Talking about death and dying: one nurse’s campaign to help colleagues communicate better

Sarah’s story

A summer’s work experience on a surgical ward in the hospital where her father was an electrical engineer opened Sarah’s eyes to the possibility of a career in nursing.  After completing a health and social care course she went on to qualify as a nurse and worked first in acute medicine, before realising that her passion was for education.

Sarah says: “I always enjoyed working with student nurses and sharing knowledge. It keeps you on your toes and I like to see people learning and to witness that lightbulb moment.”

From acute medicine she moved to work in a hospice and developed a love of end of life care. When the head of education at the hospice asked Sarah to run a palliative care training day it resulted in her own lightbulb moment. “For me it was a dream, doing education and practising palliative care. It was perfect.” Sarah has worked in education ever since and is now a lecturer at Salford University where she studied herself.

What drives you to make a difference?

Sarah is  passionate about the  power to educate so people across society feel more equipped to support the bereaved. Helping nurses realise that they can make a difference even when there is seemingly nothing more that can be done, and giving them the tools to talk confidently to patients and relatives, is what motivates Sarah.

Sarah says: “Working in higher education is the ultimate for me. I like structure and that’s what I was aiming for as I enjoy seeing the growth, learning and development. And that’s not just in students but also in colleagues – established nurses and GPs learning a specialism.

It’s about all the massive losses that families experience in the run-up to bereavement that we need to be so aware of to work with them and be alongside them.

I don’t believe it when people say, ‘there is nothing more we can do’. That’s not right. There is always something more you can do for somebody. That’s been my world for 18 years.”

Use every opportunity to encourage student nurses into leadership moments

When she announced she was going to work in a hospice, Sarah clearly remembers a former acute medicine colleague saying she couldn’t understand why because no one ever came out alive or got better. “I say if someone comes in with acute nausea and vomiting and are vomiting eight times a day, and we can treat them and then send them home and they vomit only twice a day, then that is success.”

Sarah is also passionate about empowering her students. “We talk to our students about them being leaders and role-models even as student nurses. If you come across practice that is behind the times, then tell people.

I say to my student nurses, it’s not always the best paid job. It’s not always the best hours, but I have been lucky enough to look after some of the best people who have taught me things and made me feel humble. I have been so privileged to be with families when their loved ones have been dying. To be allowed to be there is a privilege.”

How do you encourage excellence in care?

Sarah is passionate not just about the necessity of including palliative care in the nursing curriculum, but also the equally important need for training in communication skills.

“I would like to see end of life and palliative care much more embedded into the pre-registration nursing curriculum. It’s absolutely key because people die all the time whether through cancer or non-malignant conditions. Nurses will be coming across people dying all the time and we are sending students out to work and it’s not in the curriculum. So, a colleague and I at the university, we bang the drum for this as loud as we can. We have a module at the university about palliative and end of life care and surprisingly it is the favourite theme and chosen the most every time.

The biggest cause of complaints in the NHS is poor communication. Either poor or none at all. People will say: ‘It’s not that you’ve given me the wrong medication or cut off the wrong limb – but that you didn’t speak to me’. Communication is at the core. You can make people’s experience so much better with good communication.”

Sarah Owens
Manchester United Kingdom