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Six stories and life lessons from Sunnybrook’s palliative care staff

Often, it isn’t until people are faced with death that they reflect on their lives and take inventory of the way they spent their years.

Sunnybrook staff who work in palliative care confront the realities of death every day through the patients whom they work with. Read six stories and lessons that Sunnybrookers have learned about living while working with people who are dying.

Karen Johansen, advanced practice nurse

While there certainly is lots of sadness working in palliative care, Karen Johansen wants people to know that it’s not all “doom and gloom.”

Apart from helping people to feel comfortable in their final days, Karen and her team also aim to help patients “live until they die,” whatever that may mean for them.

“That is something I’m very passionate about,” she says.

To name a few stories, Karen has helped a patient who couldn’t leave her bed to go outside for the last time, she’s helped a patient get married on the unit before passing, and she’s helped a Toronto Maple Leafs fan attend one more game with his young son.

“Everybody who’s nearing end of life deserves the best of the best care,” says Karen. “That’s the least we can do for these folks and their families.”

A lesson Karen’s learned while working in palliative care at Sunnybrook:

“Working in the palliative care unit makes you realize on a daily basis how short life is. We have so many people admitted to our unit who, a week or two ago, were like everyone else; they were healthy, working, going on with their lives. And all of a sudden, they’re on our unit dying. And it can happen that fast. So, it just makes you realize that life is precious, and we need to be thankful for every day that we have.”

Dana Chatzitassis, environmental services partner

Dana Chatzitassis has been working at Sunnybrook for the past 24 years, with the past eight on the palliative care unit. And while she says it’s a privilege to do the work that she does, she says that working on her unit can be especially challenging.

“We don’t get to see anyone get better and go home, and we are witness to more heartache and grief in a day than most people see in a lifetime,” says the environmental services partner.

To keep things in perspective, Dana focuses on the lessons she learns from patients and the support she receives from her team.

“The kindness, bravery and empathy I see demonstrated every day in the most difficult situations offers the best education,” she says.

Speaking specifically about her coworkers, she adds, “We are truly a second family.”

A lesson Dana’s learned while working in palliative care at Sunnybrook:

“Life is short, and the most important things in life are not things. Don’t get me wrong. Shopping is normal. But, if all you are about is what you own and who you are wearing, rather than how you make others feel around you, if you take all of the flash away, who are you?”

Jill Hedican, music therapist

If you hear music being played in Sunnybrook’s palliative care unit, chances are, Jill Hedican is around.

“I play quite a bit of live music using guitar, voice and violin,” she says.

As both a certified music therapist and a registered psychotherapist, Jill plays an important and multi-faceted role on the palliative care team.

“I am able to use music as a tool to meet a wide range of patient needs,” she says.

Some of these needs include reducing pain perception, supporting emotional expression, building community during patient group sessions, promoting relaxation through individual sessions at the bedside, and creating memories by playing music with families.

Of this unique insight into patients’ “beautiful memories, tragedies, struggles and resilience,” Jill says, “I have the opportunity to witness raw emotion and the beauty and complexity of human relationships as they unfold each day.” 

A lesson Jill’s learned while working in palliative care at Sunnybrook:

“In working with patients in palliative care, offering creative and expressive outlets and opportunities for meaningful living, even as they approach death, I have learned to seek out the same opportunities for myself and my loved ones. I spend a lot of time being creative, connecting with nature, doing things I find fulfilling and trying to remember to seek support from others when I need it.”

Tricia Mills, recreation therapist

Most people don’t know that our palliative care unit offers a wide variety of recreational programs. At the heart of this important programming is Tricia Mills.

“It is a privilege to get to meet and support people at what can be a very difficult time in their lives,” says the recreation therapist.

In her role, Tricia puts on community-building programs like lunch sessions, where patients get to connect and relate with one another while enjoying a home-cooked meal. She also runs more personal programs, such as legacy work, where patients write cards and letters that are shared with their loved ones after they pass. Once, Tricia even helped a former economist, who had lost his vision, to achieve his goal of writing one last article.

“My job is very rewarding,” says Tricia. “I have learned to look for the positive in every day.”

A lesson Tricia’s learned while working in palliative care at Sunnybrook:

“One very important life lesson I have learned is not to take any day or relationship for granted. Each day is a blessing. Actions can’t always be put off until tomorrow as there isn’t a guarantee for tomorrow.”

Dr. Irene Ying, palliative care consultant

When a patient is transitioning into palliative care, Dr. Irene Ying is often the person to share that news with them.

“What I tell the medical students is: this is a skill, like doing any kind of procedure in medicine,” says Irene of the process of letting someone know they’re going to die. “It’s never going to be easy, but it does get easier when you know how to break that news in a way that’s empathetic.”

After the palliative care consultant lets patients know of their prognosis, she shifts her efforts to ensuring they feel supported as they approach end of life.

“When you give bad news, oftentimes, patients feel like their life is just spinning out of control,” she says. “So, you hold their hand through this process and give them some guidance around what’s next.”

Much of the time, “what’s next” is simply minimizing suffering. In addition, Irene likes to learn about the patient’s life and personality, to remind them that they are a human, not a disease, and she helps them enjoy their last days as much as possible.

“Most of the time, it’s really low-key goals, like going out for a coffee with friends,” Irene says of the things her palliative patients want to do. “I think it’s because you realize, all that stuff and money — what’s it going to buy me? It’s not going to buy me more time or happiness. What’s going to give me happiness? It’s going to be spending time with the people I love.”

A lesson Irene’s learned while working in palliative care at Sunnybrook:

“In one word: gratitude. There’s this pervasive sense of gratitude in my life knowing that things can change so quickly. So, I hug my kids tighter. I try to find more moments to just laugh with them and be present with them. Because time just goes by so quickly. So, I’m so grateful for everything that I have, and that contributes a lot to my general sense of meaning and satisfaction in life.”

Jordan Kerr, spiritual and religious care provider

It wasn’t until his grandmother fell ill that Jordan Kerr considered a career in spiritual care.

While in the hospital during his grandmother’s last days, the then airport worker gathered family around the bed to read one of his grandmother’s favourite bible chapters.

“Her face softened and she calmed down and relaxed,” says Jordan, of the changes he saw in his grandmother as he read to her. He adds, “It was a moment when the family came together as well.”

That moving experience prompted Jordan to change careers.

Today, the now spiritual and religious care provider works with patients and families of all faith backgrounds across the hospital as they deal with illness, death, and the uncertainties associated with these big life transitions.

“I do emotional, spiritual, religious support. When I meet with patients who are unfamiliar with spiritual care support, I will explain it by saying: ‘If you need to laugh, talk, pray, cry, yell, scream, swear or just sit quietly, that’s what I’m here for,'” says Jordan. “It’s helping someone be comfortable in spaces of uncertainty.”

A lesson Jordan’s learned while working in palliative care at Sunnybrook:

“When you encounter people making that transition into death, you become much more accepting about that spectrum of life. It brings you a consistent reminder that you are mortal too, and this is what the human experience looks like. The life lesson for me is to expect that experience. Death is no different than any other part of life.”

About the author

Kaitlin Jingco

Kaitlin is a Digital Communications Specialist at Sunnybrook who focuses predominantly on Sunnybrook's content and social media.