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Actress Holly Matthews praises hospice nurses who cared for her late husband

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An actress whose husband and father of her two daughters died of a brain tumour last year has paid tribute to the “incredible” hospice nurses who supported the family in his final days.

Holly Matthews, who has starred in hit TV shows including Byker Grove, The Bill and Waterloo Road, gave an emotional presentation at a conference for nurses and allied health professionals hosted by The Brain Tumour Charity at the University of Birmingham on Wednesday.

The theme of the conference was around how nursing staff can tackle difficult conversations when caring for patients with brain tumours, with speakers highlighting the need for plain language, as reported by Nursing Times.

Ms Matthews’ husband, Ross Blair, died from a grade four primitive neuroectodermal tumour (PNET) at Myton Hospice in Coventry in July 2017 at the age of 32.

Addressing delegates, Ms Matthews said: “In July last year my husband died in a hospice surrounded by those that loved him and the nurses in that hospice used empathy and warmth to an impeccable degree.

“As I laid by his bed listening to him breathing wondering which breath would be his last, these beautiful nurses stayed with me and shared their opinions and their advice, and they made me feel that I wasn’t alone – these nurses and you guys are absolutely incredible,” she said.

However, Ms Matthews said this experience stood in stark contrast to the way in which she was treated by some doctors and consultants throughout her husband’s illness.

“The nurses in that hospice used empathy and warmth to an impeccable degree”

Holly Matthews

She described the way in which the family were first told about her husband’s brain tumour in February 2014 as “cold, without warning and without understanding of the impact that was about to have on our lives”.

Ms Matthews said after further tests they were given a prognosis of “50/50 for five years” by a consultant, while he was “slouching” behind a “messy desk”.

In the final stages, she was delivered the news that Mr Blair’s tumour had grown and that he was going to die in a hospital corridor.

While acknowledging that she was “preaching to the converted”, Ms Matthews urged the nursing staff at the conference to help their medical colleagues improve their communication skills with patients and to consider the impact of their words and body language.

She said: “My negative experience was not as a result of nurses – you guys were there to pick up the pieces and be that support.

“What I hope to do in this talk is to share with you my thoughts and perhaps pinpoint what it is that you do so naturally and then perhaps you can use that information to guide others and if you can’t guide them and get them to do it better, be that balance,” she added.

Ms Matthews said health professionals should follow four steps when breaking bad news: 

  • Warm up: ensure the environment is tidy and appropriate, do background research on the patient’s case, and check your body language and appearance
  • Warning: let the family know you are about the give bad news so they can prepare themselves
  • Warmth: be empathetic and understanding and show your human side
  • What’s next: tell the family what their next steps will be in the care pathway

In addition, Ms Matthews, who is also a vlogger and life coach, said it was important to avoid medical terminology when speaking to patients and relatives.

She added: “If you use medical jargon it gives the feeling of ’us and them’ and it makes your patient and their families feel stupid – why don’t I know what that means? – at a time when they absolutely need your support.”

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