RVH’s Cancer and Palliative Care Unit…

Mark Johnston hugged his wife Sheri Lynn, for the last time. She was unaware of the embrace. She was already gone.

In the early hours of August 31st Sheri Lynn, 41, took her last breath and succumbed to the disease she had been fighting for more than a year.

“We knew it was coming, but Sheri Lynn wanted to stay strong,” says Mark.

Her death might not have been a surprise, but it still hurt – it hurt everyone.

It hurt her husband who had faithfully taken care of her and spent every moment he could at her bedside.

It hurt her two children – Bradley, 11, and Logan, 15 – who began the school year without their mom.

It hurt her family, friends and it hurt Wende Hogan. Hogan is a seasoned nurse with the Unit at Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH) in Barrie and although death is as much a part of her job as dispensing medication, it’s still a hard pill to swallow.

“We are still hit hard when one of our patients dies. You are with them and their family at the most vulnerable time in their life. We consider that opportunity a real gift to us, but because of that you can’t avoid being connected. So when they are hurting we cry with them. We do that a lot,” says Hogan, a nurse for 18 years.

She and colleague Sylvia Styling, RN, were Mark’s primary support during his wife’s journey and together they have shed many a tear as they have watched what this young family has had to endure. When they themselves need support they rely heavily on the other members of the team as well as opportunities for retreats which focus on nurturing palliative nurses.  They know it’s important because when they are on shift they need to be emotionally prepared to handle just about anything.

Sheri Lynn’s journey was especially emotional because she was so young, her husband so devoted to her care and two young boys clearly aware they were losing their mother. When Sheri Lynn was admitted to RVH last August with terminal cancer the goal was to keep the pain under control and make her as comfortable as possible. The admittance to the unit meant Mark had to face the reality of the situation.

“I can build and fix anything, but I couldn’t fix my wife,” says Mark, wiping the tears streaming down his face. “I’m so glad these nurses were here for me. I never knew them before, but now I feel as if I’ve known them for years.”

The focus of the team on the Cancer and Palliative Care Unit extends far beyond just the needs of the patient.

“The patient is our primary concern, but we also care for the husband, the children and the extended family. We access every resource we can so they will have as much support as possible, not just now but for after as well. We ensure that our connection with them doesn’t just end here,” says Kristina Amores–Hudson, manager of Cancer and Palliative Care Unit, RVH. “The nurses on this unit are a different breed. The level of compassion comes so naturally – it is innate in them.  These nurses are able to help our patients through their final moments with such compassion and dignity – it’s just who they are.”

And despite having to do that 15 to 18 times a month the palliative cancer nurses never truly get used to saying,”Goodbye.”

RVH’s 32-bed Cancer and Palliative Care Unit was opened and patients safely transitioned into the new space in August 2012 following the opening of the Simcoe Muskoka Regional Cancer Centre, both part of the Phase 1 Expansion Project.

“This kind of nursing is not everyone’s cup of tea, but those who choose it, love it because they know they are making a difference in someone’s quality of life during their final days,” says Hogan.

Mark would agree.

“It takes a special kind of person to be nurse on this floor. They let me help in Sheri’s care, but they also gave me a breather and let me focus on just being her husband which is what she needed.”