A companion to the end

As a palliative care nurse Sharon Murphy offers patients quality of life in its final stages. Jacquelyn Gagliardi reports.

For all of us death is a part of life, but for palliative care nurse Sharon Murphy death is part of the job.

At some stage in our lives, whether as a patient, family member, friend or neighbor, palliative care will affect us all. Over almost 30 years, Murphy, who works as a consultant at a Mornington Peninsula hospital, has comforted thousands of people going through the difficult journey that comes with having a life threatening illness.

Nurses and doctors in the field do not see patients who will recover. Palliative Care Australia says that palliative care nurses provide comfort by addressing symptom management, they help to introduce death and allay the fear surrounding it.

The philosophy of palliative care is to support a person to optimise their quality of life, while still living, day by day, with their illness.

“You don’t mind me pottering around as we talk?” Murphy, 53, asks as she checks the spinach slice in the oven.  With her three children curled up in front of the heater waiting for their dinner and the two family Labradors knocking the door excitedly with their tails, it’s obvious at home Murphy is just Mum.

“Mum is a kind, compassionate and caring woman. I would never have known how highly stressful her job really is unless she told me,” her eldest daughter Eloise, 24, said. “I’ve never seen her bring her job home with her.”

Recently, after studying for three years, Murphy completed her Masters of Nursing/Palliative care at Monash Frankston Campus. CEO of Peninsula Home Hospice, Racheal Bovenizer, commended Sharon on completing her studies: “her qualifications now match her clinical expertise,” she said. “Clients and their families are the ones who will truly benefit from Murphy’s learning.”

Murphy began her career in 1982, training at the Royal Children’s Hospital. In 1985 she completed her certificate in general nursing.  During her mid 20s, Murphy left the wards there to become a district nurse, which led to a role in palliative care. “I didn’t last in it very long then, because I was too young. I found I was getting too emotionally over loaded at such a young age.”

Murphy explains that during her late 20s she became too close to a patient. “She was too close to my world,” she says “she was my age, she was a single mum, and she had a daughter the same age as my daughter and we got on extremely well.”  The patient moved to be with her parents and Sharon’s eyes trace an invisible map inside her mind as she says she still remembers the house and where the patient lived.

“We just connected too much on a personal level. I was her primary nurse at home for a long time but I actually had to draw out at the end because it was too personal. She is someone I will never forget. ”

This led Murphy to take a break from nursing completely.

The kettle clicks off and she offers a cup of coffee and invites me to stay for dinner. The fundamental personality traits of a great nurse have been described as having compassion, a tender heart and charity, and even away from her professional setting I see these characteristics in Murphy shine through.

During her break from the job, she became a naturopath, but it was evident to her that nursing was in her blood. She was drawn back to the career because of her desire to help and her skills in understanding the world of the dying.

She returned to a position in palliative care with a more mature and holistic focus, combining spirituality and medical expertise, to help not only the patient and their loved ones, but also herself.

“I’m not religious but I am spiritual and self-care is really important. You have to be in tune with how you feel, if you’re tired or stressed, you have to be on top of it.”

Outside the kitchen window, the beautifully maintained back yard stretches out. Murphy’s garden has become a place for her to leave the world of nursing behind. Edged along the fence line are bright pink and yellow flowers that she’s planted herself and she delights in the ongoing renovations she’s been doing to the patio.

“It comes with maturity…you have to leave work at the hospital and come back to it the next day or else it impacts on your own life and your family’s life.”

So how does she manage the high stresses of her job? “The garden, or just pottering not thinking about it or I might just watch something trashy on TV or play Candy Crush,” Murphy laughs. “You know, something so your mind just stops.”

The hotly debated topic of dignified death and assisted suicide generally go hand in hand. As someone whose job it is to help patients through the last stages of life, Murphy said that euthanasia is cutting people short on a journey we all will go through.

“It’s not legal here, and I don’t agree with it because palliative care does not quicken a person’s death but it will help optimise that quality and we all have to go through a certain process in the end of life and dying phase.” She says, “I believe that it is not our right to take our own life when we might be facing death…I struggle with it because I can see how good palliative care can support a person and their family through to the end.” She adds quickly, “but that’s just in my opinion, I would never judge anyone who told me they thought differently.”

Dealing daily with death has left Murphy with a beautiful outlook on the last stretch of life’s journey. “I am not afraid to die, our fate is our fate and our destiny our destiny, we can’t do anything to change it.”