Wednesday, April 22, 2015

April 22, 2013 - Two years later


This is a week of anniversaries…

Today marks two years since Mom left us.

Forty years ago she helped me with last minute preparations for my wedding which was just four days away. 

April 26, 1975

Mom was an optimistic and visionary person. Grandma used to tell me that Mom performed in piano recitals but sometimes made mistakes and stumbled in her performance. The missed fingering didn’t stop her and she persevered with enthusiasm and confidence to the end. As a young child, she organized her things for school the night before without prodding and was always ready for the day ahead. She loved to be around people, was a leader and wasn’t the least bit shy. And so she was as an adult too.

I remember her singing joyfully as she did housework. She played the piano in the afternoon after she finished making dinner while waiting for Dad to come home. Our family ran on schedule whether we were in a house, on a ship, or on the road. She had 5 children, crossed the ocean 4 times, lived and worked in two different cultures, all by the age of 32. She must have been exhausted at times but I never heard her complain. She and Dad left Canada with my three younger brothers shortly after my wedding and started a new life and ministry in Mexico. 

Sometimes her eternal optimism and extroverted personality were at odds with my more timid and reserved nature and she pushed me beyond my comfort zone. I mostly appreciate the prodding now even though I didn’t at the time. 

Life was not always easy but Mom never lost her joy, optimism and hope for the future. In later years she sometimes mentioned things from the past she would do differently, but old mistakes did not keep her from moving ahead. She never really accepted that she was dying as her bucket list had several more items she wanted to cross off. The physical difficulties of her last few years and the emotional distress they caused are still foremost in my mind. Memories of earlier events, stored in the attic of my mind and shaded by the curtain of time, come to light randomly. 

She lives on in me, in my brothers, our children and their children. She modelled what it meant to be a daughter, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a friend and a servant of God. We learned from her successes and her missteps. The virtues and values she instilled in us need to be nurtured, especially her ability to move ahead in faith in the face of difficulty and uncertainty.

Philippians 4

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Brief Review of books by Dr. Atul Gawande

"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world"

I read Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and recommend the book to anyone who works in the medical profession as well as those who have older family members or are getting older themselves. That pretty much includes everyone. Dr. Gawande is an excellent writer and story teller. His books, while containing some technical information and scary stories if you are prone to hypochondria, connect on a human level and explore ideal doctor/patient relationships.

I downloaded all his books and just finished another one this weekend. In Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, he deals with three topics in relation to medical practice. 

Diligence- giving sufficient attention to detail 
Doing what is right (ethics) 
Ingenuity- thinking anew and reflecting on failure in an effort to find new solutions

In the afterword at end of the book he makes some recommendations which apply to people who want to improve performance in any area. He goes into more detail in each category but here is the summary in a nutshell. He calls his afterword: Suggestions for becoming a positive deviant.

Ask unscripted questions. When talking to strangers, learn something about them. Make a human connection. Listening is as important as talking (more so in my opinion).

Don’t complain. It is boring and doesn’t solve anything. Be prepared to discuss something interesting with your peers, friends and family.

Count something. If you count something you find interesting you will learn something interesting. Make observations and reflect on them.

Write something. Write about some small observation in your world. Writing lets you step back and think through a problem. Write a few paragraphs in a blog, write a journal or newsletter article, write a poem for a reading group. Offer your reflections to an audience.

Change. Don’t be a persistent skeptic who never stops resisting. Be an early adopter. Find something new to try, something to change. Count how often you succeed and how often you fail. Write about it. Ask people what they think. Keep the conversation going.

Progress comes from new ideas birthed from observation, reflection and discussion. We are inundated with a constant flow of information, much of it useless and distorted, in our fast-paced world. It is easy to be sucked into a vortex of negativity, hopelessness and resistance to change. 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Secret Garden


I fall asleep quickly when travelling, whether by bus, airplane, as a car passenger, and unfortunately I fight drowsiness as a driver too. I download audiobooks for long trips and find they keep my mind engaged and alert. We really enjoyed audiobook versions of 101 Dalmations and Peter Pan on recent road trips to Ottawa. Mom used to read us a chapter or two from her old books after lunch and I remember our elementary school teachers reading to us at the end of the day. Listening to stories still gives me pleasure. Movie versions of classic books pale in comparison to written literature in my opinion. 

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is one of my favourite books from childhood. I identify with the sullen and displaced Mary and love how she comes alive as she pokes around in the earth and watches things grow. She bullies and encourages Colin back to health and the two odd children start to engage with others in a normal way. Today I found a delightful secret garden as I spent another afternoon looking for spring.

I walked along the river which is running fast and high. Much of the trail was flooded and there were few birds in the strong, bitter wind. I heard a Northern Flicker and followed the sound up a hill by an old church. Next door to the church is the old home of the Canadian artist, Homer Watson, which is now a (reportedly haunted) art gallery. Apparently his sister didn’t leave the house after she died.

The large property has a few tiny cabins where aspiring artists came to stay and study between 1948-1966 at the Doon School of Fine Arts. The yard is sheltered from the wind and green things were growing. A Robin dug several grubs out of the soil and a pair of Northern Flickers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers were on the trees. Another lady was walking by with a camera looking, as she said, for something with life. She hadn’t noticed the flowers yet. Barely visible in a bed of dead leaves were hundred of crocus flowers. Behind a shed were masses of snowdrops and a bee collected pollen from open scilia flowers on the sunny lawn.

Snow drops are my favourite spring flower because they often appear first and when the ground is still snow covered. From now on flowers will open in rapid succession…hyacinth, forsythia, daffodils, pulmonaria along with a host of spring ephemerals, all before the leaves open on the trees. Today I saw the spring flower show start in the secret garden. 


Now that you have read my little story, you can look at the pictures.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Early Spring Blues


I looked for a pair of Eastern Bluebirds while riding my bike through a nearby conservation area a couple of days ago. I found them in the area late last summer and sure enough, they returned this spring and were checking out at least three nesting boxes today. There were two pair of Bluebirds and one lone Tree Swallow in the meadow. The Tree Swallow made the mistake of sitting on one piece of real estate and the Bluebirds were very agitated and noisy until the swallow left. While I watched, a Great Blue Heron flew overhead so it was a day for

blue feathers and

blue skies.


We had a grey, snowy Easter Sunday yesterday so the sunshine today was most welcome. I walked the trails with my Nordic walking poles as slippery ice is still present in protected places. Shallow ponds remain frozen over but I found lots of

blue water.


Close to home I met a birder who was working with a scope and a notebook. He did not have a camera but had a good eye for water birds and pointed out several species for me. He records his data on eBird and was surprised that I have never done this. So I registered on eBird and listed the 48 bird species I have seen in the last 3 weeks between Ottawa in the east and Lake Erie in the south west.

Here is a short slide show of some of the birds I found this beautiful Easter Monday.


Bird List for today:
Canada Goose, Tundra Swan, Wood Duck, Mallard, Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead,Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser, Great Blue Heron, Turkey Vulture, Osprey, Sandhill Crane, Killdeer, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Belted Kingfisher, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, American Crow, Horned Lark, Tree Swallow, Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, European Starling, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Common Grackle

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Career Stories: Suicide Threat

The news this week brought discussions about employee mental health, medical confidentiality and fitness to work to the forefront. What prompted a young co-pilot to deliberately crash a plane full of innocent passengers and crew into a mountain? Could this tragedy have been averted?



The most difficult experience in my career involved a co-worker. At the time, I was the professional practice leader for a group of therapists at a private company. Each January I met staff individually for a performance review and goal setting exercise. One therapist was a gifted practitioner but was indifferent to the bureaucratic processes we had to follow. A free spirit, she struggled with personal and professional relationships and boundaries. She garnered the most thank you notes from patients and the most complaints from management.

During our interview she told me she was planning to end her life but also told me not to tell anyone. I did not know how to respond at the time to her comments which made me very uncomfortable. After she left I called a social worker as well as the owner of the business and they both advised me that I could do nothing without her consent. 

Two weeks passed and I kept in contact with her at work but still wondered what to do. I contemplated calling her family physician but in the back of my mind I hoped she would get over her melancholy and get on with life. 

We had a staff meeting one afternoon and she did not show up. I knew something was wrong and drove to her home in another town after asking the office staff to contact her next of kin. It was late January and her car was in the driveway. There were no footprints or tire tracks in the fresh snow and I walked around the house looking in all the windows. Her next door neighbour, who was a policeman, saw me and came over with a key to the house. I was very afraid when I entered the house with him but we did not find her. I opened her work appointment book and saw that she had scheduled no patient visits after the previous morning. 

I called the police. Her closest friend who lived two hours away arrived later in the day. 



The neighbour found her body. She bled to death, alone, in the snow in the wood lot behind the house. I sat in the back of a police cruiser that cold, dark night completing a written report while responding to questions from the detective. In disclosing my conversation with her earlier in the month, I was asked by the officer why I didn’t do anything. 

I was devastated and immobilized with guilt and grief for weeks. I sought counselling and was told again that there was likely nothing I could have done to prevent her well planned suicide.

I still cannot accept or believe that. 

Well over a decade has passed and I can now drive by that house without crying. I have learned much more about mental illness and suicide in my current work on a mental health unit. With the explosion of information on the internet since this event, it is easier to access helpful resources.

If I found myself in a similar situation now, I would not promise confidentiality and would pursue help far more aggressively. The advice I received did not feel right and I would trust my own instincts instead. More than one life could depend on it.


Here are some suicide prevention resources:


Canada Suicide Hotlines - (links to international hotlines too)


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Another Late Spring


North shore of Lake Erie March 28, 2015

This is the third year in a row we have experienced a long, harsh winter. It has been exceptionally cold so far in 2015 with temperatures in the minus double digits for weeks on end. 

Tundra Swans migrate from Chesapeake Bay to their summer nesting grounds in the Arctic and pass through south-western Ontario in late February to mid-March. They stage in large numbers on ponds near the town of Aylmer and viewing stations are available for the public to watch the birds. When I visited yesterday morning, the temperature was -12 C and the ponds were frozen. This is the second spring where migration is late and the number of migrating swans is down significantly due to lack of open water. Volunteers count the birds each morning and feed is provided. There were about 300 swans as well as Canada Geese and a handful of other migrants. In good years there are thousands of swans resting here at a time.

I took many photos so I posted a slide show to You Tube with the highlights of my day.




None of the farm fields had vernal ponds and the only birds of note along the side roads were Red-tailed Hawks, Turkey Vultures and one Northern Harrier. I saw one very cold Eastern Kingbird on a wire right at the lake front and there are no insects at these temperature. It has arrived far ahead of schedule.

I drove to the Lake Erie shoreline to find open water. The beach was covered in snow and large ice chunks. A handful of diving ducks including a small raft of Redhead Ducks and a single Hooded Meganser swam near the pier. 

On the way home I stopped by the Bald Eagle nest I watched last year. It was good to see an adult bird in the nest and hopefully it is warming an egg or two. 

Red Maple blooms were about ready to open, a sure sign of spring. I passed a maple syrup stand on the highway outside an Old Order Mennonite farm. Two young men had a propane heater, a solar energy panel and a cell phone. There was a sign indicating that they now took credit and debit cards for payment, perhaps using the Square app. In some ways there has been more progress in the Old Order community in the past 10 years than in the past 100. 


In this past week I have counted 34 bird species in just a handful of locations. The migratory notables include the following:
Snowy Owl, Northern Harrier, Turkey Vulture, Bald Eagle, Eastern Kingbird, American Robin, Red-winged Blackbird, Kildeer, Song Sparrow, Common Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, Hooded Merganser, Redhead duck, Junco, American Tree Sparrow
Other year-round specialties include: Pileated Woodpecker, Wild Turkey, Common Raven

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Look Again


I was given an excellent tip on the location of a Snowy Owl in the Ottawa area this week and set out this morning, with low expectations, to see if I could find it. As I drove along the highway I saw it sitting on a post facing the early morning sun. It flew off when I got out of the car on the shoulder of the road so I drove slowly to see if I could find it again.


Scanning this field with binoculars, I found a second owl. Can you see it?


Here it is sitting like a pile of snow in a corn field.


Next to the corn field, I found the first owl sitting on an old stump.  Can you see it?


This picture was taken with 50x zoom. This younger owl is heavily marked.


I drove down a nearby side road and saw another owl sitting on a hydro pole. There was no place to pull over and I hoped that it would still be there when I got closer.


When I rolled down my window this almost completely white owl took off across the field with its five foot wing span. There was another owl on a hydro pole but I was unable to stop to get a good photo.

I counted four owls in total and wonder if others were missed on the snow covered fields. I drove down to a bird sanctuary on the St. Lawrence River afterward and found some more stealthy creatures. There weren't many migrating birds on this very cold morning but there were plenty of deer and red squirrels.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Worm of Robins


The collective noun for a group of American Robins is "A Worm of Robins". 

Who came up with this? Really! 

The British collective noun for the different bird they call a Robin is "A Round of Robins". I think that sounds a lot better, but the British are exceptionally clever with the English language. 

The fact is, I am very happy to see my first Robin every spring. Today felt like it should be the day so I tucked a small camera in my lunch bag and enlisted one of my patients, under the guise of participating in a walking program, to look for Robins with me. We checked out the ornamental cherry trees in the courtyard and chapel garden and only found a squirrel and two doves. 


When I left the building after work I spotted this Robin by the doorway. It hopped right up to me as if I might have a worm or grub to spare.  As it flew away, I realized I was surrounded by Robins in the trees and on the ground. 



This worm of Robins must have arrived together from the south and found the lawns and trees around the hospital favourable for food and a little warmth. Robins do not eat seeds at bird feeders but they will eat chopped apples, suet, mealworms, or softer nuts like pecans on a tray feeder. It is cold this week but the sun is slowly melting snow in south facing areas and they will likely find enough food.


Vernal equinox arrives at 6:45 PM on March 20th this year, but I think today was the first day of spring.