Dr. Vivian Walker: Caring For Those at the End of Life a Perfect Fit For Her

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Dr. Vivian Walker has been working in the Palliative Care Unit at St. Paul’s Hospital since 2010. (Photo by Cam Hutchinson)

Dr. Vivian Walker is passionate about providing people with quality end-of-life care. 

You could see it in her face and hear it in her voice as she took a visitor on a tour of the Palliative Care Unit at St. Paul’s Hospital. She is pleased that a free-standing hospice will open in 2020. 

As she walked, she pointed to the many comforts of the unit, but also to boutiques of flowers.

“Somebody came in with flowers from a wedding,” she said. “Small things mean a lot.”

There have been 12 palliative care beds in Saskatoon since St. Paul’s opened the unit in the early 1990s.

“We have zero vacancy,” Dr. Walker said. “We’re full because this is all there is for this stage of care.”

The hospice will have 15 beds. The project is part of a $20-million fundraising campaign. A total of $14.5 million has been raised somewhat quietly. Now it’s a full-on public fundraiser known as the Close to Home Campaign.

Dr. Walker has worked full time in the palliative care unit since 2010. There was a time almost 20 years ago when she didn’t see her career taking this path.

She was a family physician at the time. Things changed when she began working at the Saskatoon Cancer Centre.

“I thought I would go to the cancer clinic for perhaps a year or two, just in pursuit of some more updating of my hospital skills. With many years of family practice, I felt that other than obstetrics my hospital skills were a little rusty.”

Those one or two years became nine.

“I found the work suited me and I settled in and stayed longer than I thought I would. It was a good springboard because many oncology patients have end-of-life journeys.”

Then along came Dr. Ken Stakiw. 

“He was known as Dr. Palliative Care for Saskatoon for many, many years. He was also a family doctor who trained and transitioned into palliative care work. He tapped me on the shoulder as he interacted with me at the cancer centre and said, ‘Viv, you should try out palliative care. I think it might suit you.’”

She did, and eventually became the co-medical director of Palliative Care Services, the position she holds today. She is also co-chair of the Close to Home Campaign.

“I have felt this coat is the most comfortably fitting for me at this season in my life than any I have worn.”

She said palliative care and hospice care go hand in hand in many ways. She said patients at St. Paul’s need interventive care — drips and transfusions, for example. 

“Hospice will be designed for people more in the last weeks of life whose care needs warrant full-time hands-on nursing care, symptom management care or medication care, but maybe not needing that acuity of hospital care.

“It’s not just about the symptoms because I think one of the lovely things here in our unit — and I know it will be in our hospice — is that care of the whole person, that care of the spirit of a person, of the worries of a person of sort of the processing of their own life story and journey.

“Good care happens when we listen and hear each other deeply, and I think that’s where the nurses are profoundly competent because they are able to listen to those quiet whispers that patients and families may say.”

She called all nurses angels and amazing, but said those in palliative care “have that added call or nudge to work with those facing the last chapter of their life. I think people often feel it must be depressing work or really hard work (and) there is a tone to the work we can’t avoid.

“But actually it is such a privilege to help people finish well and to finish with the things that are really important to them; give them whatever comfort that is required so they can have those last weeks, days, hours with their families comfortably supported.”

She said between 20 and 25 per cent of people in palliative care go home again.

“They are here for tune-ups and for symptom management and here for interim care. They either return home or to a different home, but they don’t have to stay in the hospital here in the palliative care unit.

“And the others we care for gently — they and their families — as their disease advances, we are meticulous in their care, making sure comfort is top of the list and make sure their time is not focused on their sickness, but focused on who they are as people and putting as much living into their days as is possible.”

Dr. Walker became a member of the hospital’s foundation board a few years ago. She said she wanted to be on the inside, advocating for a hospice. She said Saskatoon was lagging far behind the rest of the country in having one. 

Soon Saskatoon will and it will have the comforts of home, including a beautiful yard where people can enjoy nature even if it means being in their beds.

She said the campaign has four pillars: the hospice, renovations at the unit at St. Paul’s, endowment monies for whole person care, and an educational fund.

Dr. Walker said staffing decisions for the hospice are yet to be made.

“I would count it an absolute privilege to be a physician that would be able to work in the hospice,” she said. 

To donate to the campaign for the hospice, visit stpaulshospital.org/foundation/campaign/.