February 10, 2015

'It's home from home for me and I love every minute of it'

Editor: As part of our celebration of the World Day of Healing 2015, Teresita Heenan rsm shares from her experiences as a volunteer complementary therapist.

In the early twentieth century the Religious Sisters of Charity from Dublin, founded St Joseph's Hospice 'for the dying' in Hackney, East London. Since then the hospice has gone from strength to strength and now provides specialist palliative care, advice and support for people with both debilitating and terminal illnesses and for their families in a wide catchment area of 1.5 million people in East and North London, St Joseph's is a beacon of hope for a very diverse population, coming from a large number of ethnic groups.

Tower Hamlets, Hackney, and Newham are the most socially deprived boroughs in the country. The staff, one and all, are amazingly dedicated, and I, as a volunteer complementary therapist, feel very honoured to work there in the Day Hospice and as a Befriender in the wards. Having lived for many years in the East End, and taught some of the staff and several of the patients' children, it's home from home for me and I love every minute of it. In the Day Hospice, the patients are mostly my own age and rapport is easy. Often we laugh or cry together before or after I reflex their hands or feet, do Indian Head or on-site massage and occasionally use the Metamorphic Technique on the dying.

The patients are incredibly brave, full of the good humour typical of East Enders, and very appreciative of the gentle touch, most important, I believe, as many of their partners have died and they live alone, missing their touch, dying of loneliness, the biggest cancer of all today. Within the hospice environment, many patients find receiving the empathetic touch of the therapist, makes it easier to deal with the more invasive (though necessary) touch of the doctor or nurse.

Reflexology in particular is very effective as a means of communication, helping to decrease the pain of isolation, and with the patients' families helping to re-establish interpersonal intimacy, especially in the later stages of disease when there are no more effective treatments. Families may be nervous of touching their loved ones at this stage. To help with this I teach them a few relaxing strokes, so that they can do something positive and feel useful and close to each other again.

The touch or caress is the most basic non-verbal technique we possess and it communicates a solace to the disturbed or frightened patient that words can never produce. As the distinguished scientist Jacob Bronowski wrote in his 'Ascent of Man', "We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the press-button order and the human act. We have to touch people." When Christ healed, he nearly always used touch. I say a silent prayer every time I'm with a patient. God gave us hands to give love, so let us use them before the silver cord is snapped and the life
breath returns to God who gave it.

Messages to: Teresita Heenan rsm c/- Kathleen Gooch rsm

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