Actor Gabriel Byrne has spoken emotionally about the death of a friend in a Dublin hospital in an appeal for "simple and transformational changes" to the care shown to terminally ill patients.
At the launch of a US fundraising push by the Irish Hospice Foundation in New York, Byrne said that the clinical culture and physical surroundings within Irish hospitals often contribute to the trauma felt by dying people and their loved ones.
"I attended the bedside of a friend who was dying in a Dublin hospital. She lived her last hours in a public ward with a television blaring out a football match, all but drowning our final conversation," he said at the launch of the charity's Design and Dignity Fund in the United States.
"I looked around this depressing place, with the cheap curtain separating her from other patients, walls painted nondescriptly institutional, the awful food, the ubiquitous smell of disinfectant mixed with human odour, and I began to think about the physical environment in which we might spend our final hours, that space which, as the late Seamus Heaney said, is 'emptied' and 'pure change' happens," said Byrne, patron of the foundation.
“I have since come to believe that in hospital aesthetics are as important as function, that both are in fact closely linked. And that an aesthetic environment automatically leads to good practice and better care.”
The purpose of the fund is to raise money to pay for the redesign of rooms in Irish hospitals to create a more sympathetic environment to the needs of the dying.
Byrne, who is based in New York, said that the charity’s fund was already helping to create spaces where “bad news can be broken, where those who have got the dreaded call to fly home to be with a loved one near death can have the space and the privacy for final words”.
Hosted by prominent Irish-Americans Loretta Brennan Glucksman and Tom Moran, president and chief executive of Mutual America, the launch was also attended by author Colum McCann, who spoke of the "rawness" of the journey many Irish emigrants make to visit a dying loved one at home.
“When you lose a loved one and when you know that person is being looked after well, it’s so much easier to return. It’s also much easier to come back to your other life,” he said.
Michael O’Reilly, chairman of the Design and Dignity project, said that when people are beyond cure it becomes a “sacred obligation” to attend to death with care and dignity.
Proceeds from the new book, The Gathering – Reflections on Ireland, which includes contributions on Irish identity by Bono, McCann, Brian O'Driscoll and Heaney, go to the fund. The US launch of the book also took place at last night's charity event.