For com­fort, for hope

From the depths of her own dark­ness, Sheila Ethier has reached out to oth­ers in de­spair

Edmonton Journal - - LIFE -

Sheila Ethier doesn’t like to talk too much about her ill­ness. The dark­ness and feel­ings of de­spair that she has strug­gled with through most of her adult life are al­ways near the sur­face. Re­liv­ing those feel­ings is painful.

It’s hard to imag­ine that the wo­man sit­ting in front of me with the ra­di­ant smile, warm eyes and easy laugh con­tin­ues to deal with bouts of de­bil­i­tat­ing de­pres­sion. And what she has ac­com­plished through ad­ver­sity is a tes­ta­ment to the strength of her hope and hu­man spirit.

Sheila was work­ing as a pe­di­atric nurse when her youngest son, Ja­son, was di­ag­nosed with leukemia at the age of two. Ra­di­a­tion and chemo­ther­apy treat­ments put the can­cer in re­mis­sion, but he was left with a brain in­jury and heart dam­age. Five years later, Ja­son fell while skat­ing and frac­tured his skull, caus­ing a sec­ondary brain in­jury. A year later, he was on a ven­ti­la­tor in ICU with se­vere burns to his face and body af­ter throw­ing gaso­line on a back­yard fire. Mean­while, Sheila, a sin­gle mother of two, was wor­ried about los­ing her job when the Al­berta gov­ern­ment be­gan cut­ting health­care bud­gets in the early 1990s. The stress took its toll. She was di­ag­nosed with se­vere de­pres­sion, and went on a med­i­cal leave.

Sheila was ad­mit­ted to the Univer­sity of Al­berta psy­chi­atric ward sev­eral times over 10 years. She says she was al­ways cold and look­ing for more blan­kets. One day when she’d just come home from the hospi­tal, she pulled a worn patch­work quilt out of her stor­age chest that her grand­mother had made for her as a child. When she wrapped it around her shoul­ders, some­thing un­ex­pected hap­pened.

“The mo­ment I put it on, I felt this peace and this in­cred­i­ble sense of love wash over me,” says Ethier. “It was made for me in love at a time when I was feel­ing well. It gave meaglim­mer of hope that maybe I’ll over­come this ill­ness and I’ll feel well again.”

The next day, Sheila spoke to the Univer­sity of Al­berta Hospi­tal about start­ing a new pro­gram, with hand­made quilts do­nated by peo­ple in the com­mu­nity to pa­tients un­der­go­ing treat­ment for a men­tal ill­ness. She founded the Blan­kets of Love Foun­da­tion for Men­tal Health in 1996. To­day, the pro­gram runs in 12 hos­pi­tals across Canada.

“When you have a men­tal ill­ness, you feel des­per­ate, hope­less and unloved. Blan­kets are a tan­gi­ble way of sup­port­ing some­one and say­ing you’re sick, we ac­cept your ill­ness and this is for you be­cause we want you to get well. This is your own blan­ket of love. You are loved and sup­ported by peo­ple in your com­mu­nity.”

Sheila es­ti­mates over a thou­sand quilts have been do­nated and given to pa­tients since the pro­gram be­gan. She is buoyed by peo­ple like Laura Henry, an 83-year-old St. Al­bert wo­man who, since her hus­band died nine months ago, has sewn 40 quilts out of his old jeans. She has do­nated half of them to the pro­gram. Mak­ing the blan­kets of love gives the wo­man a sense of pur­pose in her mourn­ing.

“I re­ally be­lieve that ev­ery­one has some­thing inside of them that makes them want to reach out to oth­ers. And if you can find the strength when you are fac­ing chal­lenges, when you are in the mid­dle of ad­ver­sity, in­evitably it helps to take you out of your own pain and fills you with joy.”

Sheila doesn’t run the day-to-day lo­gis­tics of the Blan­kets of Love pro­gram. That’s done by hospi­tal staff. Her gift is get­ting the ball rolling and mo­bi­liz­ing oth­ers to help. She is the con­sum­mate care­giver, rec­og­niz­ing peo­ple’s pain and know­ing what to do. That’s how she also founded the non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion Kids with Can­cer with its first event in 1988. It be­gan when she learned that Ash­ley, a two-year-old girl get­ting can­cer treat­ment, was not ex­pected to live to see Christ­mas. Sheila or­ga­nized an early De­cem­ber Christ­mas pot-luck party for 110 kids with can­cer and their fam­i­lies, com­plete with Santa and gifts do­nated by Santa’s Anony­mous. Ash­ley died two hours af­ter the party was over.

Sheila also started the Kids With Can­cer camp that year, af­ter rec­og­niz­ing the toll her youngest son’s can­cer and treat­ments were tak­ing on her eldest son. She looked for a camp where they could spend qual­ity time as a fam­ily, but couldn’t find one that took chil­dren un­der the age of six. So she started her own camp. Says Sheila, “Fam­i­lies are bro­ken when you have a child that’s sick. You spend so much time help­ing them get well. The im­pact on re­la­tion­ships with your spouse and your other chil­dren is hor­ri­fy­ing. Fam­i­lies need a place to go to­gether where there is fun and laugh­ter and sun­shine.” The first camp was held the Septem­ber long week­end at Birch Bay, then moved to Camp He Ho Ha on Lake Isle, 100 kilo­me­tres west of Edmonton. Ralph Hole se­nior, who had just lost his son to can­cer, saw a story about the camp on television and set up an en­dow­ment fund to en­sure the camp went on for­ever.

“Th­ese chil­dren come and you light up their life for a few days,” says Sheila. “Some of them don’t come back and you know they’re not com­ing back. But you have to look past that pain and fo­cus on what you can do to make life bet­ter for th­ese kids dur­ing the short time they are here. There is a time to mourn but there is also a time to cel­e­brate life.”

De­spite her own chal­lenges and ad­ver­si­ties, Sheila fo­cuses on the good things that can come out of her pain. She self-pub­lished a book, writ­ten as a diary, that frankly dis­cusses her down times, but also the joy of liv­ing she has come to cher­ish. The ti­tle, Count It All Joy, is taken from a phrase in the scrip­tures. Her faith in God has al­ways kept her go­ing.

Sheila knows her chal­lenges are not over. Her son Ja­son, now 22, is can­cer free. But she knows with his brain in­jury, life is al­ways go­ing to be a chal­lenge for him, whether it’s get­ting a job or get­ting along with lim­ited so­cial skills. He will never be com­pletely in­de­pen­dent.

While Sheila still has down days, she per­se­veres with hu­mour and a pos­i­tive out­look on life. She knows the bad days will al­ways be fol­lowed by the good. And she is mov­ing to­ward the fu­ture with re­newed hope. This Christ­mas, she fin­ished a nurs­ing re­fresher pro­gram and is plan­ning to re­turn to work as a nurse in the spring, 20 years af­ter go­ing on dis­abil­ity leave. It’s an en­vi­ron­ment in which she thrives, and she couldn’t be hap­pier.

Says this amaz­ing Wo­man of Vi­sion, “Like ev­ery­thing in life, it just starts with you tak­ing the next step.”

CAN­DACE EL­LIOTT/THE JOUR­NAL

Jan­uary’s Woman of Vi­sion, Sheila Ethier be­gan the Blan­kets of Love pro­gram to bring com­fort for those suf­fer­ing from de­pres­sion and men­tal ill­ness.

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