A time to make memories

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Despite feeling unwell, Cynthia Vaz went ahead with her trip to India last November. While abroad, she learned the nagging pain in her groin was not tendonitis; it was cancer. Anxious to get back to Canada to be near her sons, she arrived home on December 23, was seen by an oncologist at The Credit Valley Hospital (CVH) on December 24, and had declined so rapidly that she required oxygen to assist her breathing before the new year arrived.

There are so many questions. Most of us have wondered about our own death. How will it happen? When? Will we be afraid? Will there be pain? Where will we spend our final days? Will we be alone?

Since these are difficult questions, it’s hard to arrive at definitive answers. It’s comforting to know that there is a well-defined approach in place to better understand and manage the process of living with a terminal illness and dying from it. Palliative care provides patients in the latter stages of their disease with care that focuses on control of physical symptoms as well as addressing emotional, practical and spiritual needs.

The Credit Valley Hospital’s palliative care unit dedicates eight beds to caring for patients in the final weeks or months of their lives. A multidisciplinary approach to patient care by nurses, physicians, social workers, a psychologist, a music therapist and other health professionals is complemented by the role of spiritual care services and specially trained volunteers.

Every day is a gift to Cynthia. She yearns to capture and preserve her thoughts and memories for her two sons, her daughter-in-law and the grandchildren she may never have an opportunity to meet. As a palliative care visitor, Jessie Solarski plays a significant role in Cynthia’s life and her care.

Jessie is a devoted 10-year volunteer at CVH who already works at the hospital’s information desk, provides comfort to patients receiving chemotherapy with hot soup, warm blankets and a warm smile while also being active and involved as a primary volunteer for the hospital foundation’s events and activities. Wanting to give more, Jessie yearned to explore other avenues where she could help.

Having fought her own battle with cancer, she wanted to give back to those who were not as lucky as she was. Five years ago, she embarked on the 10 week training course offered by Hospice of Peel so that she could lend her time and special skills to patients in the hospital’s palliative care unit. “I love people. I have compassion for what patients are going through. I want to help. I want to give. I always, always get back –I get lots of hugs. This work is so rewarding,” Jessie says.

Through a partnership with Hospice of Peel, volunteers like Jessie are trained to provide support, a reprieve for caregivers and to complement the care provided by in-home care providers or health-care professionals in an acute care setting such as the hospital.

Jessie’s role is to provide a consistent and reliable presence, a compassionate and attentive listening ear and a shoulder to lean on when it feels right for both parties. However, in the case of these two busy ladies, there are also some very practical projects underway.

Jessie and Cynthia have known one another for two months. Jessie initially visited twice a week for about an hour each visit. The ladies shared mutual admiration as each one taught the other new skills – Jessie taught Cynthia how to crochet and Cynthia taught Jessie how to knit. “She tells me how talented I am and really lifts my spirits making me feel so good about myself,” Cynthia says. “I just love her; she’s so bubbly and hard-working.”

With Jessie’s help, Cynthia is creating photo albums for her sons. She is also working diligently with the hospital’s music therapist, Beth Hamilton, to compose a selection of seven songs combined with words customized for each of her sons that will be captured as a permanent record when their mother is no longer with them. As well, Cynthia uses a hand-held digital recorder to record random memories and thoughts of her childhood, her life and her learnings so that they will always be able to hear her voice. “I want to share my memories so that my grandchildren will know me,” she says.

With so many large projects at hand, the women have been spending more time together. There is an unspoken urgency to get through the projects while Cynthia has enough energy. Jessie recently visited for more than six hours on a Saturday afternoon diligently working with Cynthia on the albums she so dearly wants to complete.

One day at a time is the only way Cynthia can cope with the prospect of what lies ahead. “I thank God for my blessings. I have two gorgeous sons – My God they are fantastic and they love me to distraction – I’m very lucky,” says Cynthia. “I’m fortunate to have this chance; I can look at my life, reflect and make peace – God gave me this time,” she adds.

Cynthia is grateful for the energy she still has and likes to keep her mind active. She plays ‘Brain Age’ a computerized game that estimates actual brain age based on game performance. A recent result indicated her actual age was 68. At the age of 57, Cynthia will have no part of that nonsense and has been practicing to better her score because when she goes with Jessie to play BINGO, she intends to win!