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The social work assistant who helps families deal with a cancer diagnosis

Lara Perkins, a social work assistant for children and young people’s cancer charity CLIC Sargent, describes a challenging case during which she helped a terminally ill woman get married.

CLIC Sargent weddingWhen I took a call from a concerned nurse at The Royal Marsden Hospital in London about a newly-admitted patient back in May, there was nothing to indicate the challenges the case would present, writes Lara Perkins. When I arrived on the ward, I met a 23-year-old Slovakian, Iveta, who was being comforted by her partner Miki after receiving the news that she had been diagnosed with incurable cancer.

As a social work assistant for CLIC Sargent, I provide practical, emotional and financial support for children, young people and their families dealing with a cancer diagnosis. I find my job extremely fulfilling because I am involved with families at a crisis point, which motivates me to do everything in my power to help them. In this case, Iveta and Miki said they would like to get married and wanted their two-year-old daughter, Victoria, to bea flower girl. The process of organising the wedding was a welcome distraction from their situation, but they needed help with the practicalities.

The first concern was the venue, as weddings only happen in hospital if either party is too ill to leave. Everything depended on how well Iveta was and, at that stage, her health was uncertain. However, a few days later she looked brighter after some palliative treatment. I accompanied Miki to apply for the marriage licence, which was difficult, but you have to remember that the family’s grief is not your grief. My whole team was involved and they helped me to deal with my own emotions. The hospital Chaplain, Father Joseph, agreed to conduct a Roman Catholic ceremony and I applied for a CLIC Sargent exceptional grant of £250 to buy their rings and a dress for their daughter. Through the Emily Ash Trust, a beautician was arranged to do Iveta’s hair and makeup and the Willow Foundation contacted a florist in Sutton, who was so moved that she donated several bouquets. To help the wider family enjoy the day, I booked an interpreter, took pictures and helped Miki and Iveta choose the music.

After the wedding Iveta’s condition deteriorated significantly. She had made a huge effort to walk down the aisle, but afterwards she was confined to a wheelchair and she died 13 days later. There had not been time to take fingerprints or hair to make a memory box for the family, so I did this with a nurse and a healthcare worker. I focused on it as a job that had to be done, and it was not as traumatic as I had feared.

Due to the language barrier and their low income, the family needed practical assistance with the funeral arrangements. We couldn’t secure a burial date for two and a half weeks and the cost was a shock. The family were forced to take out loans and I advised Miki about benefits. Because of the delay, the Slovakian tradition of the chief mourners keeping an open house wasn’t practical, but it did allow us time to bring Iveta’s brother Tibor over from Slovakia.

On the day of the funeral, Father Joseph conducted the service and Iveta was in an open casket so that her friends and family could file past for the Eastern Orthodox traditional last kiss. It was extremely moving to see so many members of the community supporting the family.

Since the funeral I have supported the family as they try to carry on. They are lovely and so grateful for everything I have done for them, which has really touched me. It was an unusual situation and you can’t help but be affected by it emotionally. But I was well supported by my team and manager. I have learned a lot from this experience and, if anything similar ever happened to me, I hope someone would be there to offer me that kind of support.

Pictured: Iveta on her wedding day, with Lara in the background taking photos

Kirsty McGregor

About Kirsty McGregor

Kirsty McGregor is Community Care's workforce editor. She reports daily on social workers' pay and conditions, education, training, career progression, registration and fitness to practise. This includes issues affecting newly qualified social workers across the UK and the recent development of the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) in England. She is also responsible for producing job hunting and career progression advice.

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