Death usually took place at home until the 1940s, when medical science advanced in all major areas. Suddenly, people were mostly dying in hospitals instead. This continued through the 70s until there was a shift: patients wanted to return to the comfort of their own homes to die. Volunteers organized themselves to support this, and the modern hospice movement was born.
Victoria Hospice was the third such organized effort in Canada. “The development of palliative medicine was a grass-roots process,” explains Dr. Deb Braithwaite, a palliative physician with Victoria Hospice. Born of the authentic needs of the community, the movement attracted doctors who wanted to provide better care for their dying patients.
Dr. Braithwaite initially took a part-time position with the newly-formed Victoria Hospice 26 years ago. “When I was a family practice resident, there was no palliative medicine. Over time, we have moved from being seen as a rather alternative discipline to one that sets standards for comfort and choice in dying.”
“Most people associate hospice with the unit at the Royal Jubilee Pavilion, but we have over 350 registered patients, and the majority of those folks are at home. Ours is a very comprehensive program. Once you're registered—whether you're at home, or admitted to the 17-bed unit for acute care, or extended care—we're involved. Wherever the patient is, they will have the same team caring for them. From a patient's perspective, that consistency is a great comfort.”
Hospice sends its team of services—doctors, nurses, counsellors, volunteers—out to the patients, so they can remain at home if they choose to. “As a community doctor, I visit people at home and set up a palliative care plan, then follow up until they are settled in. To be successful requires you to spend time and energy on the connections. You are connecting with people in a very important and intimate time in their life. You are dealing with their true selves, their essential being, and that's part of the privilege and the reward of this work.”
Victoria Hospice is relying on a consistent and generous increase in financial support from the community to continue to meet its fast-growing needs. “When I started, we were caring for 35 patients,” says Braithwaite. The tenfold increase in demand over the last two decades shows no sign of slowing as the population ages. Every donation helps ensure that Victoria Hospice continues to provide the highest quality of palliative care to anyone who longs for compassion and comfort in dying.
[This article was originally published in the May 2010 edition of Focus Magazine.]