Supporting through Covid: Patient and Family Support Manager

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I had a real sense of responsibility - that we were all in this together and we had to make it work and really do our best for our patients, our colleagues who were still working in the Hospice and for those struggling at home.

Sushma Dhami, our Patient and Family Support Team Manager, shares her experiences of managing a team and shaping the support St Clare Hospice can give to local people at a time of rapid change.

The Patient and Family Support team works holistically with patients, considering their practical, emotional, spiritual and social needs – as well as offering support to their family and friends. The team also run all of the Hospice’s bereavement support services, which are accessible to everyone in the local community.


Q: How has the pandemic affected you and your working life?

A: From a working perspective, I found that working from home at such short notice was a challenge and, at first, a novelty. We had the usual technology crisis over Teams and Zoom, however I think I adapted very quickly to setting up my work station in the dining room and working from home. I had a real sense of responsibility – that we were all in this together and we had to make it work and really do our best for our colleagues who were still working in the Hospice and for those struggling at home.

I also felt a heightened sense of accountability – to make sure I was doing everything I could to prove that I was working effectively from home. I found myself working longer and longer hours to prove (I don’t know who to) that I was doing what I should be. It got to the point that I was afraid to go to the toilet just in case someone emailed or called me and then thought I was not working! Of course, I know that no one would have thought that but isolation can make you paranoid!

On the personal side, the pandemic has meant that I couldn’t see my family, who I am very close to; I am one of five and have 12 nieces and nephews – some of us would always meet up at the weekend at my Mum and Dad’s. My daughter lives in Oxford and I didn’t see her in person for nearly three months which is the longest we have ever gone without seeing each other. This was especially hard as my birthday fell in April and, for me, this was one of the hardest times of the lockdown.


Q: How has the team managed to carry on supporting patients and people in the community during the pandemic?

A: Very early on in lockdown – I’d say Day 1 – I set up daily Team meetings on whatsapp and then on Teams.

We all instinctively knew that we had to continue providing as many of our core services as possible, because our community would need us now more than ever.

We spoke to all our counselling clients and immediately moved from face to face to telephone counselling. Denise, our administrator, and Elaine, our Family Support Counsellor, did a fantastic job, working from home, in contacting not only our clients but our volunteers as well.

Michele, our Social Worker, was so keen to continue to support patients and their families in the Inpatient Unit, so it was hard to keep her at home providing support on the telephone. She did, in fact, make joint home visits with our Clinical Nurse Specialists as we couldn’t keep her away – her response was always – ‘that’s why I  became a social worker – to help people, whatever their need, whatever the circumstances’.

Ann, our Chaplain – who had only joined the Hospice two days before lockdown – quickly became an integral part of the team. Her daily workplace posts were an inspiration for us all and really got the day started well. Ann was fearless and was in and out of the Inpatient Unit supporting patients, relatives and staff throughout the lockdown.


Q: How have the services you offer changed in light of Covid?

A: Our Services changed in that we could no longer provide face-to-face bereavement support and counselling. However, we managed to use this time at home to reflect and bring forward some of our future plans. We very quickly, with the impetus and Support of our Community Engagement Lead, Sally, moved the Bereavement Cafés to Facebook and then weekly Zoom calls.

We understood that the pandemic meant we had to provide support to our community in different ways, but also the needs of our community would change.

We put together Covid19 information and fact sheets to provide guidance to those who had lost someone due to the virus.

We were keen to set up a bereavement support helpline, so that we could reach everyone in our community – not just those connected to the Hospice. We launched the helpline in June and, with the brilliant input and hard work of our fundraising colleagues, we’ve now secured two lots of funding to ensure the helpline continues to support our community, until at least the end of 2021.


Q: What have you learnt from your experiences over the last six months?

A: I have learnt that the human race is very we are resilient and optimistic, and together we can adapt and flourish. The support I received from my manager, Carolanne, my colleagues – especially Sally – and my team, was invaluable during this time; I will never forget this shared experience.

It has made me realise even more how similar we are, as we all went through ups and downs at different times.

Someone in my team was bereaved of a parent during the lockdown and I could only marvel at the way she continued to put the Hospice and her clients first – only taking time out when it was absolutely necessary. I will always remember the unselfishness and compassion of the people around me.

I appreciate the mundane in life more these days; the fact that I have a garden when others were stuck indoors, the fact that I could do the job I enjoy relatively easily from home and didn’t have any hardships to overcome. The fact that there was always someone on the other end of a phone, or screen, to speak to and laugh with – family, friends and work colleagues. That feeling of the sun on my face when all we heard and saw on the TV were pictures of people dying around the world from covid19 or on ventilators in our hospitals.

I have learnt to appreciate life and the people in my life.

Q: How have you kept the team connected, and connected with others in the Hospice during this time?

A: I quickly realised the importance of ensuring the team felt connected to each other and our colleagues in the Hospice. I have spent a long time pushing for collaboration and co-operation across teams and I didn’t want this to diminish, just because we were physically apart from each other.

We used teams to connect with each other – drinks on a Friday evening with colleagues, a regular team Zoom catch up with our Bereavement Support volunteers – who are integral to our team. Michele and Ann continued to support staff on the phone or virtually.


Q: Have there been any highlights to have come out of working during the pandemic?

A: Definite highlights were our daily team meetings and my daily catch up with Sally on Teams. We talked about home and also about new work initiatives we could implement.

The fact that Denise returned to work after having contracted Covid without complaint or any grumbles; she continued to come into the office every day, to be an essential contact in the Hospice for us, with a smile on her face – when I know she was still recovering.

The Team has become much closer and is working as a fully functioning multi disciplinary Team. The daily team meetings and after work drinks on Zoom helped us all connect and we won’t ever forget this time, or our early morning exercise time – Michele, Elaine and I regained our love for Mr Motivator!

I spent much of lockdown watching in admiration and respect as the Hospice’s Senior Leadership Team, my colleagues and team members strove to support a many people as possible using innovative new ways to do this.

Having some time to recruit and really get the Children’s Bereavement Service up and running well is a definite highlight.

I’m very proud that we’ve implemented some fantastic changes, and launched a whole new service, over the last six months – and that we very quickly adapted our existing services in a seamless way.

 – Sushma

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