Great things are done by a series of small things brought together…


I’m literally sitting with a patient in her double bed as I’m writing this week’s blog. Rose has COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and on top of that, she is fighting a nasty infection. Her breathlessness is incredibly frightening at times. When she has these terrifying incidents, our presence is almost more important than the meds. We talk her through her breathing (now I am so grateful for all the TV programmes I’ve watched where they do the Lamaze breathing!) Sometimes in these moments she clenches her eyes tightly shut, but she knows our voices. We’ve done this many times, and we do it together. Everything is familiar and safe. I’ve never been short of breath to this extent, but I recall clearly how awful it was once, 4m under water, when I had a panic attack while scuba diving. The dive master just took my hand, made eye contact and breathed me out of the panic. I draw on that experience of kindness now as we offer the same comfort to Rose. I cannot save her life, or change her diagnosis, or even change the outcome of the inevitable, but I can be here. I can just be present and hold those grabbing hands as she gasps for air until relief comes.


It is the small things, is it not? I am so grateful that I now understand that the small things are in fact the big things.


I’m sitting here on her double bed and getting a bit of what her life is like, hooked up to an oxygen machine every minute of every day. A cool breeze lifts the curtains and outside I can see the pool, birds gathering around the feeder and two pots of flowering plants. My staff speak in hushed voices outside and the room is flooded with natural light. An  ugly old chair she loves is staring at me. A friend if mine, Cillié is re-upholstering it soon. She manages to add glamour and beauty to everything she touches. Whilst we were choosing fabric for the chair, Cillié waltzed into Rose’s room and showed her all the choices. They chatted about new pictures for her room and chose a lovely green for a feature wall. Suddenly Rose had a new friend. Her life, which many would define as not much of a life at all – sitting in death’s waiting room – is definitely not that at all. I love that my friend now regularly pops in to chat to her when she does other things around the lodge. It might be a little chat to Cillié, but it is not for Rose. Rose is validated and loved and that makes all the difference.


On Mondays, we bring a brain cancer patient outside to enjoy the sun and beauty of the garden with great fanfare. She has long lost her executive function, but how are we to know that the presence of her family in a beautiful setting is not good for her soul? Yesterday, the wife of a man with terminal lung cancer arrived. She is reeling from the stress of coping with a spouse nearing the end of his life. It was around four o’clock and she came to ask my staff for a knife so that she can make herself something to eat as she is allergic to just about everything. I watched Obakeng take the avos and snack breads from her and ten minutes later she reappeared with a beautifully laid out lunch. I knew Obakeng had loads of work, but she knew in that instant that this mourning wife needed to be served in more ways than one.


Also yesterday, (it was a rough Monday, can you tell?) one of our long-time patients had to have a very private and most unpleasant procedure. Anyone can do it; it does not require skill, but it is quite awful to endure. When we assembled the team to do it, we chose the ladies for whom we know she has a soft-spot.  After explaining to her for the second time what we were going to do, I told her I would do it myself while she could look into Obakeng’s eyes on one side and feel Nobuhle and my hands on her back. She could hear my voice (awful Afrikaans accent and all) throughout the time and she knew what we were doing. It was thoroughly horrid and she hated me a bit, but what matters to me in the end is that her dignity was intact. She knew that, and so did her children. I know in hospitals the lowest of the lowest nursing aids do this task. They think it is degrading for them as much as it is for the patient. When we do it, it is different. It is an act of love and respect.


I watched such a lovely testimony unfold recently. A while ago, even before COVID, a frail man joined our church. He knew he was dying and wanted to know the person who would do his funeral. So we all got to know him and, after a while we honoured him with a beautiful funeral done by a minister that knew him and loved him. Soon after that his son started coming to church. He told us early on that he did not believe in God. In fact, he thought we were all a bit backwards for believing in something as primitive as a God. I didn’t really understand then why he came to church, but it was a combination of knowing this was a place where his dad was loved, maybe a final way to honour his father, but also just the sense of community and love. He was wonderfully honest and made no secret of his secular beliefs despite the fact that he attended almost every service and often courses that were offered. He started out very apprehensive, and then became comfortable, although sceptical, even bringing along his girlfriend   We loved him, and never got in to arguments with him about our different beliefs, but just let him be. All these small things must have added up over the years, as last week Sunday he was baptised and now, does not just believe in a God, but has a budding relationship with one.


I hope that as this lodge grows,  we will never forget that great things are done by a series of small things brought together. May we never forget to make eye contact. May we never forget to speak English so no one feels excluded. May we remember how you like your tea. May we make sure that there is always beauty and peace everywhere. May we remember to cherish each other’s dignity and honour the people we serve.