Terminally ill man wants to die at homeless shelter
Shelter staff ‘like family’
Terminal cancer patient Terry Pettigrew is preparing for the end.
Gaunt at little more than 100 pounds, doctors have given him a few weeks to live, likely not more than a month.
He’s prone to tell lengthy stories about his life to anyone who’ll listen, and he’s quick to tears on poignant memories.
Pettigrew’s last wish is to pass his final days at home — the Calgary Drop-In Centre.
Staff members at the shelter, who’ve become like family, have told him, no problem.
“All the people I really know are there. I don’t know anybody in any palliative care,” said Pettigrew. “Why go to a place where you don’t know anyone?”
Pettigrew is one of a growing number of clients of the dropin centre that shelter staff has helped counsel through their end of life preparations.
About half a dozen aging or terminally ill clients have used a suite set aside for the purpose at the drop-in centre’s Bridgeland senior’s complex to pass their final days in comfort.
Pettigrew is one of the few whose wish is to die at the shelter, on the third floor in the special care unit where he has a bed near a nursing station.
“This is Terry’s family right now,” said Patrick McDonald, a client advocate at the dropin centre.
“People here care about him, they have lot of respect for him, they have a lot of love for him and he understands and feels that. So what better place to be than around those that you know care for you and love you? That’s the bottom line for Terry.”
At 58, Pettigrew has never really had a permanent home.
His father “blew up” and kicked him out of the family’s house in Brandon, Man. when he was just eight years old.
He lived on the street for three days before he was discovered curled up in an abandoned clothes dryer.
Pettigrew was placed in a shelter and later a home for boys with five others whose names he still remembers.
As an adult, he worked for seismic companies in the Far North and later took a job grooming race horses in Calgary, and eventually hauled horses all over North America.
During all this time he lived in camps with the seismic crews, in a dormitory at the race track or in his truck, and occasionally took rooms at hotels.
It wasn’t until a little over three years ago that he finally got an apartment of his own when he took a construction job. But that lasted only three months and when he lost his job, Pettigrew ended up at the drop-in centre.
Last summer, his health had become imperilled to the point where alarmed shelter staff forced him to go to the hospital to get checked and he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, which had “spread everywhere.”
He’s lost more than 25 pounds and is on morphine for the pain and steroids to build muscle mass.
Stuck in the hospital last week while doctors attempted to better control his pain and conduct further testing, Pettigrew wept at having to be away from the drop-in centre.
When he wasn’t able to get travel insurance to go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras in February as a final wish granted by the drop-in centre, staff and clients threw him a Mardi Gras-themed party at the shelter.
Thin with a bushy beard and red ringed eyes, Pettigrew still lights up at the memory.
Now only able to take short excursions on foot, Pettigrew said he doesn’t want any medical heroics performed to stop the inevitable.
“No feeding tubes, no breathing tubes, no machines,” said Pettigrew. “I only agreed to pain killers and the basics.”
He filled out a My Voice document offered through Alberta Health Services. It is a legal document that sets out the wishes of patients that must be followed once they can no longer speak for themselves.
The drop-in centre has been using the documents for over three years, since one of its on-staff physicians recommended it to the shelter for clients who were advanced in years or terminally ill.
“We took it upon ourselves to make sure anybody who was going down that end of life road had the opportunity to complete that so their wishes could be fulfilled for them,” said McDonald. “So they could have their dignity.”
David Ereth is another drop-in client who is dying of cancer. A year and a half ago he was given two months to live, with cancer spread throughout much of his body. He now occupies a suite at the Bridgeland complex, where the 58-year-old is brought food and receives regular home care.
“This place has been a godsend to me; they’ve really helped a lot,” said Ereth.
“They’vekeptmereallycomfortable, they’ve run errands for me. They do pretty much anything for me these days.
“If it wasn’t for the dropin centre, I’d be dead. I was going down real fast before I got this place.”
Ereth started living at shelters, first the Mustard Seed and then the drop-in centre, when he was in his late-40s but still wants to maintain his independence.
“Being able to take care of myself as much as I am now, even. It isn’t much anymore. All I’m really doing is cooking for myself and eating myself; that’s basically it. That’s all I can really do, but I’d still like to do that for myself.”
The drop-in centre currently owns two affordable housing buildings — a 49-unit senior’s complex in Bridgeland and the 119-unit Sundial apartment building downtown.
Debbie Newman, the dropin centre’s executive director, said the shelter has spent the past year looking for a new building to turn into a longterm care facility for ill and aging shelter clients.
“We have enough people in here right now that we could open up a nursing home facility,” said Newman. “Individuals who have Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s. We have people that are in our Bridgeland apartments, people who have successfully been placed into long-term housing, who’s health now has deteriorated to the point where we have to look at another alternative.
“When you have somebody that may have prior addictions or likes to consume the odd drink, it can be very difficult for those people to get into nursing homes.”
Pettigrew doesn’t have much in terms of money and possessions, but he’s filled out a will turning over everything to his family at the drop-in centre.
“They’ve just been so good to me,” he said, tears welling up. “I’m giving them every penny I got.”