Team of volunteers grants sick patients one last wish

Summary

For four years, a Limburg-based team of volunteers has been offering terminally ill patients the chance to lead a normal life for a few hours and be with the people they love one last time

Emotional encounters

The neon green ambulance sticks out a mile on a driveway in this quiet Diepenbeek street, at the family home where Jan and Miet Schraepen run their charity, Ambulance Wens. Miet is a nurse, her brother Jan a paramedic. Based in the house where they grew up, they grant one last wish, free of charge, to terminally ill people who often have just days to live.

“There are about 40 of us, all volunteers,” says Miet. “It’s not just nurses and paramedics: our mum does all the washing and ironing; our dad sends out the brochures and does the adverts; our sister and aunt do the accounts ... We’re really a team.”

Set up in 2011, Ambulance Wens (Wish Ambulance) grew out of an initiative in the Netherlands but is now run independently and relies entirely on donations and bequests. Jan, the youngest paramedic in Limburg when he started at the age of 17,  explains how the Flemish branch started.

“I had a friend who worked for Pallion, which provides palliative care in Limburg. She said to me one day: ‘Jan, I’ve seen a great project in the Netherlands that would really suit you.’ So I called my sister…”

Miet laughs. “I didn’t have to think about it too much. It was a great idea.”

Patients, or their families, doctors or nurses, get in touch with Jan and Miet – having seen their posters, Facebook page or website – and explain their request. The things people long for on their deathbed tend to be remarkably simple: to see the sea, to spend an afternoon at home, to drop their children off at school. Some want to visit a loved one’s grave or attend a wedding. In short, Ambulance Wens offers them the ability to lead a normal life for a few hours and be with the people they love one last time. 

Patient-led day

The volunteers do all the necessary paperwork and fix a date. On the day, they collect the patient from the hospital or care home in their ambulance and fulfil their wish. There’s always a nurse and a paramedic on hand – sometimes in the background, sometimes joining in – in case they’re needed.

Often I’m there with tears in my eyes and the hairs on my neck standing up

- Jan Schraepen of Ambulance Wens

Only when the patient has decided they’re ready do they make the return journey. “It’s the patient who decides how long the wish will take,” says Jan. “We never know what time we’ll finish. We always tell them, today is your day. We’re not there tapping our watch and saying: ‘Hey, come on. It’s six o' clock, time to go’.” But for many, a couple of hours is enough.

Aside from the emotional toll, it must be draining running this enterprise alongside a full-time job. “Not at all. It really gives me so much energy,” Miet insists. “It’s a very special experience, for the patients and the families, but for us, too.”

It gives this same energy to people at the end of their life and allows a family the chance to say a proper goodbye. “Sometimes the family will call us and say that the patient can’t do it after all, that they’re too tired,” says Jan. “But we know it brings them comfort to do it.”

In the four years since they started, Miet and Jan have granted about 100 wishes to people from all over Flanders. Ambulance Wens’ Facebook page has 7,500 fans, and it’s regularly updated with moving stories and photos. 

Everyday things

Their first-ever patient was Martha, a woman from Vliermaalroot, near Hasselt, who wanted to put her feet in the sea, sit on a terrace in Blankenberge and eat mussels. She even found the strength to ride a pony along the beach.

“Then last month we had a woman, she was about 30, who had two young children who she wanted to take back to school after the summer holidays,” says Miet. “So we arranged it with the school, picked her up and took her there. And there was a mum who was in palliative care who wanted to be there on a Wednesday afternoon when her children arrived home from school. It’s such a normal, everyday thing, but it meant so much to them.”

Another patient from Antwerp wanted to see his hometown one last time, so Ambulance Wens took him and his family to the roof of the MAS museum on a glorious autumn day, from where he saw the whole city spread out before him. He passed away two days later.

How does it feel to be with someone during the last few hours of their life? “It’s incredible, really incredible. I can’t describe it,” says Jan. “It’s really powerful; often I’m there with tears in my eyes and the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.”

“It’s so wonderful to see them enjoy every minute of the day,” adds Miet. “They have a special sparkle in their eyes. They know they’re going to die, and most of the time they’re ready.”

Despite progressive legislation on euthanasia and a high standard of palliative care, talking about death is still something of a taboo. “People need to learn to talk about it with their families more because it’s always difficult for the people left behind,” says Jan. “But professionally, palliative care here is really very good.”  

Final moments

The relationship between doctor and patient is different to what the patients share with Ambulance Wens volunteers, explains Jan. “We listen a lot; we act almost like psychologists at times because people get to this point, and they want to talk.”

“Some of the conversations I’ve had with people, I will always remember,” adds Miet. “They talk to you about everything they’ve learned, what’s worried them, and sometimes they offer advice.”

Without Ambulance Wens, I wouldn’t have felt I’d had a real chance to say goodbye

- Nele

One woman told Miet: “‘If I could tell you just one thing, it would be to do what you love. Don’t worry about what other people think. Do it for yourself."

"You have to remember that the time you’re spending with them is really the last moments of their life," says Miet, "and it’s incredible to be sharing it.”

Two young women can attest to the difference a service like Ambulance Wens makes to the family left behind. Ambulance Wens arranged for Jessica, a young wife and mother from Diepenbeek, to meet singer and TV personality Koen Wauters at the recording of a TV show. Photos show a smiling young woman in what should have been the prime of her life, enjoying a night out with her sister and husband.

“When Jessica heard what had been arranged for her, she was so looking forward to it,” her sister Kirsten recalls. “To get away from it all: first a nice dinner, then meeting Koen Wauters and Jonas van Geel, experiencing the show. And all this with proper medical care if she needed it.

“She enjoyed the meet-and-greet so much; she was really beaming. It was an escape from the harsh reality. That evening when we came home, she was exhausted, but it was so worth it. Afterwards she looked back on it as such a happy experience, and so did we. It’s something we’ll always remember, a unique memory thanks to Ambulance Wens.”

Father’s Day

The father of Nele, 26, from Alken wanted to spend one last day in his garden with his wife and daughters. “He’d been in palliative care for a few weeks, and he just wanted to come home and spend some time in his garden and really say farewell,” Nele recalls.

“Friends, family and neighbours came round," she continues. "He drank a beer and chatted and gave everyone advice. He loved to chat, and he always said: ‘When I can’t talk any more, I want to go’. He stayed all afternoon and evening until the sun went down. The whole day he was so full of life, and that was enough for him, and for us.”

Two days later was Father’s Day. “My mother was with him at the hospital, and she called us to say it didn’t look good,” says Nele. “He died that night. At the funeral, I was in a bit of a daze, and the wish was the only thing I could remember. That was one of the last images I had of my dad. He was at home, we all gave him a big hug, and that was our farewell. Without it, I wouldn’t have felt I’d had a real chance to say goodbye.”

Photo courtesy Ambulance Wens