AMHERST, N.S. - Hospice and palliative care are words that have extra meaning for Sandra McSweeney.
McSweeney, a River Hebert native who now lives in Bridgewater, lost two sisters to cancer – Linda, who died 11 years ago in a free-standing hospice facility in Calgary, and Janet, who died at the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax.
“The difference between the two was day and night,” McSweeney said. “Where Linda was, it was as non-hospital like as you could get. They not only cared about Linda, but they cared about the family. Where Janet was it was a dark, dingy room that was small and had not seen a coat of paint in 20 years.”
McSweeney started the quilt for her sister, Linda, but didn’t like it and gave her another one. She puttered away on the quilt with the intention to still give it to her sister. However, she passed away before it was finished and she put it away.
When she pulled the quilt out several years later, she decided she wanted to do something to support the hospice movement. When she learned of plans to build a free-standing hospice facility in Amherst she immediately knew where the quilt had to go.
“I don’t want to put the VG down. They work hard with what they got and they do wonderful things for people, but the care Linda received in the hospice was hands above the care Janet received in the hospital,” McSweeney said.
The Cumberland County Hospice Palliative Care Society wants to build a free-standing hospice facility on a piece of land donated by the Lusby family in West Amherst. It is raising the money to support such a facility, but has not begun what it estimates would be a $4-million-plua capital campaign because there’s no agreement with government to support the facility.
McSweeney’s quilt will help raise funds to support the hospice centre’s operation. Tickets are $2 each or three for $5 with the draw being held next October so society members can take it across Cumberland County and spread the hospice message to other communities.
She’s hoping Cumberland County businesses will match what’s raised by the quilt draw.
“That’s why we’ve called it, It Starts With A Quilt, because we not only want to raise money to support this facility, but we want to use it to start the conversation about the need for a hospice facility here,” she said.
McSweeney started quilting 25 years ago while living in Thompson, Man. While she doesn’t consider herself an artist, she feels she’s a functional quilter in that a quilt needs to have a practical and functional purpose – be it for a bed, a couch or as a gift.
Now that she’s lost two sisters and a brother to cancer, she sees the need for more hospice facilities. She’s also dedicating the quilt to her brothers, Donald and David Martin and her friend Brian Harrison, who lost his cancer battle earlier this year.
She restarted the quilt last November and put the finishing touches on it in May and brought it to Amherst during the summer.
“We all know that life does not go on forever. How we can imagine our impending death and where we want to die is different for everyone. Some wish to die at home, some wish to die in a hospital,” McSweeney said. “Some people get to make that decision, some don’t. For those who get to make that decision, there must be choices.”
She said hospitals are for acute, or critical, care and the primary function is to make people feel better – not to make them more comfortable in their final days.
McSweeney said acknowledging that the death of a loved one is only moments or days away is hard enough and to live out your final days in a non-hospital environment should be a priority for government when it comes to palliative care.
“It is a 100 per cent change from a hospital environment. Family could visit any time of the day or night. They did not have the added expense of parking,” McSweeney said. “There was a chapel where you could go for a quiet word of prayer or to just be by yourself. There was a library where you could pick up a book to read during those hours when the patient was sleeping. The entire feel of the place was that of home. Thanks to this warm and peaceful environment everyone was relaxed as they could be under the circumstances. I simply cannot say enough positive things about this place.”
McSweeney likes the fact a hospice facility is being planned for Halifax but feels Nova Scotia needs more of them.
“Every region where there’s a regional hospital needs to have a hospice. When someone is in that situation and their family has to travel two or three hours to visit. It’s not right for family to have to send someone two or three hours or more away from home to die,” she said. “It’s not humane. It’s fair to the family and it’s not fair to the patient.”
For Amherst, she thinks a hospice facility could care for end-of-life patients on both sides of the provincial border. The closest hospice facility in New Brunswick is in Saint John.
Laura Hicks, coordinator of the Cumberland County Hospice Palliative Care Society, is so thankful of McSweeney’s donation saying the quilt will provide a huge fundraising boost.
“It’s a fabulous donation. It’s not just about the potential to raise funds, but it’s also about the potential to raise awareness,” Hicks said. “That’s what we need. A lot of people don’t understand hospice and what it’s about. We don’t have a hospice facility in Nova Scotia and the only experience people have with hospice is with loved ones in other areas of Canada, the United States or in Europe. Fact is everyone is going to die and it should be in a dignified and respectful way that respectful of the person and the family.”