PHC hospice staff “the best part of a terrible journey,” says husband
“Vanessa had been feeling down, depressed, for several months,” says Stefan Pauer of his late wife, Vanessa Barbosa, “which was so unlike her, especially as she had been experiencing great success in her academic and professional life.”
It was the fall of 2015. The depression, it turned out, was an early symptom of a brain tumor that would claim Vanessa’s life six months later, on April 29, 2016, at 28 years of age.
The depression was followed by physical weakness and then paralysis of the left side of Vanessa’s body. Tests conducted in November of that year revealed a brain tumor that was both aggressive and widespread.
“We were in Switzerland at the time, visiting my family after I had done field work for my PhD in Brussels,” recalls Stefan, who is in the doctoral program in Environmental Law at UBC. “So with a medical escort we returned to Vancouver and Vanessa underwent treatment at the BC Cancer Agency.”
Despite treatment over a number of months, the tumor continued to grow. Doctors informed Vanessa and Stefan that it was a terminal illness. Hospice care was suggested and in February, 2016, Vanessa moved to St. John Hospice, a Providence Health Care hospice located at UBC.
A brilliant career that lay ahead
During that fall of 2015, Vanessa and Stefan were both young scholars, working in challenging fields for which they both held great passion.
As Stefan had chosen climate policy, Vanessa had done a Bachelor of Nursing degree at UBC and a Masters in Public Health at the Université Catholique de Louvain, a French-speaking university in Belgium. Vanessa had been working for Arthritis Research Canada in Richmond, BC, where her focus was on arthritis issues of First Nations communities in Haida Gwaii and on Vancouver Island.
It was an exciting time, especially when Vanessa learned she was accepted into the PhD program in Public Health at the University of Copenhagen, which would be funded by scholarships she received from the university and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Vanessa was about to begin her studies that fall, when her symptoms began to show.
Everything became calm
Only when Vanessa took up residence at St. John Hospice did she and Stefan realize the stressful and frantic pace they had kept up since her diagnosis.
“It had been a constant struggle, every day, for three months,” says Stefan. “You wanted to know everything related to Vanessa’s treatment. You were always worried something would be missed that could help her. It was incredibly stressful. But when we came to the hospice, all of that stopped. It suddenly became all about Vanessa’s comfort. Everything else seemed to fall away.”
First Nations elder helps with “transition”
Vanessa was born in Mexico and her family came to BC when she was 11. Even though she had lived in Canada for a long time, her Mexican heritage was important to her. She had always stayed close to her indigenous culture and spirituality.
“When she was in hospice care,” says Stefan, “Vanessa wanted to have a First Nations elder visit her and the hospice staff were wonderful in helping to facilitate this. The elder would come by each week and often she would come with one or two others, and they would sing with Vanessa, play drums, say prayers together and do smudging ceremonies. It was very beautiful.”
Stefan says that toward the end, the elder asked Vanessa if there was anything special she could do for her when Vanessa would begin what the elder called her “transition.” And there were many special, meaningful things done, from a dress that was made for Vanessa that had traditional herbs sewn into the pockets, to an indigenous ceremony conducted in nearby woods.
Small is beautiful
Stefan describes the care at St. John Hospice as a series of smaller, day-to-day moments that might not seem significant but which come together to create a peaceful and soothing atmosphere for patient and family. He even mentions how accommodating the chef at the hospice was for special requests. A smile comes to his face as he relates a final story of his wife’s hospice care.
“I would bring in cookie dough ice cream and my parents would bring some of this delicious dark chocolate from Switzerland which they knew Vanessa loved, and the chef at the hospice would create these amazing milkshakes for her. She loved them! That’s just one more seemingly little thing but there were so many of these moments. The entire staff, the nurses and doctors, the personal care assistants, everyone—you could feel it—all they wanted was to help you.”
Thanks to the donations it receives, St. Paul’s Foundation is proud to support Providence Health Care hospice care, from research to education to patient care. To support palliative care at PHC, please make a gift to St. Paul’s Foundation today.