Originally published in Vancouver Sun, written by Denise Ryan – Updated: December 21, 2018
Physician Tom Watterson has seen many changes over 30 years in the DTES, from the AIDS crisis to the Fentanyl crisis but one thing that hasn’t changed is the patient care at May’s Place, a Powell Street hospice
For 30 years, Tom Watterson has been caring for patients on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The palliative care physician, retiring this month, said he will miss the bike ride to work at May’s Place each day, a daily trek that took him through the heart of the DTES, and kept him connected to the community he served.
Like that bike ride, Watterson’s three decades of service at May’s Place — a six-bed hospice and palliative care facility on Powell Street — has been a journey through the changing landscape of crisis on the DTES: the crack cocaine and AIDS crisis of the late 1980s and early ’90s, heroin, crystal meth, Fentanyl.
“As soon as I hit Main Street on my bike, I start to hear the sirens,” said Watterson.
The tiny 6-bed hospice is tucked away on an upper floor of a nondescript building but the door opens to a warm, homey lobby with a cosy fireplace and a Christmas tree covered with tinsel bows. Each tinsel bow has a name attached of a patient who passed away at May’s this year. A half-finished jigsaw puzzle is scattered across a table, another table is set for the family-style meals patients share, and on another table is a faded black and white autographed photo of actress and humanitarian Elizabeth Taylor.
Taylor visited May’s Place in the 1990s when the hospice served many patients in the final stages of AIDS — a visit that raised awareness of both the disease and the hospice.
Back in the late ’80s, the DTES was populated by older men, mostly loggers and labourers, some of whom struggled with alcohol or heroin addiction, said Watterson. When May’s Place opened its doors in 1990 as the first palliative care facility on the DTES, those were the clients it served.
The crack cocaine and shared-needle crisis of the early 1990s changed everything.
“Suddenly there was an AIDS epidemic,” said Watterson. “Then came crystal meth. It seems to get worse every year.”
Many of the residents in May’s Place come from SROs and have no family support — but for many, the compassionate care at May’s Place has been transformational. “Some of them we’ve been able to reconnect with family for the first time in years,” said Watterson.
In a small room, sitting on bed with a handmade quilt, 78-year-old Bill is working his way through a grilled cheese sandwich and thinking about the sister he hasn’t seen since 1977. “I wasn’t considered to be stable, get a job and stick with it, like my sister,” said Bill.
With the warmth and care he’s received at May’s Place, Bill has rallied. Now he’s hoping to get well enough to find his sister.
“Last minute. Make a connection,” said Bill, who has end-stage COPD. “Mrs. Michele Long.”
For Watterson, offering pain and symptom relief through end of life care is only one part of the work. The time spent in “meaningful conversation” with patients is the other part, and he still plans to keep a hand in things after he retires.
Jonathan Oldman, executive director of The Boom Group, said community support is vital to keep May’s Place going. A makeover in 2014 spruced things up, and they are hoping to expand from six beds to 10.
“The Bloom Group, the community charity that operates May’s Place, provides funds each year to pay for equipment, facilities, volunteer and other programs at its two hospices. While public funding is received through Vancouver Coastal Health, the hospices could not operate without community support.”
To make a gift this holiday season, visit www.thebloomgroup.org/Donate/