A registered nurse since 1995, Warragul-based Sinead Hickmott has spent the vast majority of her career in intensive care, where her particular passion has been end-of-life care.
‘People often say midwives are blessed that they see babies come into this world, but it is also a privilege and an honour to be there at the end as well,’ Sinead explains. ‘It’s never easy, not at all, but I just want to make a difference.’
To make a difference is why Sinead went into nursing in the first place, and she discovered quickly that supporting patients and their families through the often complex, sometimes unexpected and almost always overwhelming end-of-life process was a natural fit.
In 2021, Sinead enrolled in a transition to specialty practice (TSP) program in palliative care. ‘We were in the grip of COVID and I needed to focus on something else,’ she says. ‘So I did the TSP, and as part of that we had to complete a quality improvement project.’
Sinead’s project, called ‘When We say Goodbye,’ came out of something that had been on her wish list for a long time. She explains that handing a family their deceased loved one’s personal belongings in a blue plastic bag had always felt somewhat cold and clinical; even more so during the pandemic lockdowns, when families were frequently denied the ability to be with their loved one at the end.
‘During COVID, we’d provide this beautiful end-of-life care. But we hadn’t been able to develop that rapport with the families. So providing handmade tote bags – instead of plastic ones – once the patient had died became one small way that we could share the fact that we cared deeply. It was a way of saying goodbye but giving it some sentiment. You can’t get that with a blue plastic patient-belongings bag.’
The local Country Women’s Association (CWA) in Drouin was the first organisation that came to Sinead’s mind to help with the project. ‘And they just jumped on board,’ she says. ‘They designed the bags with careful consideration following a brief conversation. I didn’t expect anything as elaborate as what they designed – they even add a sympathy swing tag containing community info, because community plays a role in bereavement support.’
With the exception of the cord (which is made from recycled product) all of the material for the bags is sourced from donations, including fabrics, curtains, sheets or similar items that might not be suitable for re-homing but which are definitely not suitable to become landfill.
The bags have been well received in Sinead’s community, and she says the CWA is now looking at helping facilitate the project in other districts. The Drouin CWA have already ‘written up instructions that they’re willing to share with anyone,’ she says.
‘None of it has been difficult,’ she adds. ‘Anyone could do it: local craft groups or a mum’s group or schools. You’ve just got to ask the question. The bags don’t need to be the same; it is the sentiment that must remain unchanged.’
An unexpected bonus for Sinead is that it’s not just the families and nurses who benefit, but those making the bags as well.
‘I try to go to the [CWA] meetings once a month,’ she says, ‘and it’s given us a fabulous opportunity to talk about health issues that the ladies may be facing themselves, or talk about things that happen in hospitals. They’ve asked about what we do when someone dies, they’ve asked about advanced care planning. Some of their husbands have had diagnoses of prostate cancer, so we talk about that.’
The ultimate proof that the project is worthwhile and valuable is in the feedback from families.
‘For someone to take the time to write an email after they’ve had someone die, and to express their gratitude, just speaks volumes of the project,’ Sinead says.
‘I am incredibly proud to be a nurse; after 27 years I still love what I do. A project like this is just the icing on the cake.’