Beloved Wellwood, our living, caring stitch in time
Nonprofit facility turning 20 celebrates 20,000 blankets crafted with love
Wellwood is celebrating a birthday today — it is 20,000 blankets old. And chain-strong.
When Wellwood, turning 20, was born in 1997, a gap got filled; a gap many didn’t know existed until it was filled; such a difference it has made.
Hamilton, with Wellwood’s arrival, finally had a communitybased, nonprofit facility that, according to its literature, provides information, programs and “peer support” to those with cancer and, beyond them, loved ones, caregivers and health-care providers.
That’s Wellwood. Peer support? What an understatement. It’s a blanket, an ear to listen, a practical hand to guide families through a sometimes confusing system. It’s a boat home.
Let’s start with the blankets, one among many programs, including meditation, creative expression, yoga, children’s groups for youth living with cancer in the household.
Soon after Barb Hartnett was diagnosed with cancer 17 years ago (she was told she had at most five years), she learned from her daughter that she was going to be a grandmother.
The cancer news pushed her toward Wellwood — and to start knitting again.
Her knitting got others knitting, the afghans and blankets going to cancer patients (people often get cold going through chemo). Knitting groups formed.
Last month, Wellwood’s
20,000th blanket was completed.
Barb, who died only last year, counselled those who came to Wellwood — like her, with incurable cancers. She would, in the words of Jane George, pick their hope up off the floor. She knew there is always living still to do.
When I think of Wellwood now, I think of the knitting. And I think of Jane George, Wellwood’s executive director, who told me about Barb. She tells me about Wellwood’s heroes because they’re amazing and also, I suspect, to deflect attention from herself.
You should know, though, that Jane was Wellwood’s first (and so far only) executive director.
She got the job because, in 1997, she jokes, “they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Less money. No pension. No benefits and no job security.”
But, oh, the rewards. To help pioneer a whole new frontier.
Before Wellwood existed, there was nothing quite like it here. That’s something McMaster cancer specialist Dr. Greg O’Connell felt very emphatically when, at 38, he was himself diagnosed in 1989.
He and his wife, Maureen O’Connor, a nurse, undertook to create a better system, more patient/familyfocused, holistically integrated with other medical and support services, nonduplicating and keyed to emotional, psychological and spiritual needs.
They knew that if the system was hard enough for them to negotiate, imagine those with fewer resources or English as a second language?
Wellwood officially opened on May 27, 1997. Dr. O’Connell, though he survived only a few months beyond, did live to see it open.
Jane’s mother, Gwen, did not. She died of cancer earlier in 1997. That experience, saying goodbye to her mother, helped make the prospect of Wellwood powerfully and personally meaningful to Jane.
When I think of Wellwood, I think of the Georges. And I think of my friend Randy Steele, of CHCH’s Steele Town, lost in 2009.
Jane loved the Steeles and helped them immeasurably as did others at Wellwood. The feeling was mutual.
I think of his daughter, Randi, in 2013, then nine years old, at the dedication of Wellwood’s children’s room, named after the Steele girls, Randy and Maggie’s daughters.
Randi gave a speech, about the words her father left her. “Be head over heels,” he urged her. Jane crouched beside her, held a corner of Randi’s written speech and helped complete the last words when Randi’s voice was overcome.
When I think of Wellwood, I think of the perfect light they stood in at that moment, the kind that parts clouds in old paintings.
When I think of Wellwood now, I think of the amazing people there who, when they hear and see the hard and the unthinkable, run toward it to help, not away from it for cover.
I think of Jane telling me so poignantly of her last moments with her father, the late Peter George, former president of McMaster University, who died April 27 of cancer — on Jane’s birthday, bookending the 20 years of Wellwood with the loss of her parents. He tried to join the family, at his bedside, in singing “Happy Birthday” to her.
Wellwood is a record and measure of 20 years of wonderful work, of growth. But mostly it’s the scale on which is weighed the precious immediacy of this very moment, in the instant it happens, the living that there is still left to do, no matter how much or little.
It is a big part of the goodness in this world, the radiant goodness being knit up against its brokenness, one rescuing stitch at a time.
Children at Wellwood on Sanatorium Road react to hearing the nonprofit organization has knitted its 20,000th blanket for cancer patients.