For comfort, for hope
From the depths of her own darkness, Sheila Ethier has reached out to others in despair
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.”