Community spirit all sewn up for BRHS Palliative Care

In a time of grief, it’s the little things that can make the biggest difference.

The donation of Butterfly Bags and hand-stitched Healing Hearts means a great deal to Bairnsdale Regional Health Service and to people who have just lost loved ones at BRHS.

The latest batch of butterfly bags and hearts from Community Sewing East Gippsland comes to BRHS during National Palliative Care Week.

The butterfly bags are given to the loved ones of a person who has died after palliative care at BRHS to carry home their loved one’s personal effects.

Community Sewing East Gippsland is a project of the Lakes Entrance-based Lions Club of Gippsland Lakes Lionesses. A team of around 10 permanent members and a rolling roster of another 10 volunteers produces the bags and hearts.

Project coordinator Maria Armistead said the butterfly design on the cloth bags has a special significance.

“The butterfly represents a caterpillar that has blossomed to become a butterfly, which to us symbolises what happens when someone passes – they have left one stage of their life, and they’re into another stage.”

Butterflies also feature in the Palliative Care lounge at BRHS for the same reason, and are a symbol that is used by many other palliative care organisations.

Rotamah ward Nurse Unit Manager Michelle Wealands, who is passionate about palliative care at BRHS, said the butterfly bags are intended as a lovely gesture with more of a personal touch for families to carry home the personal effects of the loved one they have just lost.

“When people leave the hospital after they have lost someone, they are walking away without them and any link to this place, which can be very hard to do. Some people struggle to walk away after someone has passed, and these are a small gesture of connection to the place where they had those last moments and last memories with that person,” she said.

“Walking out with a plastic shopping bag with their loved one’s belongings is so impersonal. There is something special about the butterfly bags. It’s something they can treasure.”

The hearts are a small keepsake for people who are grieving the death of their loved one.

“We suggest that people take them for family that couldn’t be there, for children so they can keep some connection as well. A husband who has lost his wife can keep one in his pocket to keep that connection at the funeral and beyond. For some people, it’s something just to hang onto because they need to hold onto something,” Michelle said.

Maria said the project shows that East Gippsland people care for one another. “It’s the community caring for the community,” she said.

“We have all lost somebody, and we just wanted to do something for people who are in this situation. (Fellow sewing group member) Jeanette (Workman) heard of butterfly bags being made up in NSW. We didn’t know anyone in Victoria that was doing it, so I approached (BRHS Patient Liaison Officer) Vicki Gillick, and she said, ‘I love it!’. It snowballed from there.”

A tag that reads, “Made with love” is placed in every bag. Michelle said: “It’s lovely, it’s hand-made. It shows that someone cares enough to have done that, and it validates their experience being here”.

The group was making items for donation for charities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland but six months ago switched its focus solely on East Gippsland, Maria said.

The team has now produced 100 butterfly bags and dozens of hearts, with Orbost Regional Health also seeking the butterfly bags.

“As soon as the public finds out what we’re doing, people just offer us fabric. The only fabric we don’t have is Aboriginal-type fabric,” she said.

Members of the BRHS Palliative Care team.


Palliative care is one of those terms that many of us know but may not understand.

As Michelle said: “The definition of palliative care is looking at optimising the quality of life for people with a life-limiting illness. It’s not just things like cancer and the obvious things. It can be for all sorts of reasons – degenerative disease, cardiovascular disease in its last stages”.

Michelle encouraged anyone diagnosed with a life-limiting condition to plan their palliative care journey early.

“People hear palliative care and think it’s end-of-life care. But people can be palliative for years before they reach the end-of-life care phase. Engaging palliative care services as early as possible provides so much support. Their experience can be much more peaceful and symptom-free and well-managed instead of hitting a crisis point, then trying to implement a lot of things very quickly,” she said.

“We can engage community palliative care services to have monthly phone check-ins or weekly home visits, we can link them with equipment needs much earlier than they may realise they need them. We can pre-emptively plan things and look at the bigger picture – the spiritual needs, the psycho-social needs, the physical needs and the emotional needs.”

Palliative care nurses at BRHS and staff from its home-based nursing service are backed by many medical and allied health practitioners right across BRHS.

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