Christmas is a time to spend with family, friends and loved ones. Gathering around the tree to open presents, watching Christmas films, cooking a festive feast – most of us relax with loved ones blissfully unaware of the silent heroes who work tirelessly to make Christmas that much nicer for those suffering with illnesses.

Chris Dokelman, a palliative care nurse who works at the Florence Nightingale Hospice, based in Stoke Mandeville Hospital, spoke to the Bucks Free Press about the work they do to brighten up Christmas for people with life-limiting illnesses.

The medical team offers specialist palliative care to patients in hospital as well as in the community, with a 24-hour advice line for health care professionals to be able to do their jobs the best they can.

They work over Christmas, bank holidays, weekends and every other holiday we take for granted – and according to 31-year-old Chris, it can often be a thankless job.

He said: “It’s not just at Christmas time – we’re one of the only seven-day a week service so I think people do take us for granted – people know that we’re here so they call us up for all sorts of things, regardless of if it’s Christmas Day, Boxing Day, a bank holiday or a weekend.

“We do get used in that way because people know we’ll do our best to help.”

Chris is not working on Christmas Day this year, but has done in the past, and is working on Christmas Eve. He told the Free Press there is a “different buzz” around Christmas, for the patients and staff at the hospice.

He said: “People do forget that A&E is still open, that hospitals do still take patients. Working on Christmas is just like any other day for us [but] we go around with our Christmas hats on and it’s a bit more cheerful for the patients as well.

“It feels a bit more special for them.

“Even though with some of the patients their families will come in, they only spend a short amount of time with their relatives in hospital and then they disappear to go back home, and that’s understandable, that’s where they want to do Christmas.

“For us we feel like we’re their family for the day. It’s nice for them not to be alone and that’s how we would have to try and make them feel as well.

“There are nurses with families who they have left to come and look after other people, so you can tell it’s a different day.”

Chris, who is expecting a child with his wife next year, said being away from his partner is often more difficult for her than him as he is surrounded by people in his work, while she is alone at home, and it was the same when his mum, also a nurse, worked over Christmas.

He said: “[My mum] worked in the community so she used to come home with presents that she had been given.

“It did make me sad not to see her on Christmas Day – it was like it was the last present was waiting to come in. Luckily my dad wasn’t cruel enough to say wait until your mum is home to open your presents.

“I got to open a few but there a few that I had to wait for – but she was the biggest one.”

Speaking about the most difficult part of his job over Christmas, Chris said it was looking after younger patients who had families and young children who would visit them in the hospice and see them deteriorating over time.

He added: “They are coming towards to the end of their lives, or some patients are in pain or the symptoms that they have aren’t being controlled, so it’s important that we’re here.

“It would be horrible to think if no-one was working on Christmas Day would that patient’s pain be under control?

“It’s making sure that people’s continuity of care is constantly there.

“It can be sad especially if they’ve got young kids because for the young children especially the memory of mum or dad dying just before Christmas is there forever. It is quite sad.”

But the best part, says Chris, is when the staff spend time with older people who do not have any relatives, becoming their relative for the day: “It can be a bit more relaxed on Christmas Day, not as rushed as it usually is, and so you can spend that little bit longer certainly with the older population, especially if they’ve got no-one who’s come to visit them.

“It’s a nice intrinsic reward.”