'I hold the hands of the dying': Woman helps people make the most of their final hours

·5-min read
Helen Hughes with her sister and father. (Supplied)
Helen Hughes with her sister and father. (Supplied)

When her 80-year-old father suffered a serious stroke in 2019, Helen Hughes was overwhelmed by the care that NHS staff showed her entire family.

"I get emotional even now to think of how they saved his life and how the staff looked after my mum and I will be forever grateful," says Hughes, 43, a business development manager from Harpenden, Hertfordshire. "I knew then that I wanted to be able to give something back."

Hughes, a mother-of-one, decided to become one of thousands of selfless volunteers who help the NHS run smoothly. She now spends at least three hours of her free time each week at Watford General Hospital. She says it has been a ‘privilege and a joy’.

But her role is one that many in the volunteering sector might shy away from. For Hughes works in end of life care, ensuring those who are dying are living their most comfortable lives in the last few weeks, days and hours.

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Helen Hughes, a mother of one, is an end-of-life care volunteer. (Supplied)
Helen Hughes, a mother of one, is an end-of-life care volunteer. (Supplied)
Helen Hughes (left) gives up her spare time to volunteer to provide care and companionship to those about to die. (Supplied)
Helen Hughes (left) gives up her spare time to volunteer to provide care and companionship to those about to die. (Supplied)

"I’d never even heard of end of life care before but something about it appealed to me," says Hughes. "During the pandemic I’d heard so many stories of people dying alone and they really stayed with me. I can’t even begin to think of one of my loved ones dying alone so I signed up. 

"The volunteer force had been greatly reduced thanks to Covid, as so many volunteers are either retired or elderly or in the vulnerable group of people who had to shield. So, I jumped at the chance."

Helen underwent training and started her role in February. She admits she was nervous.

"I was shaking on my first day, terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing," she says. "But it didn’t take long for me to feel at home. Whether it’s sitting and holding the hand of someone who is in their final hours or reading a book to a patient or making sure their mouths aren’t dry, I make sure they’re as comfortable as possible. 

"Many of the requests I get from ladies are about brushing their hair or painting their nails. Even in their final days, they want to look their best and I’m only too happy to help keep their dignity. It’s so important and I think as a woman, you notice these little things.

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"I can sit with them and have a cup of tea to give members of their family a breather, or I will sometimes read out letters that friends or family have sent. No day is the same.

"I absolutely love talking to older people and many have given me nuggets of advice. One particular lady really sticks out in my memory. She was 90 years old and we chatted about everything from dating to shopping and she was wonderful. 

"Another lady kept insisting that I should change the way I eat and that I should always had the very best, freshest food I could find while another told me quite firmly that I didn’t need a man in my life to enjoy myself! Of course, I form a bond with some of them and it’s always sad when I come onto my shift only to discover they’ve died. But as volunteers we are well trained and there’s a great support network if we need to talk.

Helen Hughes' sister (right) is also an end-of-life care volunteer. Both sisters were inspired to volunteer following the wonderful care their father received after suffering a stroke. (Supplied)
Helen Hughes' sister (right) is also an end-of-life care volunteer. Both sisters were inspired to volunteer following the wonderful care their father received after suffering a stroke. (Supplied)

Her work with the dying has changed her in ways she never imagined. "I’m no longer afraid of death," she says. "When you see death on TV or a film, it’s horrendous and shocking but actually, death can be very peaceful and humbling. 

"I was never particularly spiritual before but seeing how much at peace people are before they die has made me wonder if there is something else on the other side. It’s even changed my personality. My sister always used to say I didn’t really have any emotions and she was right. But now I’ve become more emotional and that can only be a good thing.

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"My sister and my 22-year-old son are also now volunteers and I’m so pleased because the experience has changed how I live my life. I used to be one of those people who would work ridiculously long hours, making myself ill and sacrificing friends and family. 

"I no longer do that. When I’m in at the hospital, I actually relax. I enjoy it. And having spoken to many patients about living life to the full, I’ll make sure I go and spend that time with my loved ones whenever I can. I never want to look back with regrets.

Helen volunteers through Helpforce a not-for-profit innovator, focused on co-creation of volunteer projects with NHS Trusts and systems. For info visit Helpforce's website.

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