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Last week, Canadians were shocked and saddened by the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of an Ottawa woman. An op-ed piece written by her husband in the Ottawa Citizen was followed by a radio interview on CBC’s Ottawa Morning. Here are the links to the article and radio story:

http://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/columnists/adams-what-my-dying-wife-and-i-never-knew-about-palliative-care

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/programs/ottawamorning/palliative-care-1.4194365

The story provides graphic evidence of the shortcomings of palliative care in this country. As the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association has documented, only 17 to 35% of Canadians have access to hospice palliative care. Many factors result in that variation but even at the high point of 35%, the vast majority of Canadians are not receiving the care they need.

Those of us who have experienced palliative care can attest to the dramatic difference it can make in the lives of terminally ill patients and their families. As many experts have argued, palliative care should be available to patients from the onset of a life-threatening illness to help them deal with pain and other symptoms associated with their illness and to provide them with the knowledge needed to make informed choices.

When my sister was dying 20 years ago, there were (to my knowledge) no pain and symptom management teams or facilities we could access to help us with her care. It was our incredible good fortune to find an amazing palliative care nurse (through a visiting nursing service) who guided us through the final days. Her name was Isabelle (“Is a bell necessary on a bicycle?” she used to joke when I had trouble remembering her name) and she followed us from home to hospital when my sister had to be transferred. She patiently explained the significance of Cheyne-Stokes breathing (the “death rattle”) to a very frightened sister (me), offered non-judgmental advice on the choices we faced (e.g. whether oxygen might help), and reminded me that we were doing a great job.

Today, nurses like Isabelle are working in hospitals and residential hospices, and visiting patients in their homes (including long-term care facilities and retirement residences). They ease the journey towards death for both patients and their families. I wish everyone could have an Isabelle (or a Linda, Valerie, Marie, Esther … ) by their side at this difficult time in their lives.

In my view, there is nothing wrong with palliative care that greater commitment, education, financing, and access wouldn’t fix. We need greater emphasis on palliative care in medical schools and nursing programs. We need the federal government to truly commit to and fund an end of life strategy, and we need our provincial governments to ensure access to high quality hospice palliative care for all Canadians, regardless of where they live.

Until then, I fear that more people will experience the needless suffering that the article above describes. Let’s all work together to make sure that doesn’t happen.

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Losing a sibling

Preface: I just reread my last post, written nearly a month ago. I love the optimism in the conclusion, my happiness at being home amidst all my fixed points. Alas, within a few days I had somehow suffered an injury that left me with a pulled piriformis muscle and a resulting pinching of my sciatic nerve. (I know, this is too much information for most of you!) The result has been intense pain such that I have rarely experienced (48 hours of labour outdoes it but that was long ago, and with an excellent result!) It’s given me a new perspective on pain, on how exhausting and debilitating it is – and yet how largely invisible pain is, and thus people can assume (wrongly!) that it’s no big deal.

Many times over the past weeks, I’ve thought about how people reacted to my sister’s pain – suggesting she might be exaggerating or even making it up. I remember the orderlies who demanded that she “scoot over” onto their gurney from her hospital bed. Riddled with tumours up and down her spine, she could barely move, let alone “scoot over” upon command.

My sciatic pain was nothing compared to hers, which is why I hesitated to write about it. But as a nurse I worked with yesterday at hospice said, “it’s certainly not a lot of fun.”

All that to say, I haven’t been sitting at my desk for a long time – hence my silence here.

As readers may remember, yesterday was the 20th anniversary of my sister Carol’s death. As the date approached, I’ve thought a lot about the impact of her death on my life, and about what it means to lose a sibling. So I will share some of those thoughts here.

I fully recognize that not all siblings are close, often separated as they are by geography, age and even generation, by life choices, and historic grievances tracing back to childhood. Though my sister and I had had a few low points in her relationship (especially when I became a hippie and frequently criticized her for taking a “straight job.” I was insufferable!) But once I came to my senses and returned to university to become a teacher myself, our bond grew closer and closer.

When our mother suffered a massive brain aneurysm, Carol and I promised we would care for one another when we were sick or in need of help. And I was able to fulfill my half of that bargain when her cancer (originally diagnosed in 1978) returned with an unstoppable force in January 1997.

As often happens when someone is seriously ill, we became closer than we had ever been. Spending hours together, watching videos and bad daytime TV, remembering our childhood antics, talking about hopes and dreams (and fears).

When she died on July 4, 1997, I was devastated. Even though we all knew the end was coming, we had focussed on the immediate – tests, blood transfusions, medications – anything to make her more comfortable. My days were taken up with helping her, organizing her care, and commuting back and forth between Toronto, where she lived, and Ottawa where my immediate family resided. And then, suddenly, all that was gone. After months of thinking about what Carol needed, I had no idea how to carry on.

One of my strongest memories from that period was my desire for some sort of visible sign of my loss. A black arm band, a long black dress (as worn by widows in the Portuguese and Italian communities where I had lived for many years) – something to indicate that I was in mourning.

Though friends and colleagues sent cards and flowers immediately after Carol’s death, soon enough (far too soon for me) they began to carry on as if nothing had happened. Yes, I had a brand new job as the Director of Women’s Studies, and there were responsibilities I had to fulfill. But I still needed consoling.

What I found so difficult was the silence. Perhaps people didn’t know what to say.  Perhaps they found my bereaved state frightening. I had certainly been in their shoes before Carol died.  But now I experienced first hand the impact of avoidance and silence.

One factor, I think, was that most people my age had not yet experienced the loss of a close contemporary, be it a friend or relative. I was only 47 and Carol, just 51. While most of us experienced our grandparents’ deaths, and some of us, parents, siblings were part of the fabric of our lives, people who knew us from the very beginning (or soon thereafter), people with whom we could still consider ourselves young and more or less invincible.

At hospice, I see many people who are faced with the death of a sibling. I can still vividly recall the first person – her sister was a teacher, as Carol had been, her career and life now cut short by cancer’s horrible force. Her sister brought in baked goods almost every time she visited, and she would share the lemon bread, blueberry muffins, and other treats with the staff and volunteers. It was something concrete she could do, when there was nothing she could do to prevent her sister from dying.

Though we are not supposed to talk about our personal lives, I told this woman that my sister had died four years before. We didn’t discuss details, only that I, like her, had been her caregiver. She thanked me for telling her about my loss, and I could see her shoulders relax as she realized that she was not the only one.

Several years later, I bumped into her on the street.

“You know what I tell people?” she told me. “I tell them that when I met you, and I could see that you had lost your sister and you were still standing, and volunteering even, I knew I would survive the loss of my sister too.”

After Carol died, I searched for books that might help me deal with my loss and grief. While there were many books on parental and spousal loss, I found virtually nothing about losing a sibling. It’s one of the reasons I started writing about Carol around the time that I took the hospice training. Not only did I want to honour her with my words, but I wanted to let others know that I understand what it means to lose someone who has known (and put up with) you your entire life.

The death of a sibling can leave a deep and abiding void in one’s life. There will never be another Carol in my life. But I am grateful beyond words for what she taught me. And for the ways she has enabled me to help others through their loss and grief.

When I started my post earlier today, I thought I was going to write about why I had to cut my Provincetown writing trip short. But as often happens when I sit down to write, the words take me somewhere else.

Two and a half weeks ago, I packed up four file boxes of writing, a bin full of writing tools (pads, pens, extra computer, many books, printer cartridges, label maker – of course!) and headed off to Provincetown for my annual writing retreat. I’d booked four weeks this year – two of them in residence at the Fine Arts Work Center where I took my first writing class in 2001 and two of them at the Cape Codder Guest House where I have taken refuge every year since then. I was excited as I drove the 10 hours to my destination (in two days) and thrilled as I set up my computer on the desk in studio 4.

Unfortunately, by the first evening, I had a sort throat. By the second, I was blowing my nose non-stop, and by the third I was in bed, trying to find my voice again, and cursing the germ that had settled into my lungs. Grandchildren germs, I thought, remembering the coughs my daughter and her children were sharing freely before I left Ottawa.

I didn’t curse for long, however. Instead (perhaps miraculously) I found myself contemplating what opportunities being sick was offering to me. No, I didn’t think it was meant to be that I should get sick. But yes, I did find myself thinking, as I often do when I get sick, about the fragility of health, and life itself. As I lay in bed in this foreign land, I found myself appreciating the Canadian health care where I could visit a doctor without ever seeing a bill. (I’m always a little scared when I get sick in the US as I do NOT want to have to visit a US medical facility!) I appreciated my family (even as I wished I were closer to them at that moment), the many drug store items I had brought with me so that I didn’t have to spend precious American dollars, and the super duper soft Kleenex I splurged on, to soothe my weary nose.

I thought about how little I really needed – a salad from the health food store within easy walking distance, some chicken from Farland, my favourite lunch and provisions store. The lack of sun (and abundance of rain) made it that much easier to lie in bed and read or watch Netflix – and if I ran out of reading material, Provincetown’s fabulous library was just up the street.

For the most part I wasn’t able to write (hence the lack of blog posts for the past while), except for some scribbled pages at Harbor Lounge, three small blocks from my studio, with a fabulous view of the bay and the wharf (and wonderful cocktails and wine -the sign says it all – no food, just booze!)

By the end of the first weekend, I was feeling pretty proud of myself for being able to manage on my own. That’s when I noticed that I was scratching my head far more than usual – in fact, I was crazy itchy. The explanation arrived on Monday morning, when my daughter told me her children had lice. A quick try to the Shop and Stop (as I call it) for a comb and conditioner and I soon discovered that I too had lice. Not a million, but really, isn’t one more than enough.

I have to admit I was ready to throw in the towel at that point. Coughing, blowing my nose, achy, and now, LICE. My intrepid partner soon tracked down a lice lady on Cape Cod and urged me to give her a call. Feeling somewhat ashamed (who feels good about having lice?) I called the expert known as The Picky One. She sounded lovely – very matter of fact but kind – and we arranged for her to come to my studio the following day at noon.

To say I enjoyed our time together would be pushing it. She was, after all, picking nits off of my head. But we talked about aging parents and caregiving, and the challenges of dealing with children and parents at the same time. I told her about my book. She told me about how her father’s death had changed her. Before she left, she bought a copy of my book, and the next day, wrote to tell me she was crying by page 6 – while offering reassurances about my itchy head.

Many many loads of laundry and trips to the somewhat grungy laundromat later, I was ready to pack it in. I itched, I was still coughing and blowing my nose, and I still felt pretty miserable. My partner flew down to “rescue” me, we spent a beautiful sunny day in Provincetown, and then headed back home. As I packed up all the things I hadn’t used, file boxes unopened, art bag untouched, books unread, I admit to feeling regret that my retreat had not been as I had hoped.

But my time in Provincetown provided me with some important reminders – about taking care of myself, about letting go of expectations, about being with whatever happens. It reminded me of how much I like my life with its fixed points: hospice, volunteering with kindergarten children, playing the ukulele, spending time with my family and friends, walking by the river, singing in my choir. And I’m happy to be home again.

As anyone who knows me (and that includes readers of this blog, of course), I am not a person who believes that everything happens for a reason. Whether it’s a death, the loss of a close friend, a job, or a house, the onset of a serious illness – the list is long for the events for which some people are determined to find a “silver lining.” When my mother suffered a massive brain aneurysm, when my sister was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and on many other occasions in my life, well intentioned friends and acquaintances would attempt to console me with the thought that even these devastating events happened for a reason.

Most of the time I’ve managed to control myself enough not to lash out (or worse) at these people. Instead, I point out that terrible things rarely if ever happen for a reason. Rather, what matters is what we make of the situation – how we come to terms with it, how we respond, how we make meaning in our lives. Readers here will know that the experience of my sister’s death transformed me in ways I am still coming to understand. My ability to be with suffering and death, my passion for hospice palliative care, my commitment to helping others deal with illness and dying, all stem from caring for Carol when she was dying. So too do my meditation practice, my writing and speaking about caregiving, and my heightened intuitive sense of the suffering of others.

Carol’s death didn’t create these things, of course – nor are they the “reason” she died. But they are part of the meaning I found in the aftermath of losing her.

On July 4th, it will be the 20th anniversary of my sister’s death. I’m not sure yet how I will honour her  (though I do know I have a hospice shift that day, which seems like a fitting way to celebrate her!) No doubt, I’ll write something, as I have so often in the past 20 years. And I’ll remember, with enormous gratitude, all the things my big sister taught me in our 47 years together.

 

 

My last post – a death in the family – has had an amazing ride over the past five days! After I posted it on Facebook, I tried to “boost” it to reach more people and for some bizarre reason, FB deemed it to be unsuitable, objectionable content – they refused the ad and removed the message from Facebook! Magically, it reappeared a day later (perhaps because I appealed, though I doubt it!) And since then, an amazing number of people have read the post about my aunt’s last days. I am enormously gratified by the response and so glad my story reached so many people. Thanks to all of you!

It’s been a busy week, because this is National Hospice Palliative Care week. I participated on a webinar for the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association on living well, right to the end. Here’s the link to the show (I’m the first speaker, right after the introduction). I hope you enjoy it!

Last weekend I had the privilege of accompanying my aunt on the final days of her life. Long burdened with Alzheimer’s disease,  Aunt Ruth turned 94 on Friday, accompanied by a staff member who had stayed late Thursday night so she could be the first to wish her a happy birthday. On Saturday night at 11 p.m. she took her last breath, with another staff member by her side.

One of the longest residents of Fenelon Court, the long term care residence where she spent the final years of her life, Ruth was loved by the staff, who called her Ruthie, her childhood name I had only heard in family stories. She was the youngest of my father’s five siblings and the last to leave. She was spunky, spirited, outspoken, generous, and loving.

When we arrived from Ottawa on Friday, she was somnolent, no longer responding to visitors or staff. I had brought my ukulele with me on the trip, and knowing that hearing is the last sense to leave, I set myself up by her bedside and began to play. Whether she could hear me I’ll never know, but I like to think that the music of Leonard Cohen (Hallelujah) and the gentle words of The Water is Wide provided her with comfort on her journey.

As I played, staff came in and out of the room to check on Ruth, and to offer drinks or food to me. Each time they entered, I was struck by their gentle caring and familiarity with “Ruthie.”

“She’ll do it in her own time,” one nurse commented. “You always have, haven’t you Ruthie.”

On Saturday we spent much of the day with Ruth, giving my eldest sister a much-needed respite from the long days she had been spending by her side. Once again, I sang, shared birthday cards and stories with Ruth, reminders of the love that surrounded her. When we finally went back to our hotel at 9, one of the nurses reassured us that she would sit with Ruth. She remained at her side until she died.

The next morning we returned with my sister Judy to begin cleaning our Ruth’s room. Ruth’s body was still there, and I was glad for my years of hospice volunteering that helped it seemed perfectly natural. As I remarked on the volume of clothes in her closet, I couldn’t help but notice their beautiful condition – another tribute to the careful attention of the staff.

As we prepared to walk out with the people from the funeral home, a staff member lay a quilt over her body, and as we walked slowly to the front door, staff members throughout the building lined the halls, a gesture of respect I recognized from my own hospice.

Though I am writing this post to honour Aunt Ruth, I am also honouring the amazing staff at Fenelon Court. When I knew she was in a long term care facility, I had an image of hallways filled with patients sleeping slumped over in wheelchairs, a certain smell permeating the building. I had witnessed these scenes in other long term care facilities, and I was dreading seeing my aunt in such a place.

Fenelon Court could not have been farther from those expectations! The building is bright and clean, the patients engaged in activities where possible, and attended to with care in every encounter I witness. “We are their family,” one nurse told me. “Often they have a son or daughter who rarely visits. We are here every day and we love them. They’re our family too.”

Perhaps it’s because the facility has only 67 residents – and it is designed in pods so each area is relatively small and contained. Perhaps it’s because it is located opposite an elementary school and children often visit the centre, sharing drawings, Easter activities, and joy with the residents. Perhaps it’s because it’s located in a small town, a place where community really matters. But I think there’s something more – something I can’t quite put into words – beyond respect, dignity, caring, and love. That’s what I experienced with my aunt last weekend. And for that I am enormously grateful.

Fenelon Court

fenelon_overview

In the midst of a far-too rainy Spring, what better way to pass the time than to curl up with a good book? Of course, if are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that my taste in books, films, television programs,  and conversations does tend towards death and dying!

The New York Times has a lovely review of the new book by Jessica Zitter MD.  Dr. Zitter’s work has been featured on the New York Times and numerous other publications, and in the recent Oscar nominated Documentary short, Extremis.  Here’s the link to the film: https://www.netflix.com/search?q=extremis&jbv=80106307&jbp=0&jbr=0 (available on Netflix)

Check out this review, then read the book!

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