Twelve Questions: Toni Hancock

Toni Hanock. Photo / Richard Robinson
Toni Hanock. Photo / Richard Robinson

1. What is the most joyous part of your work?

Working at the hospice reminds you of what life is about - being with the people you love and who love you the most. Life is precious and time even moreso when you have been given a time limit on your life. Life becomes more real, raw, free of clutter; it becomes about relationships, forgiveness, love. There is something joyous in that.

2. And what is the hardest?

I guess it's the sadness, the raw grief that people go through, especially if it's someone quite young who is dying or leaving behind a young family, or a lifelong partner. It's always hard if you've worked closely with the family. It is stressful and very emotionally draining. I'm not sure I could do it fulltime.

3. How would you describe your childhood?

I grew up in Palmerston North, in the middle of a family of 11 children - six brothers above me, four sisters below - and our family often swelled with foster children as well.

It was organised chaos! We survived with systems - boxes of underwear and socks, dishwashing rosters. We always ate together, Mum at one end of the table, Dad at the other. It was great fun - there were always lots of friends, pets, noise. Janet Frame was our neighbour at one stage - imagine being a recluse and living next door to us!

4. What drew you to nursing?

I worked in an old people's home when I left school. I was 18, couldn't find a job, and thought I'd give it a go. I loved it. My first hospice job was at 19 when I started my nursing degree, and I worked the night shift at Arohanui Hospice in Palmerston North. I was terrified! I used to sprint down those dark corridors. I worked here and then the UK. Working in Liverpool, I was asked to work in a hospice in Central America. So I learned Spanish and lived in Guatemala for 18 months. It made death more of a natural experience to me. There was little treatment available there - very little pain relief, no morphine. There were a lot of children in the hospices, most of them babies with Aids. They taught me that death is a natural part of life, not something to be fearful of.

5. Are we scared of death? Are you?

Maybe the great majority of people are fearful of the process rather than actual death - will it be painful, and how will they cope. Am I afraid? I don't know. I don't think I would be. But if I was faced with it, I would probably have aspects of fear, I'm human. I do see that people who are strong spiritually seem to be more at peace with dying.

6. What do you want your children to learn?

Not to be afraid of dying. I'm all for bringing the dead cat out and leaving it on the table for a few days. That was my children's first experience with death. They wrote notes, picked flowers, talked to their much-loved pet, stroked her. Eventually the taboo fell away from it and it was a great learning curve for them and both my husband and me. It actually created some amazing spiritual discussions. So cats die and people die. It's a natural cycle of life, as opposed to something we are backtracking from all the time. The cat was eventually laid to rest amid a sea of candles and Miley Cyrus blaring throughout the neighbourhood.

7. How did you cope when your daughter was diagnosed with cancer?

She was four. It was kidney and it spread to her lung. She's been in remission for six years now. I wasn't working when it happened and at the same time my brother was dying. I didn't work for two years after that. I was unsure how I would react. I never worried about Petra. I knew she was going to be all right - I just had a feeling. And the doctors knew what it was straight away. I could understand the lingo and what was happening but it was much scarier for my husband. After my brother's death, though, it was very difficult.

8. What happened when you did go back to work?

The first person I had to see was a guy of the same age and he had the same disease. It was difficult but obviously that was meant to be. I didn't cry, but I just about bit through my lip. We don't tend to cry in front of families - it's not always appropriate. But we might have a cry in the office. I try to treat everyone like they're my mum or dad. I have off-days like everyone, but that's what I'd want.

9. What do you do to get away from work?

I run - literally. I love trail running. It's the solitude, the release of endorphins, being in the outdoors.

10. Do people all have the same regrets when they're dying?

They do really. It's family. Spending time with family. Working too much. That's especially the case for men. A lecturer told me once that when you have a diagnosis that you're going to die, it's like layers peeling away. You start out well and with visitors and then slowly start saying goodbye. First, it's people you know quite well that you start not to see any more because you're getting sicker. Then close friends' visits stop because you're sicker again. And eventually it's only family members who are with you. It shows just how important family are.

11. Do you see people die alone often?

Yes you do, and it's so sad when they're on their own. A big thing I notice in this work is people's inability to forgive. I guess some people have had some terrible wrongs done to them but you think, this is it. And there's a son who won't come in and see his dad because of something that happened years ago. I would think "I don't feel like forgiving but I'm just going to".

12. What are you spiritual beliefs?

I'm Catholic and I believe there is life after death. It's in my bones. Working in hospices has probably just made my belief stronger. There have been a few experiences as well. A Maori woman was in here recently and told me that as her son was dying, he told her about all the relatives sitting around him. You hear too much not to take a chance on it.

Next week is Hospice Awareness Week.

- NZ Herald

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