Annie is not the author’s real name.
In March 2020, I got a devastating diagnosis of stage 4 cancer. I am a 67-year-old public servant who lives alone in Ottawa. After receiving this diagnosis, I was left with the daunting task of figuring out how to best navigate a complicated health care and social services system by myself, given my closest family lives in British Columbia.
I took a sick leave from my job and started chemotherapy right away. My immediate needs were transportation to medical appointments and treatment, and securing the delivery of groceries to my apartment, as I practice strict isolation due to my compromised immune status. I also do not have a car. My immediate transportation needs were addressed once the YourCare@Home program of The Ottawa Hospital referred me to the South-East Ottawa Community Health Centre (SEOCHC). Later, I became aware of a grocery delivery program for the summer months through Ottawa Public Health. I was referred to SEOCHC for this service by one of the care providers of the YourCare@Home program.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I relied on my family in B.C. for essential protective supplies because of limited retail availability in Ottawa and delayed deliveries from online purchases. I also asked for help with my groceries from friends and coworkers. I continued this after the end of SEOCHC’s grocery delivery program. However, I struggled with regularly asking friends for help because I didn’t want to bother them on a prolonged basis. I am now reassessing how to safely secure groceries at a reasonable cost and with less reliance on friends and coworkers.
Coping with cancer during the COVID pandemic has made me feel that a large part of my independence was robbed prematurely. Nevertheless, I quickly learned that I have to be an advocate for myself. In my quest for guidance and support, I turned to a cancer coach from the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation and other cancer support groups. Confined to prolonged isolation, I have been pleased with the virtual opportunities for participation in various events offered by the Ottawa Public Library and some community health centres and community groups. I am also appreciative of the help I have received from Connected Canadians when I have encountered computer problems, as it has been essential for maintaining virtual connection.
I also became aware that the support I needed was not just medical. I attended an advance care planning session hosted by Compassionate Ottawa. I realized that getting in touch with my wishes and values and communicating with family regarding end of life care was as important as updating my will and other legal documents.
Through my connection with SEOCHC, I became a member of the Healthy End of Life Project (HELP) Ottawa Advisory Council at SEOCHC. HELP Ottawa is a community-based initiative to support people with advanced age, frailty, chronic and life limiting illness to live at home or in the community as long as possible. SEOCHC is one of four HELP Ottawa sites. Right now we are doing asset-mapping, which is a step in the Project to identify gaps and current and potential assets in end-of-life support in Ottawa. I am hoping that HELP can assist isolated people in apartment buildings and neighbourhoods where developing connections may be challenging, especially for vulnerable people during COVID with the additional restrictions.
Before my cancer diagnosis, I did not know much about the health care system and found the range of community services “hard to figure out.” I am still learning but am keen to volunteer and help out as best as I can so people in situations similar to mine can more easily find the resources they need.
I also hope that through the HELP project and Compassionate Ottawa, there will be more ways to meaningfully acknowledge individual acts of kindness, which when done by many, could contribute to building community connections. A broader understanding of the importance of meaningful community connections has never been greater, especially in times of physical separation. Moreover, in a world of increased polarization, there is a stronger need than ever to safeguard the erosion of communal values.
To learn more about the Healthy End of Life Project (HELP) Ottawa, click here.
To learn more about the services of the South-East Ottawa Community Health Centre, click here.