CHANTELLE Forster, from West Cornforth, County Durham, will be spending her Christmas responding to urgent calls from families who are looking after dying relatives. As a Marie Curie Rapid Response nurse, she helps to ease patients pain and symptoms and offers vital respite to their loved ones. She also offers personal care to patients, giving them the priceless gifts of comfort and dignity.

Chantelle, 31, works around north Durham, but the service, which is run out of St Cuthbert's Hospice in Durham, also covers the Durham Dales and Easington/Sedgefield areas. Chantelle started in the team three-and-a-half years ago as a registered nurse and is now a senior nurse.

WE look after any patient who is nearing the end of their life – patients with long-term conditions like MS and MND, patients with cancer diagnoses – absolutely anyone. People who are dying can experience pain and other symptoms and that can often mean that they end up in A&E where they might not want to be.

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Many people would prefer to have their symptoms managed at home and if people want to die at home, rather than at a hospital, they should be able to. It’s so nice when we’ve been able to help someone to spend their last Christmas at home, surrounded by their loved ones.

I do find it very satisfying. Sometimes I think if it was my mum and dad, I would want a service like this to support them.

We’re available 24 hours a day – you’re not ringing up a call centre, you’re ringing a mobile number that gets straight through to a registered nurse and we’re there within the hour. There are not many services that offer that.

The thing I enjoy, and it is a cliché, is making a difference to patients and their families. When you get feedback from families to say, we don’t know what we would have done without you – that’s all I need.

What our nurses have to do a lot of the time is go into situations that are quite bleak, and families that feel as though they’re not coping, and try and unpick the problems and try and put things in place that are going to improve the situation. I remember one lady was looking after her mum who had been discharged home from hospital. I think she thought she would be able to cope, but once they’d got home, she thought ‘oh my god, what am I going to do – I’m here with my poorly mum and I don’t know what to do'. She just needed that support really and to know what to expect and to have somebody to communicate that to her.

I think a lot of the time people aren’t communicated with very well or prepared for what to expect when a loved one is dying. I think our nurses do that very well – a lot of them have got their advanced communications skills. A big part of what we do is communication because without that, you can’t run the service that we do. That’s kind of at the heart of everything we do, helping make peoples’ last Christmas as special as possible.

It’s a lovely role. I’m really proud to be part of team that’s so driven and dynamic. They’ve all got the same goal – at the heart of it is the patient and they always put the patient and their family first. It’s important that people know we’re here as a resource so that more of those who need us get our help. Promoting the service is really important.

Obviously Christmas can be a really emotional time for families caring for someone who is dying. No one wants to say goodbye to a loved one over Christmas, but there isn’t ever really a good time. We try to make it as special as possible for them. Some families do still want to celebrate Christmas and their loved one’s life. They might get photos out and remember past Christmases and memories.

It might sound weird to say that death can be a celebration, but for some people it can be. It can be an opportunity for families to come together and make the most of that last little bit of time they have left, and make special memories. So if a family does want to celebrate, we’ll be discreet, or if there’s a joyous atmosphere and they want us to be involved, we’re very happy to be.

I remember one visit where it was a very large family with lots of people and mulled wine and noise and music, and the person dying was at the centre of it all! This person was obviously used to having lots of people around him, so that would have very much have been a comfort to him. So it’s really about the individual and what’s normal for them, allowing them to enjoy a bit of what they would have enjoyed when they were well. Everyone is an individual.

*The Marie Curie Rapid Response Nurses are available 24/7 and respond to calls within the hour. They support local community services like district nurses, GPs, local hospital discharge teams, care homes and anyone else who needs support. People in Durham, Chester-le-street and Derwentside can contact the team on 07515-135357 and people in Durham Dales, Easington and Sedgefield can call 07713-095309.

*For more information about the service visit www.mariecurie.org.uk/durham-rapidresponse