Sister Sarah Sands has something of the angelic about her - not content with her daily work at Colchester General Hospital, she also runs the Blanketeers - a group of dedicated knitters and crocheters who meet to combat loneliness, support the recently bereaved and create beautiful blankets for patients receiving end of life care.
Tell us a little about you, Sarah
I am 38 and have been nursing for 20 years now. I am currently ward sister on the cardiac unit, I have always worked in cardiology. After qualifying at Broomfield Hospital I was lucky enough to go and work in New Zealand and then Australia for 3 years. I love cardiology but also have a personal interest in palliative care.
Where did the idea for the Blanketeers come from?
The idea was a bit of an accident. Whilst telling a friend's mum about a lady who had been on my ward for 3 months, isolated in a miserable side room, she suggested cheering her, and the room up, with a blanket that she had knitted. I gratefully took the blanket. However on my return to work the decision was made to withdraw treatment and give this lady palliative care. I gave her the blanket and over the course of the week, every time I gave her personal care I would spray the blanket with her perfume so the room smelt nice; she had always taken great pride in her appearance.
When her daughter Susi came to visit (daily) she always talked about how her mum loved the blanket and how nice it smelt. It made the process much gentler for her and the room much less clinical. When she passed away her daughter kept the blanket and when I contacted her some weeks after, she told me how she would regularly cuddle it. She also told me that the only image she had was her mum looking cosy under the blanket and not of all the tubes and medical equipment that was in use for the 3 months. Her daughter also told me that she felt lost and that there was a huge hole since her mum had passed away.
At this point I had the idea to start a group and perhaps make some blankets for other patients on my ward and I asked her if she would like to help as this may fill some of the hole that she had been left with. Since then the project has exploded and we have 30 + people attending the groups. I can now supply these blankets to the whole hospital and not just my ward. Each of their blankets has a handwritten tag giving the name of the person who knitted it and stating: “to bring you warmth and comfort at a difficult time”. The other side of the tag is printed with the words “Knitted With Love” and has a motif comprising a ball of wool and two knitting needles.
Lots of people think they should 'do something', but not many do. What spurred you into action?
Seeing the overwhelming effect it had not just on the patient but her daughter too, during one of the hardest times of her life made me realise that it was within my gift to help many other people. It brings comfort to the patient and their family, it brings the community together and gets people out and involved who perhaps don't see anyone else.
It also has made my staff think differently about the care they give to dying patients. Now they ask themselves, apart from a blanket what else can they do for this poor patient and their family to help their pain.
How hard was it to garner support?
Once people heard about the group I was very lucky as so many could relate to the sadness of losing someone. I had great support from the palliative care team and the press officer at the hospital ensured as many people as possible heard about the project, then it just took off!
What have been the highs/lows?
Every time we meet I am overwhelmed at people's generosity and kindness. Coming together and producing so many beautiful blankets is so humbling and I feel so privileged to be part of the group. (Especially as I can't even knit!). I don't think there have been any lows, just hard work at times organising the wool and the rooms etc..
What would your message to the good people of Colchester be?
This project is as much about loneliness and isolation as it is about helping patients who are at the end of their lives. If you know of someone who is isolated, perhaps even recently bereaved, I would encourage them to come to the group. Offer morale support and come along with them if need be. Secondly, if you can't donate time then donate wool please!
What's next for the Blanketeers?
This project has had such a profound effect on so many people with so many beneficiaries. I am determined to roll this out across the country in a attempt to get people talking about end-of-life care but also to help with isolation and loneliness.
Editor's Note: Anyone who is interested in helping or supporting the CHUFT Blanketeers should contact Sarah on firstname.lastname@example.org
If you would like to donate wool please leave it at the reception desk inside the Main Entrance of Colchester General Hospital marked for the attention of Sister Sarah Sands, c/o Acute Cardiac Unit.