How granting dying wishes is helping people ease the pain of losing loved ones

A year and a half ago, Ashley Henderson lost the love of her life, Darrell Smith, after he was struck by a taxi in Toronto.

Though the staff at St. Michael’s Hospital couldn’t save Smith, who was her common-law spouse, Henderson says they made the grieving process easier thanks to a program that grants wishes to dying patients and their loved ones.

“Darrell was incredible. He was a very accomplished photographer and skateboarder,” Henderson told CBC Toronto.

“He was kind and gentle and everyone’s favourite person.”

Before the accident, Henderson had started putting together a custom skateboard for Smith with help from his friends — it was going to be his Christmas present. But after the hospital staff approached her about their Three Wishes Project, she decided to turn it into a memorial board.

The program, originally launched in an intensive care unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton, grants dying patients and their loved ones wishes. The project’s goals are to dignify the patient’s death, to help family members celebrate their loved one’s life, and to help clinicians improve their care.

“When I had this moment to be able to paint his foot with our family, it almost sort of cut through this tension and this feeling of this raw moment and bring a little bit of life back into the room,” she said.

“To share this time together and genuinely kind of laugh in the face of this horrific situation was really quite touching and beautiful.”

Henderson had more than 200 boards with Darrell’s footprint on them sold, through a skateboard shop called the Blue Tile Lounge, in his honour.

Henderson’s other wishes were to have Darrell wear his beanie and cardigan when he was pulled off life support, and to make sure his desire to donate his organs through the Trillium Gift of Life Network was fulfilled.

Hospital staff and patients connect on new level

Orla Smith is a nurse and co-leader of the Three Wishes Project along with Dr. Andrew Baker at St. Michael’s Hospital. She says they were approached by Dr. Deborah Cook from St. Joseph’s Hospital to see if they were interested in the program.

“Every member of the team works with families when the end of life is near. We talk with the families and ask them to tell us more about who the patient was and what wishes they might have for their end of life,” she told CBC Toronto.

They have researched the effects of the project on the families and the staff involved and found it helped clinicians find more meaning in their work at little cost to the hospital.

“I think one of the really interesting things in this work is that many of the wishes actually don’t cost anything other than a little bit of time and creativity,” said Smith, mentioning past wishes such as letting patients listen to their favourite music — Johnny Cash being a popular request — and spiritual commemorations.

She said she hopes the project is expanded so patients outside the intensive care unit can receive kind gestures from hospital staff.

“When you’ve gone through something traumatic, you’re not thinking,” said Henderson.

“So, to have someone be able to reach out to you and say, ‘Hey, have you thought about this?’ or ‘Here’s an idea for you,’ is incredibly important because it’s not something you would think about in that moment.”

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