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 mid 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.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Memories of Aurora

Aurora Cemetery

March 13, 2015 marked the 25th year since Grandma Devins died on a foggy Tuesday. I remember the fog because it kept me from making the two hour drive to the Newmarket hospital where she had been admitted just a couple of days earlier. Our children were young and I could not join my mother, brother and other family members at her bedside. After her funeral, I did not return to Aurora until September 2013 when I made my first pilgrimage to the cemetery where she and other family members are buried. I walked along the rows of headstones and saw many familiar names, people Grandma talked about, people who were the life of Aurora when it had a population of 2,000, 3,000 then 5,000 people. Over 50,000 people live here now, many of them commuters to Toronto. The town core is still familiar to me though.

Wells Street Public School

My mother grew up in this town and my father's family moved to Aurora when he was a teenager. When our family returned to Canada from South Africa, we lived here when I was in grade 3 and 4. I went to Wells Street Public School and my classroom was on the second floor. I remember being sent home suddenly the day President Kennedy was assassinated. The school has been converted to loft apartments and is designated as a heritage building.

Grandma's house

Grandma's house was around the corner from the school and was just a couple of properties away from Yonge St. and Wellington St., the main intersection of town. She and Grandad were town doctors and their office was in the house which they built in the 1920's. The house is now owned by lawyers and I was happy to see it was in good repair. The side door where patients entered is sealed off and the garage is gone. The big backyard and garden where we had many picnics and croquet games is now a paved parking lot. My mother's bedroom at the back of the second floor was the guest room where I spent many happy weekends. Grandma and I would visit in the sun room below, often with her friends, and she always beat me at Scrabble. This house was the most constant location of my childhood as our family moved frequently. My grandfather died when Mom was 16 so I never knew him.

Fall market in the old school yard and park

There was a fall market in the park opposite the old public school the day I visited. Vendors sold produce, crafts, food, and other items. I recognized an acquaintance from my childhood who was selling his book about the history of the town. His grandparents were close friends of my grandparents and his Aunt Ruth was one of my mother's best friends. I know that influenced my mother in choosing my name. He was older than me, a teenager when I was a grade schooler. The age difference is insignificant now. We chatted about family and changes in the town and I was happy to buy his book.

Our house on Centre Street

This was the house we lived in when we returned from Africa. It was one block away from Grandma's street and my first two brothers and myself had bedrooms in the upper level which was really an attic. The frost was thick on the inside of our windows in the winter and I was often terrified to go to bed as we seemed so far away from our parents. I was particularly afraid of my closet. My third brother, Mark was born when we lived here. One other memory I have is of the Limburger cheese my father kept in the back entrance way as Mom would not let him keep it in the fridge.

Grandad Tolman's house in Oak Ridges

I stopped at one more place that day. My father's father lived in this house on Yonge St. at the edge of Oak Ridges, just south of Aurora when I was a child. He gave art lessons and had a shop at the front of the building where he sold paintings, frames and lights. He died when I was 11 years old but I remember this being a fun place to visit. The building looks much the same as I remember.

The formative years of my childhood revolved around this town and the family who lived here. I still have dreams of Grandma's house and remember many details of the double bricked structure. Most of all I carry the investment of love, time, history and values from a person who was a huge influence in my life. She lived in a century of great scientific and social change but she embraced the new, travelled widely and was always interested in other people. I hope that someone can say that about me too.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Spring Arrives at Last

Several days of sunshine and above freezing temperatures have started a thaw and the promise of winter's end. Spring break started today and we are a week away from vernal equinox. It is time to look for early spring migrants. I usually see Red-winged Blackbirds and American Robins by the second week of March. A coworker who lives near me posted a picture of a Robin in her yard this morning. I looked in all the usual places for these two birds and did not hear or see either of them.

But I did see...

A Common Grackle- average return date to Ontario is March 7*

Three Turkey Vultures- average return date is March 14

A pair of Killdeers in an industrial park- average return date March 10

A small stream broke free of ice and snow and bubbled toward the Speed River. I saw my first and only American Woodcock right here a couple of years ago. They usually arrive around March 12.
Red-winged Blackbirds return on March 4 and American Robins on March 10 on average so I expect to see them in the next few days. There are very few trees with berries or fruit and the ground is frozen solid so there is not a lot of food for Robins right now.

I didn't take a picture of the girl walking by in shorts and a t-shirt. After all it was 5 degrees celsius which is about 35 degrees warmer than the morning temperature less than a month ago on February 16th. And that is something to celebrate!

*dates are from Mike Burrell's blog

Friday, March 06, 2015

Spring Sun

Extreme cold overnight temperatures broke records yet again in this bitter, thaw-less winter. It is our third harsh winter in a row as we enter the second week of March when Red-winged Blackbirds and Robins generally return. The sun is stronger and stays longer each day and nature responds in preparation for spring in spite of cold winds and deep, ice-crusted snow.

Many birds have paired up and are bold and conspicuous against the snow and leafless branches. They are eager for food in the cold and followed me as I left handfuls of seed on the trail.

American Tree Sparrows will be around for a few more weeks before heading north again. Juncos were scarce this winter and I saw only one today. A single Song Sparrow sat quietly in the bush and I suspect it is not a returning migrant but a bird who over-wintered here.

Male Cardinals now sing loudly from the treetops early in the morning as nesting season gets underway. This lovely fluffed up female kept a discreet distance but watched where the sunflower seeds were dropped.

Several Cardinals sat facing the sun as I passed by and a Downy Woodpecker was so eager to get suet from the cage that it did not fly away when I was only a metre away.

I am so ready for spring and will enjoy the longer evenings that come with the time change this weekend. I feel like a solar battery that has lost its charge and look forward to more light and the energy it brings.