This week Deb Braithwaite ends a 34-year calling at Victoria Hospice.
The Oak Bay woman trained as a family physician and had plans with a friend, in Calgary where they graduated, to open a practice together.
She didn’t realize immediately that an opportunity to work a couple of half days a week at the nearly new Victoria Hospice would derail that plan for one more rewarding. Braithwaite did recognize quickly that palliative medicine was something she still needed to learn.
“There was nothing in my training to prepare me for that,” she said. Every year she worked a little more, learned a little more and by her fifth year, Braithwaite realized palliative medicine was her calling.
“It was challenging but it is commensurately rewarding,” Braithwaite says. As expected, end of life care can be intense, and each individual has different needs, both medically and personally.
“All of them have limited prognosis and you can’t have an impact on that,” she says. However, the impact on quality of life can be significant, controlling symptoms in a way that helps a patient and their loved ones.
“Every day you can wake up and know that you have a possibility to change a life,” Braithwaite says.
Then there are the people, others called to work with the dying.
“Your colleagues turn out to be a really positive part of work,” Braithwaite says. “They’re such an interesting collection of human beings.”
The patients too are a perk of the job. While patient encounters are not really always great, “where you failed taught you and spurred you on to improve,” she says.
“It can be a real time of growth and closing circles. It can also be a time of great hardship and sadness and sorrow and chaos.” The challenge is to bring the appropriate amount of time and energy to each situation – there is no forumla for death.
That’s a highlight of three decades of working in a growing field, watching it grow and become part of mainstream medicine.
“I started when palliative care in Canada was such a small part of medicine,” she says. “We started off as a small group of determined people who really wished to change the way end of life care was delivered.”
That parlayed to opportunity to write, publish and teach while feeling your influence and impact on the discipline as it developed. When she started, Victoria Hospice was the third in Canada and has had to grow and reinvent itself to remain relevant to the community and patient needs. Those early years they swiped ideas from the UK, which was ahead of the curve in the field, figuring it out on the fly.
She knew they were there during the 2001 Canadian Palliative Care Association congress held in Victoria. She’d admittedly developed a habit of seeing palliative as small and outside mainstream. Then she walked in to 2,000 delegates and came to the “wonderful and somewhat shocking realization” she was wrong.
Just over half funded by private donations, while it may not be the preferred formula of funding, it does indicate a level of success, Braithwaite says.
“I do recognize it as a sign, you know you’re meeting the needs of the community,” she says.
Listening at the end of someone’s life to the things they’re happy they did or moments they regret does had an affect in every area of her life, Braithwaite says, right down to her two chldren and her partner in retirement.
“It does change the way you think about how you might live your own life,” she said. “I think it’s made them realistic about life and death and made them more passionate.”
She plans to spend more time with son Spencer Prewett, and her daughter Jackie Bjornert, son-in-law Pelle and grandson “the divine Charlie”.
“I do look forward to spending time with family. It’s going to be interesting,” she says. Bjornert is a photographer, while Prewett is Juno-nominated drummer with technical death metal band Archspire.
She also met lifelong volunteer Andy Wooldridge at Victoria Hospice in 2001. They married in 2004.
While they may have roles at the ready for retirement, plans are few and fluid.
“My experience in life is if I left area unscheduled good things could flow into those areas,” she says, expecting that opportunities will present themselves. “We’re going to watch the tide go out and see what’s on shore.”
Visit victoriahospice.org to learn more about the organization.
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