People Profile – Deirdre Lay – A Classic Volunteer

(Pictured Above: Deirdre chatting to Princess Alexandra on her official visit 2015)

I was born in 1941 in Woodford, Essex, during the Battle of Britain. After the War we moved to Shenfield where I went to primary school and then to a Convent for two years, then to boarding school in Suffolk, Felixstowe College for Young Ladies! I hated it, except that it was literally a stone’s throw from the sea. When I left I went to a domestic science college near Lyme Regis, and then to St. James’s Secretarial College in London, both of which I loved. From there I became secretary to a Partner in a firm of Chartered Surveyors (Marriage Bureau – there were so many marriages within the firm)! in the City of London.

Having put an advertisement in The Estates Gazette for a Partner’s Assistant, I sat in on an interview and eventually married the successful candidate! He became a Partner and was sent down to the Kingston office, so we would have to live in Surrey. We found an enchanting little house near Abinger Hammer in need of much work. I was very happy there, but somewhat cast adrift, with no car, and knowing no one. I gave birth to my daughter within the year, and my son was born 3 1/2 years later. We then moved to a larger thatched house in Holmbury St. Mary where I lived for the next 20 years, and from where my daughter was married. Sadly after 25 years of marriage, my husband left to marry someone else. I eventually moved to Peaslake, where in time I met Peter my partner.


Deirdre as a little girl growing up in Essex, 1947

Once both my children were at school, recognising that I was very fortunate, I wanted to give something back to society. As my skills were basically secretarial I became secretary of the PCC, the Ladies Conservatives, CAB in Dorking, Dorking NADFAS and Family Network at the Christian Centre. It was there that I met Nancy Elias, a remarkable Quaker lady, who knew everyone in Dorking, and who introduced me to her German neighbour, Brigitte Watkin, who wanted to set up a charity to help the terminally ill. Friends had been caring for a relative 24/7, and desperately in need of some respite, they asked her if she would mind spending a week-end in Dorking hospital. She agreed, but while she was there she died, leaving the family ridden with guilt. Brigitte felt sure that there must be people who would volunteer to go into people’s homes on a regular basis, to take some of the weight off the family’s shoulders.


(Pictured Above: Deirdre on her 21st birthday)

So, I became Brigitte’s secretary, and organised meetings, took minutes, and typed her letters. We set up the first training programme, which in my opinion was, and still is, the strength of the Trust. The training is so good that people stay, because they feel so well supported. The first one was a series of weekly evening meetings, finishing with a residential week-end. My husband was not happy for me to go and abandon him and our children, but it was such a success, and having heard all about it, I insisted on attending the next course.


A male volunteer chatting and spending time with a client

The training was a completely new experience for me. It sounds very selfish, but it was about discovering who I am and what I had to offer, and about my strengths and weaknesses. I think most people would agree that there is nothing more interesting than themselves. I found it incredibly helpful. It was deeply moving and upsetting at times, but wonderful. Once I had completed my training I was gripped and knew that this work was for me. I was accepted, and continued on page 12 given my first client, which was a ‘baptism by fire’, My remit was to stay for a couple of hours and give the lady and her adult Downs Syndrome daughter breakfast while her son was at work in London, and wait for the District Nurse, who arrived late and immediately telephoned the doctor. He too arrived late, so I arranged for my children to be picked up from school, and sat and stroked my client’s hand, talking gently to her, and by the time the doctor and son arrived she was dead. It was very calm and peaceful and seemed painless, but it was shattering!

Many people would probably have decided that this work was not for them, but thanks to the training, I coped. I was extremely well supported and was given the strength and belief that I could continue with this work, and the thought that it was unlikely to every happen again, although I have since been with a few clients when they died. My second client was the wife of an eminent Scientist. They were both committed Spiritualists, and I was with them for 18 months. (Nowadays we would not be with clients for so long, usually six months to a year). He was inspirational, and I grew very fond of him.


Deirdre receiving her 30 years Voluntary Service Award, third from the left, Sir Adrian White centre

Since then I have had many clients in different homes and circumstances. Things have changed as the charity has grown. It was Hospice Home Care, but has become The Brigitte Trust because people associate the word hospice with dying. The name is obscure so I can go out with a client and meet one of their friends, and they can just introduce me as their friend from The Brigitte Trust. I am now the Trust’s ‘oldest lag’, having been with them for over 30 years, and I still love my work. It is ‘my baby’. My fellow volunteers of all ages and from all walks of life are wonderful, as are most of my clients. At times I see myself at the ‘go-between’. My client perhaps knows they are dying, as does their carer, but they cannot admit this to each other.

My job is to help them talk to each other, without breaking any confidentiality. I remember a client, both he and his wife had just married for the second time. He asked if I knew anything about funerals. Having attended many I took in a prayer book and some hymn books, and we talked about this, and I helped him plan a service that suited his wishes. With the agreement of both parties I contacted the new local vicar who came and visited us all. In due course he conducted his first funeral service, which he said was made so easy, as he knew exactly what my client wanted.

It is the one-to-one relationship with a client, and the poignancy that death can come at any time, that is invaluable and which I treasure. It is a very special relationship; but not all my clients die. When I was 40 I had pneumonia and meningitis and was dying at home. A friend, the daughter of a doctor, came round and diagnosed me, and immediately rang our doctor, as I had a temperature of over 104° F. He came and rang for an ambulance.


A volunteer visiting

I remember looking at my hand and wondering whose it was. It was just skin and bone. When we arrived the doctor was trying and failing to put in a drip, and shouting ‘Help, I am losing her’. My next memory was travelling up a tunnel. I know that others have experienced this and doctors say that it is because not enough blood is getting to the brain. I know not. I can only say that the grey tunnel was lined with hands which were gently massaging me towards the brightest light I had ever seen, all colours of the rainbow, as I was guided towards it like a mermaid. I suddenly hit a glass wall and could get no further and slowly slipped backwards. I remember saying ‘Let me go’, and the next thing was that I was back in bed, and the doctor saying’ She’s back with us’. I can only say that when I die, I hope that it will like this, and if I can help my clients to do the same, then I will feel that it was a job well done.

One client was a fascinating character. He was a recluse and lived in a caravan up a dirt track. I did some shopping for him, and a nurse visited him every day. Like me, he loved the sea, and his one wish was to visit it for the last time. I said that I was not sure if I could fix it, but I would do my best. I had a friend, who had a friend with a private ambulance, as he needed a stretcher. They came and took him for a day at the seaside, bought him fish and chips and an ice cream, and brought him back, all for free! He died very happily a week later. I have cared for clients from all walks of life. A High Court Judge, who was very ‘old school’ as was his wife. I happily took on personal nursing duties for him. (We don’t do that now). Also, a Muslim lady who wondered if I knew anything about her religion and beliefs. Thanks to my training and Muslim friends, I was able to put her mind at rest and gain her confidence.


A recruitment drive for volunteers

Everyone is different. I had one very religious Roman Catholic client. He knew that Jesus was waiting for him when he died. Scripture was one of my best subjects at school, and we had some very interesting religious discussions, and he died easily and peacefully. If a client feels that I am not the right person for them, they can contact the Trust and ask for someone else, although this has never happened to me. A Naval client greeted me with the words ‘Not another bloody woman; I wanted a man’. He became my most ardent fan, as did his wife, who had been a nurse for many years! The Trust is always looking for new Volunteers, and hope to encourage people of both sexes and all ages to become involved in this work.

The Trust changes as it evolves, as we now offer ‘taster days’ on a day or evening, to give people a chance to dip their toes in the water and see if the work might be for them, and they can then go on to do the actual training. Clients are referred in many different ways – from doctors, nurses, hospitals, hospices, friends and families. One of two Service Co-ordinators will then visit the client, make notes and contact a Volunteer with this information. The Volunteer will then make a preliminary visit to introduce themselves and get the lie of the land, and then get back to their SCO with plans for the ensuing visits. For me, the old adage ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ rings true. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says, ‘As much as ye did this to one of the least my brethren, ye did it unto me’, and this is what I believe, although I do not discuss my beliefs with my clients, unless they wish to do so.

One of my Trainers was a priest, and recognising my problems asked me to repeat after him ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’. I did this a number of times, and he then asked me to repeat the last two words again and again. ‘As thyself’ eventually reduced me to tears, but I try to remember this valuable lesson, ‘Love myself first and last and everyone else in between’, and I keep trying to do so.

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