South shore families worried about palliative support after doctor retires

·3 min read
There are no designated palliative care beds in Lunenburg or Queens counties.  (Shaun Best/Reuters - image credit)
There are no designated palliative care beds in Lunenburg or Queens counties. (Shaun Best/Reuters - image credit)

Nova Scotia Health is trying to reassure families along the south shore that help is coming soon after the area's only palliative care doctor retired this week.

People who live there say the loss of their beloved physician has created a big gap, and is proof that more needs to be done to support those who need end-of-life care, as the area has no designated palliative beds.

For now, if families need help from a palliative care physician, they'll be connected virtually to someone in another part of the province.

"They will still have primary care providers, nurse practitioners, social workers and the palliative care team that already exists," Dr. Cheryl Pugh, the medical executive director of the western zone, said of the team that is based in the region.

Pugh said Dr. Debra Gowan helped more than 300 families every year with the palliative process in Queens and Lunenburg counties before her retirement on June 2.

Replacement to be announced soon

The health authority began searching for her replacement last December, and Pugh expects to make an announcement soon.

"We have had some exceptional candidates in the recruitment process," she said. "I'm very hopeful that we'll have a definitive answer to that question within the coming weeks."

Some people in the area are wondering why Gowan's replacement wasn't in place before she left.

Gowan stood by Betty Flack's side as her husband, David, died of cancer in 2017. Flack said the physician was a vital support who wouldn't hesitate to make a house call if needed.

"We weren't there very long before she had us both in the palm of her hand," Flack recalled. "She was so forthright about what we were dealing with. She was honest, she was kind, she was compassionate."

CBC News spoke to a family this week whose loved one is near the end of their life.

Family members were too emotional to be interviewed, but they expressed surprise that no replacement has been hired for Gowan and they questioned the level of care they will receive virtually.

Calls for hospice to be built

In 2018, a group of volunteers formed the South Shore Hospice Palliative Care Society in hopes of creating beds or building a hospice — giving people the option to die where they are most comfortable.

In March, Kim Masland, the Tory member for Queens-Shelburne, raised the issue in Province House, saying no one should have to die in an emergency room bed.

At that time, the health minister said a hospice requires a population of 100,000. The hospice society said the two counties have about 60,000 people, but pointed out that it's an older population.

Flack said even with smaller numbers, a hospice should be a priority for Nova Scotia Health and the government. That way, palliative physicians can be nearby to help several families at once.

"We were very blessed recipients to have had that care. I'll treasure that and savour it for as long as I live," she said.

"It made our end of life — although it was a difficult journey — it made it a very beautiful end of life."

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