Sandie’s story

Nursing was more than a career to Sandie, it was a calling. For almost 20 years she was a core part of the St Barnabas community team, caring for people in their own homes. When she found out she had terminal cancer herself, Sandie chose to spend her last few weeks at the hospice, surrounded by family, friends and colleagues. Eddie, Sandie’s husband, tells her story.

Image of Sandie and her husband.

“I knew from the word go that nursing was the most important thing in Sandie’s life”

We were teenagers when we met in a Brighton dance hall in 1964. Sandie had just started her nursing training – she was the first in her family to go into the profession. There are photos of her, aged four, dressed in a nurse’s outfit. She’d say, “Nursing is a vocation. You don’t decide to be a nurse. You just know. It’s in your blood.”

We got engaged quite quickly – not that everyone approved. Sandie’s mother wanted her to marry a doctor, but she said, “No way, I’ll marry who I want!” That was Sandie – determined, rebellious at times, and full of joy. Full of love.

“It was Sandie’s dream to work at St Barnabas”

After passing her finals, Sandie got a nursing post at Southlands Hospital in Shoreham. She had progressed to Ward Sister there, when we found out that my brother-in-law had terminal cancer. He was admitted to St Barnabas towards the end of his life, and when we visited him at the hospice, Sandie was amazed by the level of care she saw.

Old photograph of Sandie when she trained to be a nurse

Everyone was so friendly, whole families were looked after, and if someone had pain, it was under control. She thought to herself, 'This is for me, this is what I want.'

“She decided she wanted to care for people in their own homes”

In 1987, after completing her nursing diploma, Sandie’s studies paid off and she got a job in the St Barnabas Home Support Service Team – now known as the Community Palliative Care Team. The hospice had only been open 14 years, and when she started there were just three community nurses covering a much smaller patch. Sandie would visit patients at home and make sure their symptoms were managed and they had the right medication. She wouldn’t leave until they were comfortable and would often call me to say she’d be back home late. For Sandie, being there for family members was just as important – answering their questions, helping with funeral plans, and even staying in touch long after their loved one had died.

“Over time, people became less scared of the hospice”

Sandie told me that when St Barnabas opened in 1973, most people had never heard of a hospice and thought that if you went in, you would never come out and that it was only about end-of-life care. Apparently, there were so many complaints that for a little while the hospice sign was changed to read ‘St Barnabas Hospital’. Over the years as the hospice grew, so did people’s understanding and they saw what a positive place it could be. Raising awareness was very important to Sandie and every year we’d both help with the hospice carnival float. We’d start building it in February and on August bank holiday when the parade took place, people would come out to admire the float, which had themes like Titanic and Greece. It was a great way to engage with people and show that the hospice was part of the local community.

“Sandie’s diagnosis wasn’t going to stop her”

In 1999 Sandie became manager of an ever-growing community team. As manager she could inspire the next generation of nurses and would sometimes deliver teaching sessions at universities alongside the hospice Education Team. At this time there was also talk of a new state of the art hospice building to replace the premises on Columbia Drive which was no longer fit for purpose. Sandie couldn’t wait to be a part of it.

But then in 2006, aged 59, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She knew the prognosis wasn’t good as it had already spread to her liver, but she wasn’t going to give up. Even through chemo she chose to go to work. It took her mind off things and meant she could surround herself with her friends and continue to do the thing she loved the most.

“Sandie wanted to end her life in the place that she loved”

Seven months after her diagnosis, Sandie had to stop work. Our son and his family came over from Australia to live with us, but it wasn’t long before Sandie was told her liver was failing and it was just a matter of time.

We broke down in tears. She’d worked in palliative care most of her life, but nothing can prepare you for that news.

Image of a photograph of Sandie

She asked me to call St Barnabas and said, “I want to end my life in the place I love, where I know everyone and where my family can be with me. Just do me one thing, I want the best room, the one that looks out over the garden.”

“She was sad she wouldn’t get to see the new hospice”

Sandie was so well looked after at the hospice that she wasn’t scared of dying. But one thing that did upset her was knowing that she wouldn’t be a part of the new hospice on Titnore Lane. So, Hugh – the CEO at the time – would come to her room and show her the plans for the building. She found it fascinating.

We were at the hospice for five weeks and I slept in a bed next to Sandie every night. Up until the last 10 days, we were busy doing things with our family like going to Worthing Pier or out for lunch. And one day we all created footprints in sand in the hospice gardens – a piece of art and a precious memory of everyone together. By the end Sandie had done everything she wanted to, and said to us, “This is my time now, you’ve got to let me go.”

Images of Sandie at the hospice

“Bereavement support from the hospice helped get me through”

We were six months off our 40th wedding anniversary when Sandie died on 21 October 2006.  After she’d gone, I found it difficult and couldn’t bear to be in the house without her. Once a week I’d meet with a hospice counsellor which helped a lot. We talked about anything and everything and gradually the crying became less and less.

The hospice was still a huge part of my life though. So two years after Sandie’s death, I returned as a volunteer – helping with big fundraising events. I still volunteer today and when I do, I feel as if she is still around. And that doesn’t just apply to me – when our son in law, Dominic, became ill, he spent his last days in the hospice rather than in a hospital. It was his way of feeling close to Sandie.

The hospice was Sandie’s extended family, and now it feels like mine too.