Li an end of life doula

Li’s story as an end-of-life doula for Becca

Becca, who had terminal cancer, was cared for by Martlets both at home and on our inpatient unit. Li, an end-of-life doula, supported Becca for eight months until she died earlier this year. She tells us about the care Martlets provided them both, and what a unique person Becca was. 

I first met Becca in November 2020 when she was seeking an end-of-life doula; a trained companion who walks alongside a person with a life-limiting or terminal diagnosis, supporting them and their loved ones.  

Towards the beginning of 2021, Becca’s pain levels and symptoms were becoming more difficult to manage. So, I suggested she get in touch with Martlets for more support. The Hospice at Home team visited, and the nurses were wonderful. It really helped because they fitted her up with a syringe driver to help manage her pain levels at home. 

‘Becca was full of sparkle and fun’

Becca was such a character and we hit it off as soon as we met. She was always surrounded by unicorns, glitter and rainbows! Her wild parties were something she was known for, and she had a huge circle of friends. But although she was a party girl, she was also a very caring friend and family member. She was very spiritual and had quite specific ideas about what she thought would happen to her after death. 

Becca was into dancing and music, and a keen runner until her illness prevented her exercising as much. She had a successful Brighton business teaching burlesque and pole dancing at hen parties. Martlets’ nurses told me that Becca even taught them some pole dancing moves when she first came into the inpatient unit. She was great fun and always chatting and joking with them. 

My role as Becca’s doula

I am part of End of Life Doula UK, an association of doulas all over the country; I did my training with Living Well, Dying Well, based in Lewes. When Becca knew that her illness was terminal, one of her friends suggested she get a doula to make her end-of-life journey with her. 

End of Life Doula UK try to match up clients with doulas who they think will be a good fit. After an initial 15-minute chat we clicked immediately. Her family lived up north many miles away and her siblings were busy looking after her mother, who had dementia. It was also in the middle of the pandemic and there were restrictions on travelling. She wanted someone close to home who could offer support. 

As doulas, we’re there to offer emotional, practical and, if it’s wanted, spiritual care to people. That could look completely different for each client, depending on their needs and their wants. Becca wanted to organise things in a certain way; a way that she felt would result in as little emotional pain as possible for people on her departure. She wanted somebody removed from friends and family to deal with the emotional fallout of her illness. Alongside that, she also wanted specific help with advance care planning and things like that.   

Because of the pandemic, Becca knew that she couldn’t have the end-of-life plan she originally envisaged. She had wanted to have hundreds of people gathered around for cocktails and dancing. But, we chatted about what might be possible. 

Sometimes I’d cook her meals when she wasn’t feeling well enough to do that. On the occasions when she had more energy, we’d go out walking. We would use that time to discuss her emotional state. And how she was feeling about approaching the end of her life.  

Providing practical support

I helped make sure that all her paperwork was in place and sorted power of attorney. It was important to her that I could speak on her behalf; particularly if it got to the point where she couldn’t speak for herself in terms of what she wanted. 

We also investigated more suitable housing solutions for her and set up a WhatsApp group for her family and friends. The WhatsApp group meant I was able to update her loved ones at the end of her life, and afterwards. 

I arranged with Martlets for Becca to come into the inpatient unit (IPU) for pain management and symptom control. The intention was that she would be in for two or three weeks to get things more stable. There wasn’t any indication that Becca wouldn’t come home again so I decided to go on holiday during this time; I knew she would be in good hands at Martlets. Before I went away, I visited her in the IPU. She said she felt really well cared for and was enjoying the assistance with things that she hadn’t been able to do for a long time. For example, the nurses helped her have a Jacuzzi bath which she loved.  

Becca wanted to die at home but unfortunately that couldn’t happen. While she was on the ward it became apparent that her cancer had progressed; sadly, it had become an end-of-life scenario and she wasn’t in a stable enough state to make it home. Thankfully, we’d had a conversation about how she would feel if she had to return to Martlets at the end. She felt at peace with that if it came to it. 

Becca’s last days at Martlets

It became clear that Becca needed to stay in Martlets and was nearing the end. So, the staff kindly called me back from my holiday in Cornwall. However, I couldn’t go home enroute because my daughter had been pinged by the COVID app and was self-isolating there. So, I went directly to Martlets and the IPU team made me comfortable on a reclining chair for the night. I was able to stay on and be close to Becca for her last four days and nights. She was still conscious when I arrived, and relieved that I had come back. Being alongside her as she’d hoped, calmed her. 

Even though she was unconscious during this end stage, the team did something wonderful. They knew that Becca liked taking good care of herself and had found a luxurious face pack in her room. When they were caring for her, they called me in to show me that they had put on the face pack; I knew how much she loved those and a bit of pampering.  

When they gently took it off, her skin was really glowing. So, I was able to whisper to her, ‘you look beautiful’. The staff were busy coping through the pandemic, yet they took the time to make that gesture. They understood that Becca was a person who deserved dignity right to the end.  

I have previously helped lay people out after death and the nurses were incredibly supportive in allowing me to assist with that. We made Becca look really beautiful as I knew that was important to her. There were loads of flowers in the room, so I placed those all around her on the bed. Then the staff came in to pay their respects. They commented on how lovely the room smelt with all the flowers laid out; they were just so sensitive, respectful and kind. 

I can’t emphasise enough what a fantastic job the Martlets team did. Not only looking after Becca but looking after me too. The support I was given to support Becca was phenomenal; they just couldn’t do enough for me. I didn’t know how my role was going to be taken and if they thought I’d get in the way. But they were so welcoming.  

Celebrating Becca

Becca really wanted to be an organ donor so that others could be helped after she died. Martlets helped us make those arrangements. Becca’s body was sent to a brand-new medical school; she would have been so happy to know that. Her eyes were donated separately and will have helped one or even two people with their vision. That’s such a wonderful thing. 

As I also work as a funeral celebrant, Becca asked if I would arrange a funeral service for her. I organised an alternative ceremony that took place in Stanmer Park. One of her friends and I scouted the area and found a tree that we thought was a good spot. After decorating the tree, we held a ceremony under its branches and had a picnic. It was a lovely way to celebrate Becca’s life.