Her mother had died three years previously. It had been a challenging process for her father, Jean and her sister. Her mother was unable to acknowledge or accept that she was dying and this made it difficult to have any meaningful conversations with her… a large elephant was always in the room. The family was deliberate in making sure that she knew how much they loved her but, instinctively, Jean knew that it would have been so much better if they all could have shared the same understanding of just what her mother was experiencing.
After her mother died, Jean was drawn to literature on palliative care and hospice work. It helped her to understand that, yes, indeed, there was a better way to be with a loved one through the dying process. Jean answered the ad and was very excited when told she had the job. “This is wonderful! Now what do I do?” Jean asked herself.
She was soon off to see her first client in the hospital. “I stood outside the door to his room and I thought, ‘Take a deep breath… I am not here to fix things, I am here to listen.’ I let out my breath and walked into the room.” Thus began Jean’s second career – one she holds so dear that she continues to this day to volunteer for the Hospice Society doing respite for caregivers and sitting vigil with the dying. “It’s in my DNA,” Jean says. “It is just part of who I am… I am a caregiver.”
“When I began the job, at fifteen hours a week, my office was in my home: no computer - just a notebook and a telephone. Audrey Engstrom, the previous volunteer program coordinator, was my life-line… generous with her knowledge and her records.
One of my first jobs was to set up a course to train volunteers but I also had to take the course myself. Sally Hodgson, a community care nurse and former hospice board chair, agreed to teach the course. Sally and I worked together over thirteen years in delivering the course.
By 1993, the Palliative Care coordinator, who had an office in the hospital, invited me to share it with her. I still carried all the data in my notebook.
In the early 1990’s, the house and all its contents were bequeathed by Ty Watson to the Alberni Clayquot Continuing Care Society. Unable to accept this gift, the Ty Watson House Society was formed to establish a purpose for the house. They worked extremely hard and by Dec, 1999, they offered the Alberni Valley Hospice Board the lower level of the house for office space.
With the new office, we acquired a computer. I needed training! I took courses and we plunged into a whole new realm of data-keeping. We were able to produce our own literature about our services and I started a quarterly newsletter for our volunteers.
Although helping with fund-raising was part of my job, my priorities were always clear to me: train and support volunteers – without them, the full scope of our work simply could not be done; and support our clients through our programs – attending to them in the hospital or in their homes, giving respite, and sitting vigil. Slowly, over the years, we added other services: healing touch was a big addition once we had the office space.
In the early days of my job, hospice knowledge grew quickly around the world, across Canada and on Vancouver Island. The BC Hospice Palliative Care AGM in Campbell River in 1993 attracted every palliative care and hospice coordinator from around B. C. to listen to speakers of world renown. From vast quantities of available literature, I bought a number of books for our Hospice library on the dying process, on self-care for caregivers, on the grieving process… Upon my retirement in 2005, we had over 300 books available to the public.
Victoria Hospice was very generous in sharing knowledge and resources and, for years, all the program coordinators on the Island met regularly to support each other and learn together. Because fund-raising was such a challenge to each Hospice Society, sometimes a program coordinator had to be laid off until more funds could be gathered to pay them. I am the only one in the Island communities outside Victoria to have continuous employment… it was tight sometimes, but I was never laid off. There were no grants in those days… no Pot Luck Ceramics. Although there was some bingo support, it was very inconsistent. Each society survived on local donations. That I was never laid off speaks volumes to just how giving this community is.”
In closing Jean states humbly: “I seem to have been blessed with an angel that sits on my shoulder and tells me what needs to be done at any given time. I didn’t always have a conscious plan in mind. For example, interviewing a client one day, I said to her, ‘I have been watching you and your breathing hasn’t been very deep… take a few deep breaths with me now.’ She giggled… she thought it was funny. ‘Try reminding yourself to take deep breathes every hour or so.’
When I came back she said, ‘I tried that breathing thing… it works! When I remembered, I was able to get more energy… I was more responsive… I felt calmer.’ I had always used deep breathing for myself, but I saw that it was also powerful for my clients. Breathing and laughter… Surprisingly, while I have spent a lot of time talking with clients about dying, there has been a lot of shared laughter. It truly is a tonic and when you can be open and fully present with the client, anything goes… laughter, tears. A lot of my work is not an intellectual process. It just comes from the heart.”
That passion, ignited so many years ago, still burns brightly for Jean. Her face radiates whenever she speaks of her work with her clients. “I get a million times more out of hospice than I ever put into it!” Jean’s words echo across the ranks of staff and volunteers who give their heart to hospice care.