Saying thanks: a “pistol” and her “gentleman” married 65 years leave mark on MGH

Lisa Simmons and her grandparents, George and Alice Shipman.

Lisa Simmons and her grandparents, George and Alice Shipman. Married for 65 years, the Shipman’s were admitted to palliative care at MGH on the same day in the spring of 2017.

She was “a pistol” – a feisty redhead who grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan. He was “a hard worker, a proud veteran, and a gentleman who would give you the shirt off his back.” Nobody could forget George and Alice Shipman – especially not the palliative care team at Michael Garron Hospital (MGH) that cared for the couple during their final weeks in the spring of 2017. And in return, the care provided by the team made a big impression on the Shipman family, especially their granddaughter, Lisa Simmons.

Alice and George were married for 65 years, raising their family in a bungalow on Byng Avenue in the Oakridge neighbourhood. Both were “house proud” and active into their 90s, with Alice carefully maintaining her garden and George climbing up on ladders to make repairs.

An unlikely diagnosis

Lisa was stunned when she found out her grandmother, who had always been careful about her health, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. Alice – notoriously private – had kept the diagnosis to herself until undergoing a mastectomy at MGH. Before learning the news, the family noticed a change in Alice’s attitude – her feistiness was fading.

“You’ve been a fighter your entire life,” Lisa told her grandmother when she expressed reservations about her treatment. “You can’t stop now.”

Alice never fully recovered from her illness, so keeping her as comfortable and safe as possible was a priority for her family.  A year later, she and George were admitted to MGH after both were injured in separate falls on the exact same day in the early spring of 2017. The couple’s health had deteriorated, and they were admitted into palliative care.

“The staff were amazing,” says Lisa. “They made an effort to get to know [my grandparents] and asked about their lives. They knew exactly how my grandpa liked his bedsheets. They even made a big deal for him when it was ‘fish n’ chips Friday’ – they knew how much he loved it. It was so meaningful – these wonderful people taking care of my grandfather, the most important person in my life.” 

Staff from the Palliative Care Unit who care for the Shipmans and their family.

Staff from the Palliative Care Unit, who cared for the Shipmans and their family.

‘It felt like our loss was also their loss’

The team cared for so much more than their patients – they cared for the whole family, helping them cope with the sadness of losing two beloved family members. “I wasn’t really thinking of myself in the moments I was at the hospital,” recalled Lisa. “But the nurses made sure I was okay – asking if I needed a break or a coffee. And I got a lot of hugs.”

Most meaningfully, the staff took Lisa’s lead and empowered her to be an active member of the caregiving team for her grandparents. “It was such a privilege to be part of my grandparents’ end of life and the palliative care team made it possible,” says Lisa.

George passed away in May, followed by Alice two weeks later at the age of 92. Both died peacefully in their sleep. A few weeks later, the family received a card signed by each member of the palliative care team. “I cried when I saw the card from the unit,” remembers Lisa. “It felt like our loss was also their loss, and that we weren’t forgotten.”

Several months later, the Shipmans are remembered well by the palliative care team: the “fiery redhead” and her “kind and gentle” husband, and their granddaughter Lisa. And the gratitude goes both ways.

“Lisa frequently expressed her thanks for the devotion the staff felt,” says Josie Barbieri-Tacoma, palliative care manager. “It meant so much to the staff – when families express their gratitude it helps with resiliency because [palliative care] can be a hard job. The staff really give so much to every patient and family.”

Rischelle Juacalla, an RPN in palliative care, agrees: “When families say thank you, it’s the biggest reward I get.”

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