The Region of North Durham is fortunate to have a fantastic medical community, which recently opened the Oak Ridges Hospice. This palliative care facility is located in downtown Port Perry. One of the people behind the success of this initiative, is Doctor Steve Russell, the medical director for the hospice. He is one of the physicians with Port Perry Medical Associates.
Upon graduation from medical school, Steve and his brand new wife Elizabeth, also a physician, decided to merge their love of medicine and travel. The couple headed north to Yellowknife for what was supposed to be a short experience. The adventure lasted several years, as both Steve and Elizabeth loved what they did, in the great white north.
The job consisted of general medicine, but was not limited to Yellowknife. In fact, the couple lived on a small island off the shores of Yellowknife, in what was affectionately known as ‘the shack’. Steve explained, “One of the practice partners in Yellowknife, had a cabin that sat empty. He offered it to us and the concept sounded great, so we jumped at the opportunity.”
Steve's first commuter vehicle was a snowmobile. Being the only form of transportation for eight or nine months of the year, it was the only way to get around. His daily commute would take him across the lake, through the forest to the hospital, where he would make the rounds. When finished he would be off to the clinic, where he would see patients for the remainder of the day.
I was surprised to learn there were five physicians in the community, and another 25 in the surrounding area. There was also a brand new hospital. The population of Yellowknife is currently around 20,000, which makes it about the same size as the Township of Scugog. When Steve and Elizabeth were there, it was half the size.
The territory they serviced was quite large, and often required airplane trips to aid the outlying communities and remote homesteads. Life was great for the Russell’s, and they probably would have stayed longer, if not for the birth of their son, and a longing to return to their family in the Toronto area.
While in Yellowknife, Steve and Elizabeth met folks who were originally from Port Perry. They suggested the Russell’s consider practicing medicine in the township of Scugog. Being addicted to small-town life, the prospect sounded appealing and, through a phone call from Yellowknife, the process began.
“I remember calling the Port Perry Hospital one night when I was on call,” Steve reminisced. Dr. Gordon Mercer picked up the phone, and I remember asking if there was any chance Port Perry was looking for doctors. Suddenly there was a long pause. Dr. Mercer finally spoke, ‘Where are you calling from again?”
Everything seemed to come together, and in 1993, Steve and Elizabeth Russell relocated to Port Perry. Many people may not be aware that Dr. Elizabeth Russell was the first female physician servicing Port Perry. Steve said, jokingly, “It made me wonder if I was just an add-on.”
Moving to Port Perry was good for the physicians. Steve was involved in palliative care, and often thought about how wonderful it would be to have a hospice in the area. For those who are not aware of what a hospice is, it is an independent health care facility, which is designed to feel like a home, in a very tranquil and peaceful setting.
Every resident in the Oak Ridges Hospice, has a private room. There is a kitchen, as well as a dining room, where families can gather in groups or privately. There is also a great library. When I had a tour, I was very impressed that each room had access to an outside courtyard, which is beautifully landscaped. The doors are wide enough to allow the beds to roll through to the outside space.
Steve explained, “The purpose of the hospice is to provide care for the terminally ill, and to ensure that their last weeks of life are filled with as much dignity and quality as possible. It is important to establish a setting, which is conducive to the most essential elements of life: family, peace and dignity. Even the beds are designed to expand, in the event family members wish to spend the night.
Dr. Steve, because of his experience in palliative care, understands when people near the end of their life, the clinical environment of a hospital is not conducive to a peaceful, tranquil ending. Similarly, care at home can be extremely stressful for families. It is for that reason a dedicated hospice, which creates a unique environment with everyone in mind.
Like all institutions of this type, there is no funding from the government, and money has to be raised privately. Fortunately for North Durham, two gentlemen, Kevin Morgan and David Sidhu who, because of personal family experiences, wanted to fund the construction of a hospice, in North Durham. Steve Russell and his team met with the potential donors, and after continuous consultation, the two philanthropists made a two million dollar donation, and all parties involved formed the Oak Ridges Hospice charity.
With the project underway, Steve Russell invited Stephen Gray, the CEO of Medical Associates of Port Perry to become involved. Stephen brings a terrific style of management, which was necessary to ensure the project went to fruition without any hitches.
The hospice is now up and running and although there are ten rooms, there is currently funding for eight. The hospice is required to fundraise operational dollars each year, as the Ministry of Health only provides a portion of the operating costs annually. The MOH funds less than half of the yearly operating funds required.
A new executive director, Brent Farr, has been appointed and is doing an amazing job. Stephen Gray remains as Board Chair and Dr. Steve Russell is the medical director. What a great team for a great organization. We, in North Durham, are very fortunate to have individuals like Dr. Steve Russell, to take the lead and make things happen.
Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. His show, ‘The Jonathan van Bilsen Show,’ on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube, features many of the people included in this column.