When the best medicine is a good death

Sister Elizabeth Pitout with Daisy.

In the farewell messages Sister Elizabeth Pitout received upon her retirement from nursing, she is described as an angel and an anchor of her profession.

At the end of last year, she left Victoria Hospital after more than four decades of nursing, 12 of them as the coordinator of the hospital’s Abundant Life palliative-care programme

Sister Pitout and Dr Clint Cupido, head of the medicine department at Victoria Hospital, had the joint vision of starting Abundant Life in 2010.

Born in Zimbabwe, Sister Pitout grew up in Cape Town, dreaming of becoming a nurse. In Grade 4, she joined the St John’s Ambulance brigade helping out at rugby games on Saturdays.

After her schooling, she did her nurse training at Victoria Hospital for three years before heading up the Currie Memorial Ward. “There were no ward clerks then. Everything was hand-written. We did everything from nursing to answering the phones,” says Sister Pitout from her Plumstead home, a stone’s throw from the hospital.

She then left Victoria Hospital to do industrial nursing for about two years before getting married and moving to the Free State, where she continued doing part-time nursing for 15 years, working night duty.

About 16 years ago, she returned to Victoria Hospital where she assisted with minor operations.

In 2009, she saw an advertisement for someone to develop and pioneer a new palliative-care service. “I put my hand up, not having a clue what I was in for, but it was good and rounded off my nursing career.”

Her mother had died in 1999 and her father in 2007 and her experience of the care they had received had not been positive, she says.

“I therefore vowed to change that bad experience for other patients and families when I became involved in palliative care in the state sector. We include each and every family member in all aspects of care, should they so wish, and give our time to see that everyone feels contained and informed.

“Good palliative care equals good bereavement outcome.”

Sister Pitout completed palliative-medicine training at St Luke’s Hospice in December 2011. She remembers starting work with no desk and a folder with 35 patients. When she left, this had grown to over 350 patients, and Abundant Life had moved from the hospital to a dedicated house nearby.

Victoria Hospital was “a little resistant to palliative care” in the beginning, but this has changed tremendously and doctors now call her, asking for advice with their patients, she says.

One of the biggest highlights for Sister Pitout is seeing patients having a good death, free from pain and getting the best possible care.

Dr Cupido says he and Sister Pitout shared office space and the care of patients when they first started.

“I soon realised Sister Pitout has an amazing memory. She remembered every patient, their name, condition, their family members’ names, and within a few months, I was certain this was the perfect person for the job. She had a way with patients and family that was impressive, caring, and the perfect example of Florence Nightingale and Mother Theresa.”

There were many struggles pioneering the new service, he recalls. “There were many days we felt we should close shop. The next day, we would chat and realise that no one else was going to do this. A family would call to say ’thank you’, a new referral would arrive and within minutes she would be back at it, forgetting the pain of the previous day.”

Victoria Hospital CEO Jonathan Vaughan says Sister Pitout has helped to build a foundation for palliative-care services to flourish.

“Victoria Hospital is a better place because Sister Pitout worked here. I wish her all the best in her retirement as she earns a well-deserved break.”

To learn more about Abundant Life, visit www.abundantlifevic.org