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Stories from nursing: dealing with death

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“Come in nurse I’ve just put the kettle on,” Gethin sounded calm - considering. He had called me early that morning with the news: “Agnes has gone nurse, I found her this morning. Can you come?”

Agnes and Gethin had spent 50 years in adjoining farms sharing the lambing and shearing and welsh cakes by the fire. Each season they would join forces with the other farmers in the area rolling the fleeces and hand feeding the lambs in happy companionship.

Their farms were set under the imposing Llynbrianne mountain where red kites swooped. Winters were vicious and they could be cut off for days if the snows came, when neighbours would get use tractors to plough a path to the house to give them groceries.

Then, five years earlier, Agnes and Gethin decided they would be happier combining the land and living together. Agnes sold her farm but kept the two fields adjacent to Gethin’s so they could keep the sheep and share their livelihood.

They were 86 and 82 and devoted to each other. I had been visiting Gethin for months to dress and bandage his leg ulcers.

The farmhouse was rambling and run down with sparse comfort for the old couple who lived mainly in one room off the kitchen. There was a fine layer of dust on everything, including the lights, which made it feel as though a grey shadow enclosed you when they stepped in from the daylight.

”For all the time I visited him I never saw him without his hat”

Gethin didn’t notice, he was only interested in the land and cared nothing for home comforts. For all the time I visited him I never saw him without his hat either just in from the fields or just about to go back to them.

But, despite their sparse lifestyle, Gethin did have one other passion in life: he liked to buy cars. Brand spanking new cars that he never drove, or at least only drove on market day. He kept them in the garage shiny as the day they were bought. Daimlers and BMWs - they were his babies.

One sunny Saturday morning I arrived to find the garage doors wide open and Gethin with a bucket and shammy lovingly cleaning the already gleaming chassis of his beloved motors.

“Why don’t you go out in them more often?” I asked him

“I take them to market,” he told me. ”But I am happy to look at them each day - that’s why I keep the garage doors open. Agnes sits in them occasionally but she doesn’t really like going far”.

Neither he nor Agnes had been married before and all they had between them was one distant nephew: “Lives in England. Not interested in us,” Gethin told me.

They had been together five years and she had never been ill, so his phone call came as a surprise.

“What’s happened Gethin, where is she?” I asked when I arrived shortly after.

He put his hand on my arm and smiled. “When it’s our time that’s it. I found her this morning when I took her her tea. We don’t share a room you see, nurse.

”I don’t want to see her like that though so can you make her comfortable please? The doctor has been and the undertaker is on her way”.

”They had been together five years and she had never been ill, so his phone call came as a surprise”

He turned back to the teapot and biscuits leaving me to find out where Agnes was for myself.

The rest of the house was in darkness and I went out to the imposing hallway. The staircase was in the middle of the vast hall and I made my way upstairs where I had never been before, I had always carried out his care in the living room with Agnes flitting around offering me tea.

There were several rooms off the landing and I could see that one of the doors was open. I went inside.

The room’s only light was a chink in the curtains and I could see under the window a slumped figure on the commode. It was Agnes.

It’s common for people to have heart attacks on the toilet and this was what seemed to have happened to her. I knew that I couldn’t lift her onto the bed on my own and Mr Williams was clearly not able to help. He called periodically from the bottom of the stairs to check I was alright.

The usual practice was for the undertaker to collect the deceased and take them to the funeral home and she arrived soon after and came up to the room. Mr Williams still didn’t venture far from the kitchen.

The undertaker stood looking at our predicament: Agnes was stiff, fixed in a sitting position, her sparse white hair hanging down to cover her face.

”The undertaker stood looking at our predicament: Agnes was stiff, fixed in a sitting position”

“We need to get her on the bed,” the undertaker told me unnecessarily and she laid the body bag on the bed in readiness.

We closed the door so that Mr Williams couldn’t hear any upsetting sounds and I lifted Agnes under the arms while the undertaker took her legs and we placed her on the bed.

The trouble was she was still bent and as we laid down her head her bent legs would rise. Putting her legs flat resulted in her top half sitting up in some bizarre sea-sawing motion.

”Your tea’s ready,” Mr Williams shouted up the stairs. “Shall I bring it up?”

“No!” I shouted down nervously. ”No we’ll come down in a minute”.

”We’ll need to wait until rigor goes,” the undertaker told me. “Or she won’t fit in the body bag”.

So we covered her gently and waited, one either side of the bed, until we were able to move her.

“Your tea’s getting cold!” Gethin shouted and I went down to the kitchen, drinking it uneasily with the image of Agnes crouched on the bed in my head. The undertaker stayed upstairs standing guard over the body.

”Silently he kissed her on the forehead and then returned to the kitchen closing the door”

”Can I see her before she goes?” he asked quietly

“Of course,” I said, inwardly praying that we could lay her down for her last goodbye. ”Just give us a minute with her”.

I returned to the bedroom where the undertaker told me that she was ready and I saw that at last Agnes was in repose.

I combed her wispy hair and pinned it into the bun on the top of her head as she usually wore it. Covered her with the rosebud covered eiderdown and called her husband. He climbed the stairs slowly, his stiff knees creaking as he used the bannister to pull himself up each step. Silently he kissed her on the forehead and then returned to the kitchen closing the door.

After putting her in the body bag and helping the undertaker lift her into the hearse I went to see Gethin to tell him that Agnes was leaving. He sat in the small room next to the kitchen and for the first time since I met him took his hat off.

“I couldn’t look at her, you see. Not on the commode, she would be so embarrassed,” he explained. He wiped his nose with a filthy handkerchief. ”I will miss her around the place”. He waited in the kitchen with the door shut while the hearse drove away. He had said his goodbyes.

I finished my second cup of tea. He didn’t want to talk and that was ok.

The kites squawked outside and the sheep munched on the grass and his world went back to where it had been before he met her.

Sue McCready is retired from the NHS and now works as a CQC inspector


*Please note: Names have been changed to protect confidentiality

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