and instruments, which included a bodhrán drum.

Lots of the children who use Demelza’s services are particularly fond of Victoria, as Music Therapy enables them to communicate and explore their feelings in different ways; particularly beneficial to those who are non-verbal. Once Victoria had sung her soothing goodbye song, Debbie introduced me to the children and the rest of the team.

Mel and Aphra were the two nurses on duty for the day shift, supported by three Care Assistants: Vicky, Emma, and Debbie. Debbie’s ward was 14-year-old Rory, a young man who I soon learned had an intense appreciation for DVD’s and coleslaw, but appeared to dislike wearing socks. Rory, along with 15-year-old Bashir, enjoyed the interaction and activities carefully thought out by the team, but was happy to do his own thing, too. Debbie explained to me that though they may plan a few fun things in, they follow the lead of the child and whatever it is they are interested in doing. This will be different for each young person, so there’s always plenty of choices around to suit all levels of ability.

We all headed for lunch in the dining room, where catering volunteer Luke had prepared some scrummy-looking meals for the boys. I really enjoyed the togetherness of staff and children, with the kids being helped first where needed. It’s no secret that we have an intense cake-loving culture here at Demelza, so it was particularly heart-warming to see the kids get in on the action too. Whereas Rory could feed himself, Bashir enjoyed his serving with the help of Emma and some custard – and his face said it all.

After lunch, I helped Debbie lead on some multi-sensory storytelling. We took it in turns to read a story and take the accompanying elements to the children to interact with. I was unsure how the boys would react to me, a stranger, attempting to play with them, but led by the care team I felt completely at ease. I needn’t have been nervous, as Bashir happily let me gently lead his hand to feel rubbery spiders, and Rory was curious enough to look up from the train set to smell some ‘candyfloss’ during a funfair story.

We then had a bit of free play as the care team took it in turns to cover each other’s breaks. Emma and I helped with potting some plants as Mother’s Day gifts in the playroom, and we marvelled at how much more soil was getting on Bashir than in the flowerpot. Luckily Rory happens to enjoy hoovering, so under careful supervision he was delighted to have an opportunity to help us clean up. When Debbie took her break, I kept Rory entertained at the computer with some interactive nursery rhymes, a game of soft darts, and by constructing a pretty impressive train track together replete with bridges and railroad switches.

One by one, the kids were taken off for their baths. Each child stays in their own outer-space themed bedroom with a name like Moon or Rocket, which is equipped with a bed that is most appropriate for their needs and an adjoining bathroom/wet room. Debbie showed me how laundry is sorted for washing by the room for our housekeeping team – we take infection control very seriously at Demelza.

After a bubble bath with his dinosaurs, Rory was ready to join everyone for dinner. Anyone walking in on our communal dinner would have heard lots of laughter, joking with the kids, and a gentle bit of banter with Luke about the density of his carrots. Doesn’t sound very much like the earlier picture we painted of a gloomy place to be, does it? I asked the Care Assistants what led them to their roles at Demelza, and each of them had taken a different path to get there. Debbie, for example, has a background in adult mental health care.

While Mel handed over to the night shift team, I helped Debbie to update her notes for Rory, including what he’d eaten, how his demeanour had appeared to be on the day, and other care factors. I asked Debbie what the difference was between a Palliative Care Nurse and a Palliative Care Assistant. Debbie explained that while she had never held the aspiration to be a nurse, she is able to support ours by executing much of the same duties including administering a child’s medication and meeting many of their immediate care needs. The operative word in Debbie's title is 'care'; which is very fitting for someone who cares as much as she does. It seems obvious to me now, like the penny had finally dropped. It's easy for me to write about it but seeing it up close and noticing the positive impact it had on the children made it so real. 

There were many highlights from my day that will stay with me for a long time, one of which happened as I sat with Bashir for a while to keep him company - just to be near him, really. He was dozing off after having a bottle of his favourite hot chocolate, expertly made for him just how he likes it. I had been told he was an affectionate young man, so I wasn’t surprised when he reached out for my arm and playfully clapped my hand for a few minutes, putting a smile on both our faces. It was when he pulled me in for his famous bear hug that Vicky said, “That’s it, you’re one of us now – welcome to the team!”, that I briefly entertained the idea of going back to school and switching careers. It was an absolute pleasure to spend a shift with the team, and when I popped back into the playroom to say goodbye to the kids, I was genuinely a bit sorry to be leaving.

I recorded a vlog during my day in Debbie’s shoes – head over to our Facebook page to give it a watch! It features never before seen footage of Debbie’s dancing…

Until next time,

Sophie