Burnaby Hospice Society marks 25 years

Thea Juett relaxes in the outdoor garden at Burnaby Hospital’s palliative care ward. She helped found the Burnaby Hospice Society, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.  - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
Thea Juett relaxes in the outdoor garden at Burnaby Hospital’s palliative care ward. She helped found the Burnaby Hospice Society, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Burnaby’s Thea Juett was just sitting down to Christmas dinner when the phone rang.

It was Christmas Day 1985, and Juett was working as a social worker who oversaw a team of home support workers.

“One of my staff had arrived to put a gentleman to bed and give him his meds,” she recalled.

The elderly man’s cat had died two weeks earlier and he had no family. Her colleague had arrived at his home to find the gentleman had passed away.

Juett left her family to join her colleague. “We called the doctor and an ambulance to come with no sirens.

“We waited with this gentleman for two and a half hours.”

After Christmas Juett went back to work and decided, “this has got to stop.”

She recalled her experience as a schoolgirl volunteering at a hospice in her native England where she would visit and serve tea to terminally-ill patients.

She decided that was a solution, albeit an idea that hadn’t yet become commonplace on this side of the Atlantic. With the help of friends and colleagues, an ad was placed in a local newspaper inviting the public to attend a meeting at Confederation Centre to discuss the issue.

That evening, 150 people showed up.

A society is born

From that first meeting, several volunteers formed the group that would become the Burnaby Hospice Society, which is marking its 25th anniversary with a gathering at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2 to 4 p.m.

A hospice is where a terminally-ill person can go in their last three months of life, where they can bring items from home and be made comfortable, where there are no more treatments other than to manage pain. “It doesn’t feel like a hospital,” said Juett, 75, the society’s past-president.

She, along with volunteer No. 1, Helen Mackie, are the remaining original volunteers still involved and both are board members.

Juett recalled that 25 years ago, not only was there no hospice in Burnaby, but Burnaby Hospital didn’t even have a palliative care ward. And if a person had no family, they would have just died at home.

“The whole point is you don’t die alone.”

The small group of early volunteers started fundraising, holding bake sales and car washes and applying for grants and casino funds. They organized volunteers to start providing support services for people who were dying, and their families.

“Most [hospice] societies had volunteers and the phone rang in somebody’s home,” said the society’s vice-president, Bonnie Stableford, 58. “Many of these services started literally over somebody’s coffeetable.”

Without a place within the health care system to attach themselves to, hospice societies in the Lower Mainland sprang up as independent non-profit organizations, said Stableford. The Burnaby Hospice Society began partnering with what is now the Fraser Health Authority in 1994.

One of the group’s first breaks was in 1990 when Burnaby city hall gave it a $1,000 grant and rented it a cubicle in a city-owned facility for $1 a year. They stayed there until they moved to Kingsway and Nelson Avenue in 2000.

The society trains volunteers to visit palliative patients. They learn active listening, communication skills, the need for confidentiality and how to deal with bereavement and loss.

Stableford noted that volunteers are screened carefully, not only to ensure they can provide such support but to make sure the work is right for the volunteers themselves. The volunteers receive many hours of training and are supported to make sure they don’t burn out. And after every death of a client, most will take a break from their volunteer duties.

It began providing bereavement support for family and friends who suffer a loss. And it advocated for and helped with fundraising for the construction of the hospice at St. Michael’s Centre in South Burnaby, a long-term care facility operated by Fraser Health which added 16 hospice beds in 2002.

Big impact, shoestring budget

Today, the society has about 90 volunteers who visit patients at St. Michael’s and the palliative care ward at Burnaby Hospital, as well as provide bereavement support.

Another 125 volunteers, including Juett, work in the society’s thrift store at 6855 Kingsway, which also houses the hospice’s office. The store was started six years ago to address a loss in gaming and government grants.

All its services, including bereavement counselling, are free. It runs on an annual budget of $245,000, of which about 41 per cent comes from the thrift store. It’s a relatively shoestring budget for an organization that serves more than 800 people each year.

For most, it’s the little things that make the biggest difference, like listening. Stableford said patients will often open up to volunteers more so than they will to family because they know their conversations are confidential.

“They know their stories are safe with us and we won’t interfere with the family.”

Juett noted that volunteers will also conduct a tea service, served on china cups with homemade cookies on a tea trolley.

“There’s something homely about sitting talking over a cup of tea. I’ve seen people all stiff and the tea, it’s just like somebody turned a switch and everybody starts talking normally.”

As far as the society has come, it still has a larger, longterm goal in mind—its own free-standing hospice.

“That’s our dream,” said Juett.

• Burnaby Hospice celebrates 25 years on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2 to 4 p.m. in the Fireside Room, Shadbolt Centre. RSVP and info: 604-520-5087.


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