Nun among New Year Honours list

Nun among New Year Honours list

Sister Margaret Lancaster has always been drawn to nursing the sick and the dying. 

She's credited with establishing Mary Potter Hospice and says she's felt humbled to have that acknowledged with a Queen's Service Medal for services to the community.

Sister Margaret's always wanted dying patients to have quality of life while they can, with adequate pain management, spiritual management and emotional support, with their families. 

She says that's why palliative care is so important, not to "drug you out" but to balance medication so that a patient is still able to manage life. 

"To me a good death is someone who has the support to see reality, but can do the things they want to do before they die and say the things they want to say, and to be treated with care and dignity and love." 

She says it's important to be at home, among family and the community, if it's possible. 

"If the family or friends are part of the treatment, the care and the decision making, then they know they’ve utterly done their best to enable that person to carry on with their journey and let them go.  Then their bereavement will be a lot gentler, in knowing the person died well."

"People used to say to me 'how can you cope with death all around you?'"

She says it helps to reflect on a death and what was done well, what were the challenges and be able to learn  from that. 

"I've seen many people who've had a lot of pain and have been able to befriend what is a natural process.  It's important to make the most of any moment because none of us know when that exact time is going to happen." 

She's seen people she describes as having "one foot over" and says they’ve got a different manner about them: "They've got a joy about them but the body hasn't actually stopped, then they gently go over". 

She says how peaceful that is depends on what you've left undone in your life, in terms of fear and resentment and "what comes back to bite you". 

She'd like society to talk about death more. 

"It's not a bad thing, but people look on it as if it's not going to happen to them."

But where exactly we go after death Sister Margaret isn't sure. 

"I don't know what's happening after life, I don't know if there's a heaven, but I believe there's something." 

She says we get pushed into this life and we get pushed out.

"Life is a journey and we mature in wisdom and knowledge and beauty, if we want to take the time to look at all those things.  Perhaps there's a God, perhaps we're a part of the stars and the sea and perhaps there's something and we're automatically a part of it.  Or, there's nothing after life but if we've got good philosophy we will die a good person."

As part of the international congregation, the Little Company of Mary (LCM), Sister Margaret nursed the elderly and terminally ill at the then Calvary Hospital in Wellington, now Wakefield. 

But in the 1970s there were no specialised units to look after pain and suffering.  Patients at Calvary needed insurance or were required to pay for care.  Sister Margaret wanted to look after the prime minister or "Joe Blow" equally.

She proposed that the Mary Potter Ward offer specialist care, with free beds for the terminally ill.  She wrote to the LCM Provincial Council and got permission.  Then, she says, "the miracles started happening".

But it was a struggle and she laughs at herself because she didn't write a strategy plan, with who they would employ or how they would raise the money. 

"I just sat with a vision and I had permission to change.  What I was going to change, or how I was going to change, I didn't know." 

Sister Margaret credits many others with getting New Zealand's first hospice up and running. 

Mary Potter Hospice was officially opened at Calvary Hospital in 1979, but has since moved to Newtown's Mein Street.

She says people need to be aware of the normality of death and that there is pain management and community support available.

3 News