Going home: Dispelling the myth of palliative care

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Mark Johnston is a young man, a father, and a firefighter who should be enjoying a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning with his wife and two kids while reading the paper and watching them grow up. Instead, he is suffering from terminal colorectal cancer.

Four years ago Mark was diagnosed with cancer and went to an acute care hospital for his first surgery. When it was time to go home, his brother firefighters arrived wearing their bunker coats and with an extra one for Mark, escorted him out of the hospital Ñ a gesture that reassured him that he would not be alone in this fight.

Four years later, entire fire stations, District Chiefs, several off duty firefighters, and close family friends arrived on a cloudy, winter day to escort him home once again. For reasons that only fellow firefighters could comprehend, the decision to come together and make this very public and emotional exit from the palliative care unit at ƒlisabeth Bruyre Health Centre (ƒBHC) was an obvious one. This is what you did for a brother firefighter and this is certainly what you did for Mark Johnston.

When brother firefighter Bruce Griffin was asked how to best describe Lt. Mark Johnston, the immediate response was, “Any description of Mark would be an understatement.” Debbie Gravelle, Advance Practice Nurse on the palliative care unit and friend of Mark’s adds, “You were drawn to him the first time you met him. He had this aura of goodness and then when you got to know him, that ‘good heart’ just amazed you.”

After Mark recovered from his surgery, he returned to work within the year as an active firefighter/Lieutenant before suffering a relapse and being forced on long-term disability.

Inside ÉBHC there is a rehabilitation program and a long-term care home, but it’s the myth of the palliative care program that it is quite well known for – that once you go inside ƒBHC you don’t come out. Mark was well aware of that myth and initially he didn’t want to go into this program. He agreed to go for seven days and ended up stayed for 10 until his pain and symptoms were under control. Then, it was time to go home.

Captain Balcom states, “Mark helped dispel the myth regarding Élisabeth Bruyre.” For the short time Mark was in the palliative care program, there was a steady stream of firefighters and friends visiting all day and often staying through the night. One evening, Mark, wife Rebeccah, and close family friends received a phone call from a fellow firefighter, Brandon Stewart, who was attending a fundraising event for “Quest for a Cure.” The band was dedicating the song “Let it Be” to Mark. The phone was held up so Mark and company were able to hear this dedication live and once again be reassured of the support that surrounded him.

The morning of Mark’s discharge from the palliative care unit, the communications department sent out an e-mail to staff outlining the special event that was going to take place. The e-mail explained that the ladder from a fire truck would be raised to this patient’s window and a firefighter would be climbing the ladder with a note to the patient. It was further explained that as part of the ceremony, the patient, his wife, son, daughter, and a few firefighters would enter the elevator on the fifth floor. They would stop at each floor on the way down where his fellow firefighters would escort him and his family out of the hospital together.

Pulling off a surprise in front of an entire hospital is not an easy task. “The staff at ƒBHC totally accommodated us. It’s not every day four fire trucks and 30 firefighters arrive at their front door,” says Captain Balcom.

When the fire trucks pulled up to ÉBHC, a large crowd had already gathered in the lobby and overflowed on to the street. Dozens of fire fighters broke off into groups as the Captain gave them their instructions in preparation for Mark’s departure home. As the firefighter began to climb the ladder with a sign saying “It’s time to go home” – that journey had begun for everyone. Because sometimes you really canÉ