At Pilgrims Hospices, specialist palliative care doctors and consultants play a vital role in supporting patients and their families. They focus on managing and improving the physical symptoms that accompany a variety of life-limiting illnesses, with the broader aim of helping people to live well – in both mind and body – in the time that they have left.
Ahsan Ashfaq and Tarek Boumrah, trainee doctors who both volunteered at Pilgrims when they were at school and spent time in the hospices during their medical training, share their experiences of hospice care in east Kent.
What inspired you to volunteer and do your training at Pilgrims Hospices?
Ahsan: When I was at sixth form, I was looking for opportunities to gain experience in healthcare to better inform my career choice. We’d raised money for Pilgrims when I was at school, so I was familiar with the charity. Some friends in older years had volunteered and they only had good things to say. I spent time on weekends and some afternoons volunteering on reception at Pilgrims Hospice Thanet, where I learned a great deal.
Naturally, I was absolutely delighted when the opportunity presented itself to work at Pilgrims as a doctor. It felt like a ‘full-circle’ moment. It has been one of the greatest honours of my career so far to have served the local community with Pilgrims.
Tarek: I was interested in healthcare whilst studying for my A-Levels and wanted to do something that would help others. I heard about Pilgrims through a friend, and felt that the care they provided was so unique that I wanted to learn more.
It has been one of the greatest honours of my career so far to have served the local community with Pilgrims.
What did your roles involve and what did you learn?
Ahsan: As a volunteer, I worked on the reception desk. I would direct visitors to the appropriate areas and help make teas and coffees for them. At the time, the reception volunteers used to do a tea/coffee trolley round for the patients and also deliver food from the kitchen where necessary.
As a doctor, I worked as a senior house officer at Pilgrims Hospice Thanet. I worked in conjunction with other members of the multi-disciplinary team to provide care for patients on our inpatient unit. My day-to-day role included meetings about patients, board rounds, ward rounds and ensuring that our patients were well looked after. There was also a comprehensive teaching programme, from which I learned a great deal and was also able to contribute to. I visited people in their homes and the hospital to help plan their care. As such, I had the opportunity to learn about palliative medicine and develop my medical practice in this specialty. Through working at Pilgrims, I have learned to always put compassion at the heart of my approach to patients.
In both roles, I was lucky to work together with a wide range of professionals, all of whom I consider heroes without capes.
Tarek: As a volunteer, I welcomed visitors in reception and made teas and coffees for them. I’d often pass the ward and speak to patients and families, too. I’d never seen a dying person before, so it was a really eye-opening experience.
As a doctor, I supported patients and helped to improve their quality of life, ensuring they had a comfortable and dignified death. The main thing I’ve learned is to listen; patients and their families often feel they haven’t been listened to, and this leads to a relationship breakdown between them and healthcare professionals. Often, simply listening can make a huge difference to a patient, even if I’m not able to solve their medical issue.
Decisions about resuscitation and preferred place of care and death are often overlooked, which doesn’t give patients and loved ones the time they need to process what is happening. My time at Pilgrims helped me develop my communication skills, and also recognise the importance of planning for the future with patients.
In today’s society, people don’t often see the dying process, so it can be frightening for patients and families who have no idea what to expect. Pilgrims helps to normalise this journey that we will all take.
Why is hospice care important?
Ahsan: Hospice care provides an opportunity for people with terminal illnesses to live with dignity despite their disease. From symptom control to psychological support and spiritual care, Pilgrims provides a vital service for patients and their families when they are at their most vulnerable. It is so important to be able to provide this service to the local community.
Tarek: Hospices prioritise patients’ dignity and wishes, caring for them in a truly holistic way that supports all of their needs: medical, emotional, social, psychological and spiritual. This care also extends to their loved ones, continuing into bereavement after a patient has died.
Why do we need to talk about death and dying and how does Pilgrims help people to do this?
Ahsan: Death and dying can be a scary thought for many people. There can be a lot of fears around symptoms, social issues and the concept of going through the dying process itself. It’s important to talk about these things so that we can be clear about what patients’ wishes are and provide patient-centred care.
Pilgrims helps people talk about dying in various ways; patients are able to speak to the medical and nursing team about their fears and wishes, and there are also activities run by the Wellbeing team for patients and their carers. Hospice counsellors and the spiritual care team can speak to both patients and their families so that they are able to get the support they need.
Tarek: In today’s society, people don’t often see the dying process, so it can be frightening for patients and families who have no idea what to expect. Pilgrims helps to normalise this journey that we will all take. Talking about death and dying encourages people to focus on what’s most important to them.
If you’re interested in a career at Pilgrims, please check out our current vacancies at www.pilgrimshospices.org/jobs, which are updated regularly.
Death Cafes provide a safe space to discuss death and dying without objectives or an agenda.
We’re hosting our next Death Cafe event on Wednesday 10 May 2023 at the Ann Robertson Centre in Canterbury, during Dying Matters Awareness Week. This is a free event and all are welcome; places are limited, so please call or email if you’d like to come along: