Anne Mortimore wrote an “advance directive” detailing her wishes for her end-of-life care a few days before she died in hospital last October.
The 79-year-old, who had been a postmistress in rural Dorset before moving to France after she was widowed, lived in the Charente-Maritime for 18 years. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2013.
“It started with breast cancer,” said her companion of 12 years Michael Pearce, 72, who believed she would be cured after a few months like the doctors told her.
However, the illness evolved. “In 2017, she developed a ganglion which migrated and became a bone cancer by March 2018. It is not very common,” Mr Pearce said.
As the months passed, the pain became hard to control. Mrs Mortimore was admitted to the 12-bed palliative care ward at Saintes hospital where she stayed for five weeks before dying in a “peaceful sleep”.
Dr Virginie Verliac, who has run the ward at the hospital since 2017, said: “We managed to ease her pain, but Anne unfortunately had an intestinal obstruction.
“Anne wrote her ‘choice’ of being sedated a few days before her death. “She died painlessly, with her family around her.”
Mrs Mortimore was one of nearly 250 patients who have been cared for by 10 nurses, as well as doctors and volunteers, in the ward since it opened in November 2017. Mr Pearce told Connexion: “It was clear that she was not going to survive, so that’s why she signed the documents.
“All of her family, her three children and medical staff agreed. You have to agree, you cannot live in pain.”
Although the hospital is a “sad environment to be in”, Mr Pearce was impressed by the kindness of the staff and volunteers.
He said: “They were amazing, compassionate and caring. We were privileged to have this facility.”
Palliative care has existed in France since 1986.
It aims to relieve the pain of patients who suffer from serious illnesses such as cancer. The website of France’s National Council of Palliative Care explains: “[Patients] may express, in advance, the will to continue, limit, stop or refuse treatment or medical procedures for the day when it can no longer be done by themselves, for example because of an accident or serious illness.”
Each patient is looked after by specialist nurses and doctors. Although it is often considered by people arriving at the end of their life, benefiting from palliative care does not necessarily mean dying.
The palliative ward at Saintes is one of 157 in France.
Dr Verliac said: “We don’t lie about the life expectancy of patients when they arrive, but we work on bettering their quality of life.
“Only 50% of patients actually die in the service.”
The work of the palliative department at the hospital in Saintes has been praised, notably by patients’ families.
Dr Verliac said: “We create a true human link with patients. People often say that there is not the same atmosphere here as in the hospital.”
As well as treatment in hospital, palliative care can also be given at home by doctors and nurses, or by different réseaux de soins palliatifs.
Studies from Japan and US have shown that home palliative care can offer a longer life expectancy with less stress to people suffering from cancer.