Looking back, moving forward

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Doris Thomas, the director of Volunteer Services at St. Mary’s of the Lake Hospital tells a story about Ron Ostic, one of the many St. Mary’s palliative care volunteers. Ostic enjoys playing his harmonica for the patients. It is something he has been doing for a few years now, as many of the patients enjoy listening to the music. Thomas recalls the day Ostic was playing for an elderly patient, who felt so peaceful she began to sing along, and as her voice faded she passed away. Ron believed he sung her into heaven.

Providence Care is proud of the St. Mary’s palliative care program, which has grown from a small program to one with a reputation for end-of-life care where patients and families experience compassion, empathy, caring and a feeling of peace.

The St. Mary’s team of dedicated and compassionate staff, volunteers and physicians is celebrating 20 years in palliative care this October. Over the course of the past two decades, “Two South” at St. Mary’s has cared for hundreds of patients and their families.

“It’s hard not to reflect back to 1987 when our program was just getting started,” says Dr. Ivan Stewart. He remembers just how much work went into fighting for a palliative care unit, being one of the first medical professionals in Kingston to lobby for the unit at the Catholic hospital.

Stewart, who is now a palliative care physician, says: “It was hard to convince health care workers that palliative care was a rewarding field to specialize in.” It was even more difficult to convince doctors that palliative care and pain management could be delivered more effectively. “Initially there was resistance due to a lack of understanding.”

Stewart admits that even he was not aware how great the need was for palliative care until the early eighties, when he treated a patient whose pain at the end of his life journey was unbearable. “Seeing him like that made me feel I had to do something, anything,” he recalls.

Stewart adds that learning about Cicely Saunders, the British doctor who is recognized as the “founder’ of palliative care, also made a big impression. “With the support St. Mary’s CEO at the time, Sister Grace Maguire, we were able to educate enough of our colleagues to obtain the support to open a two-bed palliative care unit”, he explains.

Today Dr. Stewart works closely with Dr. Greg Patey, the clinical leader for St. Mary’s complex continuing and palliative care program, as well as Dr. Chris Frank, clinical leader for the hospital’s specialized geriatric program. All three physicians advocate for the care needs of their patients.

After two decades of experience, the unit has grown to six beds and some of the nurses who started on the unit, such as Cathy Perrin and Donna Owen, are still involved. Program educator Ann Murray says the health-care professionals at St. Mary’s are leaders in their field. “When we attend international conferences and hear what the best practices are we recognize we are often delivering care that goes beyond that of other palliative care programs,” Murray says. “We have really perfected our skills in symptom management.”

But it’s not always easy – this specialized area of care does take its toll on the doctors, nurses and other health professionals involved. Stewart recalls one case in particular where the patient was a former colleague, and watching her end of life experience during her last days was tough on everyone on the unit.

Murray says the main reason she is actively promoting the palliative care unit’s anniversary this year is because of the modest ways of the staff and the hundreds of volunteers over the years who have avoided the spotlight and any recognition or public thank you. She notes one grateful family of a patient who passed away on the palliative care unit raised thousands of dollars to buy a blanket warmer – an incredible comfort to patients.

Other donors have purchased new flatscreen TVs, a fridge, and paid for redecorating the private patient rooms as well as the family and visitors room. “I just think it’s so exciting to say we are celebrating 20 years. We’ve never been one to celebrate our successes as a team,” says Murray.

In October Murray wants all of the staff, volunteers, physicians and the community to celebrate the great care provided by the palliative care team. She and other committee members are organizing a public forum and conference called Dignity and End-of-Life Care: Challenges and Opportunities.

They are expecting a large turnout, in part because more and more health-care workers are becoming interested in palliative care. Medical students are learning about palliative care earlier in their education, and some are even working on the St. Mary’s unit this summer. Murray says it is this shift in the medical profession that is the biggest difference from 20 years ago.

“Every year the demand for our services increases. It’s not because the number of patients is increasing but because other physicians have become more aware of what palliative care has to offer their patients,” he says. “That’s been a major learning curve.”