Stories from the edge of life as told by Harry.
It’s Wednesday, shortly after 6 am, and I’m off to a weekly shift at Victoria Hospice. Hospice is in the Richmond Pavilion, an older, red brick building at the Royal Jubilee Hospital. Ironically, it used to be the hospital’s labour and delivery unit. Yes, some people entered the world here, and left it again in the very same place. The elevator opens on the 3rd floor, and I see one or two nurses around the front desk. Lights are low, and it’s quiet at 7 am.
Sarah, my volunteer partner, is already there when I arrive. I enjoy catching up with her young life each week; her psychology studies, her job and news of her dad who, like me, was born in Northern Ireland. Our first job is to listen to the overnight taped reports from the nurses, outlining each patient’s status on the 17-bed unit.
As I survey the list of patients I note that while there are a few very old patients, many are younger than my 65 years. Illness can have little respect for age.
With blue volunteer vests on, we’re on shift at 7:30 am. I walk the still, dark hallway to see if any lights are on in patient rooms, and if they are, I gently knock on the door, introduce myself, and welcome another day in both our lives. Some people I’ll recognize from last week, some are no longer here, and possibly, some may be gone by the end of this shift.
One man I know well is Robert. In the spring, I met him at his home to record his life story as part of Victoria Hospice’s Life Stories program. Robert is a gruff former mechanic who’s been living with lymphatic cancer for a couple of years and is now here as a respite patient. I enquire how he’s been and if he’s had a chance to listen to the Life Stories we recorded. “Yes,” he replies, looking out the window away from me, “I’m glad we did it.” An edge of emotion cracks his voice and shows in his eyes, as he blinks back the beginning of tears. Robert’s big concern is how his adult son who is disabled will cope with his death, even though they’ve talked about it lots. I nod and listen to Robert, but he’s a man of few words when it comes to expressing emotion. I think I’ll mention his name to Arnold the counsellor, for some follow up later.
As I leave Robert’s room I see a small stuffed angel hanging by the door across the hallway, the signal that death has come to that room and claimed another, Karen aged 90.
This reminds me that I want to see Donna. I’ve helped feed Donna breakfast these past two weeks, but now I see her Palliative Patient Score has dropped to 10, and death will not be long in coming.
She, too, has had a long life, coming from England after the war and meeting her husband-to-be on her very first day in Canada. They were together for almost 70 years before he died just a few months ago. His picture sits on her side table. Her room is dim and quiet. Her eyes are closed, and her breathing is shallow. The skin on her face seems to have drawn tauter since last week. I draw up a chair, hold her hand and wish her well on whatever journey lies ahead. Whether voluntary or not, there’s a slight ripple under her eyelids, a small but perceptible press in her hand. Fare thee well, Donna.
It’s 8:15 am and breakfast is arriving. Most patients are able to eat independently with some help setting up. This morning Greg will need help. I haven’t met him before, and immediately notice his distinctive long, white hair that flows from a bald crown. At 98 he’s had long innings, but there will be no opportunity to hear his story over breakfast of chocolate pudding, as his recall and sentences are now confused. I hear his London accent, and so I break into an old music hall song, but today there is no sign of recognition.
Beyond breakfast, I run into James, whose wife Anna is on the unit. James describes how they’ve been living with Anna’s breast cancer for over 5 years, facing the spectre of death all this time. I listen, and am reminded of the resilience required of caregivers at home when loved ones fall sick. Anna is 54.
The end of shift draws near, and I see Laura and Ted arrive, a couple of really experienced volunteers who replace Sarah and me at 10:30 am. We share our shift report and some lighthearted banter. There’s a special bond between the good people who are hospice volunteers. I say my farewells in the volunteer office, then receive some thanks from the shift nurses on my way out.
On the elevator again, I’m with Maria, a hospice community care worker. Maria is from South America and is heading home to provide care to a family member who is dying. She explains that palliative care as we know it does not exist in her home country. Together, we step out of the Richmond Pavilion on a lovely morning, she to prepare for the long journey ahead, and me to give thanks for my good fortune to be alive and well on another day of my journey on this earth.
Note: Volunteer and patient names have been changed.
To learn more about volunteering at Victoria Hospice, please visit: https://www.victoriahospice.org/volunteers.