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Above: Dr. Jeff Myers (left) and Dr. Russell Goldman in the Albert & Temmy Latner Family Palliative Care Unit at Bridgepoint Active Healthcare. Photo by: Annie Tong

Written by: Heidi Singer

As he aged, Dr. Manny Spivak, 85, had always been clear with his family that he valued quality of life over quantity. But when the retired obstetrician and gynaecologist ended up at Mount Sinai Hospital after a terrible fall early one morning, the decision to honour his wishes to die with dignity was no less agonizing. At one point, the fog of Dr. Spivak’s dementia cleared briefly and he understood everything that had happened to him — that his broken neck was inoperable and the slightest movement could paralyze him permanently and put him into terrible pain. “I had a good run,” he told loved ones, and even the doctors welled up.

Dr. Spivak died two weeks later in Mount Sinai Hospital, in more comfort and dignity than his relatives dared hope for. His death “was the best medical experience we’ve ever had in our family, despite that it was the saddest,” says daughter Sari Weinstein. “The extraordinary communication, teamwork and compassion from the Temmy Latner Centre for Palliative Care enabled us to bravely and lovingly support him through his dying days without being fearful ourselves.”

For Brian Noakes, death wasn’t so sudden or dramatic. The 81-year old had cancer, and the side effects from chemotherapy were becoming unbearable. All his life, he’d battled depression, and now he was living alone in a wheelchair in an East Toronto high rise. When doctors recommended that he spend his final days in the Albert & Temmy Latner Family Palliative Care Unit at Bridgepoint Active Healthcare, Brian didn’t want to go. But being around other people, eating good food and enjoying games like bingo gave him new life, recalls his son, Kenneth. Although he was dying, Noakes seemed more alive than he had in years.

Above: Phyllis Spivak (centre), son Jonathan and daughter Sari Weinstein sit together in the Hennick Family Wellness Gallery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Behind them: a view of Toronto General Hospital, where their husband and father, Dr. Manny Spivak, practiced for many years. Photo by: John Packman

“My father was very much a pragmatist and didn’t have any qualms knowing the end was near,” says Kenneth. “He wanted to dictate it on his terms.”

When Brian was getting close to death, hospital staff called his children and their families to his bedside. At one point, he woke up and saw everyone he loved surrounding him. “No-one said good-bye,” recalls Kenneth. “We just let it happen.”

Although each man’s death was very di­fferent, what they had in common was perhaps more important. Each died in a way that reflected his values and wishes, in a way that struck his relatives as an affirmation of his life.

As the population ages and medicine allows people to live longer with increasingly complex illnesses, physician-researchers at Sinai Health System are studying these “good deaths” to replicate them on a larger scale. Their ambition is to redefine palliative care as a practice that doesn’t just help people die well, but helps dying people live well.

“They acknowledged us as his caregivers as well as acknowledging us as his voice. It was nice to feel valued and not dismissed.”

- Sari Weinstein, Caregiver

“I see palliative care, not as a scary word that means death is near, but as a whole system of support that is available to a person with a life-limiting diagnosis ,” explains Dr. Russell Goldman, director of the newly-formed Inter-Departmental Division of Palliative Care. We want to help people live how and where they want, whether that’s at home, in hospice, a palliative care unit or long-term care. People fear palliative care because they think it means giving up. To me, it’s the opposite of giving up. It’s about helping people live life as fully as possible.”

Asking for more treatment — or less

In 2010, a landmark study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine that surprised a lot of people in the medical community. A group of lung cancer patients who had received palliative care from the time of diagnosis not only had better quality of life including less depression and fewer trips to the hospital but they actually lived longer than the control group.

This wouldn’t come as a surprise to Kenneth Noakes. His father suffered from advanced multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer, and doctors estimated he had three to six months to live when he came to Bridgepoint. Not only did Noakes make it to six months, but his health even seemed to improve during his time in palliative care.

“Funnily enough, he stabilized to the point where they wanted to transfer him out because he was doing too well,” says Kenneth. “To hang on that long was just amazing. I think it says a lot about the care, but also the environment he was in.”

“My father was very much a pragmatist and didn’t have any qualms knowing the end was near… He wanted to dictate it on his terms.”

- Kenneth Noakes, Caregiver

Brian was born on the eve of World II to a Canadian soldier stationed in England and his British wife. He grew up in Toronto, and raised his family near Riverdale Park. Kenneth remembers that his father was enlivened by the familiar views of his old neighborhood across the Don Valley, especially from the hospital’s beautiful rooftop garden. He was sensitive to his environment. It mattered a lot that he was on a first-name basis with Bridgepoint staff. And the food was far better than anything he could prepare for himself.

Looking back, Kenneth wishes his father had come to Bridgepoint earlier. Although a large majority of people say they want to die at home, when the time comes, that number drops — and it’s not because of medical issues, says Dr. Goldman.

Above: Brian Noakes, seated, surrounded by his sons from left to right: Chris, Craig and Ken

“We can do just about anything at home nowadays that we could do in a palliative care unit from a pain and symptom control perspective,” he says. “People don’t want to die at home because they don’t have the social supports and the caregiver supports to be at home.”

There’s an increasing understanding in the palliative care world that helping people die on their terms means doing more to support the loved ones who care for them.

Dr. Goldman is excited about the possibilities introduced by the 2015 amalgamation of Mount Sinai Hospital, Bridgepoint, with its 32 palliative beds, and Circle of Care, which offers a huge variety of programs and services to help seniors live at home as long as possible. He’d like to keep one palliative hospital bed for patients whose families need a short break. He hopes to tap into Circle of Care’s robust volunteer program, which could support palliative care patients and their families throughout the Sinai community. Such a plan could make a real impact since Sinai Health treats more than 2,000 palliative patients a year, both in-hospital and at home — roughly a third of Torontonians who die from non-violent causes.

Recently, Dr. Goldman recruited Dr. Jeff Myers, a palliative care physician and educator with 20 years of experience, to head the Albert & Temmy Latner Family Palliative Care Unit at Bridgepoint.

“The thing that keeps me up at night is the number of folks who don’t appreciate that their illness is incurable,” says Dr. Myers, who also serves as Head of the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine’s Division of Palliative Care. Even when doctors think they’re being clear, he says, “there are health literacy issues, cultural issues and family issues that can stop people from being on the same page, from understanding what we’re actually talking about here. It’s not that patients and their families are making poor decisions that prolong their suff­ering. I think the decisions being made are for the most part not well informed.”

Myers is passionate about creating a truly patient-centred climate where patients and their loved ones feel empowered to ask the tough questions, speak up when they don’t understand and ask for what they want, whether that’s more treatment or less.

“Putting the family at the centre of care”

The Spivak family has had a lot of experiences with the medical system, and they have not always been positive. But the family was pleasantly surprised by the treatment of Dr. Spivak’s son, Jonathan, at Mount Sinai’s Schwartz/Reisman Emergency Centre for the flu last year. So when paramedics asked Phyllis, his wife of 60 years, where she’d like her husband to go that terrible morning, she chose Sinai.

Throughout their time at Mount Sinai, the Spivaks were amazed that staff­ went out of their way to communicate with the whole family. Dr. Spivak had always been proud of his work. Perhaps sensing that, everyone called him Dr. Spivak, not Manny. When his cochlear implant was damaged and he couldn’t hear, they took the time to communicate with him in writing. Phyllis brought in a paper about abortion he had written years ago for lawmakers, and staff­ passed it around. “They gave me the feeling they wanted to know who he was in his better days,” she recalls.

Perhaps just as importantly, staff­ kept the family informed and sought their input every step of the way, putting them at the centre of Dr. Spivak’s care.

“They acknowledged us as his caregivers as well as acknowledging us as his voice,” recalls his daughter, Sari. “It was nice to feel valued and not dismissed.”

When the end was near, doctors put a pain pump in Dr. Spivak’s bed and sta­ff showed everyone how to use it. Sari was moved when she saw him receive the same compassion and attention that he had always tried to give his patients.

“They provided us with a quiet atmosphere in his last days,” she says. “We brought in quiet music for him to listen to. They made a very peaceful ending for him and for the family.”