When saying ‘thanks’ doesn’t feel like enough

We flip the dial to ER and watch… we watch the fiction captured on film by actors and actresses playing out a script. Life and death issues, blended with hospital romance, and the daily routine of life in the suburbs.

There’s a movement afoot on television these days. It’s probably got some fancy name, or the media reviewers will come up with one. I think of it as filmed reality. Fiction is no longer turning us on; we (as television viewers) want real life stuff. So we tune in by the hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) to watch some woman say “I do” to a guy because he’s a millionaire. Or, we use up our entire workplace coffee break talking about who’s banished whom from some isolated island in the quest for money, fame, and social structure.

Nothing… nothing compares with the human drama that’s lived out daily in our community. Lives lived, lives enriched by people who take the time to try again… it’s a drama that shouldn’t be televised; it’s a private drama in which people live and people die.

Wanda Grammick contacted me recently to share the drama of her husband, Rick. Rick had a massive heart attack last December and during the next five months was rushed to the emergency department at Royal Victoria Hospital no less than a dozen times. Each case was authentic, fear-gripping disbelief that this man’s heart was playing the ultimate “trick” on him. Each time his wife, his children and step children were frozen in the fear that this was really happening to their dad. And each time, medical professionals treated Rick with kindness, with care, with hope that what medicine had to offer would make a difference.

Rick died on May 30.

In between Rick’s initial heart attack and his death a few months later are dozens of vignettes, played out by people in their everyday roles and their everyday lives. And yet, to Rick’s wife Wanda, the individual efforts of dozens of people made the Grammick’s journey softer in its anguish. Wanda, who works as a counsellor at The Career Centre in the Bayfield Mall, says it best:

“When I first took Rick to Royal Victoria Hospital on December 19, Dr. Amba was the specialist on call; he gave us the gift of five more months with his fast action and knowledge of medications to stabilize Richard enough to be assessed for any possible life-saving procedure.

“The damage to Richard’s heart precluded any procedure. He was transferred to Toronto General by ambulance on December 20 and discharged on January 4, readmitted to RVH on January 5 with heart failure. Dr. Amba once again admitted him and stabilized him with medications.

“Between January 5 and May 30 when Richard died, he went to emergency 12 times; he was admitted six times.”

Wanda writes of Dr. Bruce Dibble who, even though he knew the situation was almost hopeless, proceeded with the latestest available tests to try to find that elusive balance. It was Dr. Dibble who had to tell the Grammick’s the worst news with an optimistic bent.

Wanda writes of the worst five months of her life when she met remarkable people in the emergency department of RVH. What made them remarkable was that their job had not become “their job.” They retained the value of human kindness, taking time to offer sympathy and concern during what for them was almost adaily occurrence. She mentions Tammy, the nurse who took time to suggest that Wanda bring her car into the emergency bay so Richard wouldn’t catch cold leaving the hospital. Dr. Zachos expressed concern as he tried to prepare Wanda for what lay ahead for her.

Linda, the nurse who teased Richard and made him laugh, giving him the gift of being a person before he was a patient in Trauma 2. Phil, another nurse who treated Richard with kindness and humour, who shared South American travel stories. Shelley, the Triage staff who made sure Wanda had help and knowledge she needed to take her husband home for care. Shelley also wanted to make sure Wanda knew the gravity of Rick’s situation.

During March, the Community Care Access Centre weighed in to give critical support. Leanne Weeks performed an administrative miracle to start the process of home care that was carried on by Donna Goodeill… oxygen delivered to the house, daily nursing visits, home-based blood work. Charlene Hagerman from Bayshore Nursing developed a relationship that was professional yet personal, with real concern that ensured the Grammicks had every thing they needed. It was Charlene who came to the house and cried with Wanda after Richard died.

Cathy Devine from MDS Labs took blood samples as part of Richard’s medication monitoring. She ‘pulled out all the stops’ when the timing of blood work became critical towards the end. Maureen Friesen and Kathy Irvin at Hospice Simcoe helped the family come to terms with death. They are still there if Wanda needs them.

Wanda’s point? “They are all heroes, and all unsung heroes at that. You could argue that they were only doing their job. No one will ever convince me of that. They were doing their job, in spite of (not because of) our health care system. What was not their job was taking the time to hug me or talk with me. It was not their job to sit with Richard and make him feel like a person.”

Wanda particularly thanks her employer, The Career Centre, its manager Eric Weiler and staff like Jane Ball, Sue Darch, Rob Alexander, Pam Scott and others who refused to accept her resignation and simply put a “hold” sign on her office door. Her job was held for her whenever she could come back, which Wanda did during July. And during her blackest days, her co-workers kept in touch by email, phone, and visits. On Christmas Day, when Wanda returned to her hotel in Toronto from Richard’s side at Toronto General Hospital, there were 16 messages waiting for her from Career Centre staff.

The people who came into her life made a real difference in a dramatic, true story where Wanda and Rick said their earthly good-byes to each other. They made Wanda’s personal pain easier to bear.

These people came into her life not just with their heads. They came with their hearts. And they stayed as long as she needed them to stay.

Thank you.