Bonnie Bagnulo becomes animated and emotional as she talks with enthusiasm about her job of the last two years.
The executive director of Niagara-on-the-Lake Community Palliative Care uses the word “joy” often as she describes the fulfillment she experiences while helping clients cope with life-limiting illnesses, end-of-life issues, death and bereavement.
Those are journeys nobody should have to travel alone, not the clients who are ill or their loved ones who are caring for them, she says, her eyes lighting up when she talks of walking beside them, providing compassionate care along each step of their illness.
“Palliative care is an approach of care, involving services which can be spiritual, social and physical,” she says.
She acknowledges hospice and palliative care can be awkward topics of discussion for some people, but Bagnulo welcomes every opportunity to share her conviction that helping people confront and manage those difficult stages of life — and death — is extremely gratifying.
In recent months, providing the services she so strongly believes in has been challenging, but she and the palliative care volunteers have found ways to overcome those challenges as best they can, realizing the need for in the community is as great or greater than ever.
They can provide care to clients in long-term care homes with the use of iPads donated by the Niagara Community Foundation, although in some cases they have to rely on staff to help. They can communicate by phone, through window or porch visits, and now, with recent changes in regulations, during outdoor visits.
Each of the three homes in NOTL have different rules, so volunteers have learned to adapt, says Bagnulo.
Some of those clients have family living hours away, and few or no visitors, so even virtual visits become extremely important, she says.
Last year, the NOTL palliative care service, with about 40 volunteers, served more than 160 clients with nearly 1,800 visits.
While their client list in long-term care is down about 20 to 25 per cent, community visits have increased. The homes have not been accepting new residents for months, forcing clients to stay at home longer than they might have otherwise, while some families have chosen to keep their loved ones at home to care for them, Bagnulo explains.
In her mind, that’s the best place for them.
“If I could keep a family member at home, with really good palliative care, I would,” she says. Dying at home, surrounded by loved ones, with good palliative care in place, “is the best experience you could possibly have.”
Bagnulo is a bereavement specialist, has worked in a funeral home, had her own business, and has earned a certificate in thanatology, the study of death and loss.
She began studying death, dying and bereavement in 2002, after losing her brother. They were very close, and she was devastated by the loss. “I didn’t know how I was going to function. When you lose someone, you lose a piece of yourself. It turned around for me when I realized he had left a piece of himself with me. As I went through that grief journey, I realized he didn’t leave me, he was a part of me.”
Other family deaths followed, sending her looking for information on how to deal with grief, and then she became passionate about using what she had learned to help others.
She couldn’t be happier about landing the job with the NOTL palliative care service, taking over from Terry Mactaggart when she retired two years ago.
Crediting Mactaggart for the extensive work she did to build the local service, Bagnulo says, “she did this job for 22 years, and I hope to be able to do it for another 20.”
Thanks to Mactaggart, she adds, “when clients reach out for help, we have the resources, and I can’t wait to offer them.”
She would love to have enough volunteers to visit with every single person in long-term care, she says. They may not all be palliative, but they are all dealing with health issues, and would benefit from a visit. “We should have enough volunteers to visit with everyone in this community in long-term care, and everyone looking for or needing support. This should not be a go-it-alone journey. We want to be there for them.”
She talks about helping deal with “anticipatory grief,” the mourning that occurs when a client or family is expecting a death; about providing equipment that helps with both physical and mental aspects of life-threatening illnesses, relieving some of the stress on a caregiver; the ever-important counselling; and follow-up care for family members for up to a year after their loved one’s death.
“Doctors, nurses, PSWs, they’re all irreplaceable, all helping with different needs,” she says. “And we’re an important piece of that puzzle, helping clients emotionally and physically.”
But the work of the palliative care service requires funding, and Bagnulo is looking forward to the annual Healing Cycle, which the local service is joining for its eighth year.
The cycling event traditionally takes place on a specific day in September in Mississauga, and funds hospice palliative care communities across Ontario. This year, teams are being asked to ride in their own communities, any time during the month of September.
The NOTL group has a team they call the Pedal Pushers, which is pledging to ride 10 kilometres along the Niagara Parkway Recreational Trail, “allowing for social distancing, and keeping our team and community safe,” says Bagnulo.
By donating to the team, “you are enabling our efforts to keep supporting our clients, who may be your neighbours or friends, at their very important time of life.”
The team has raised $90,000 over the years, and hope to raise another $10,000 this year, she says.
The Pedal Pushers are challenging businesses and individuals in the community to form their own small teams, to help raise funds for the palliative care service.
If you are interested in forming a cycling team, in donating to the Pedal Pushers or in providing sponsorship, visit www.notlpc.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Cheques can be mailed to NOTL Community Palliative Care Service, P.O. BOX 130, NOTL L0S 1J0.
The Healing Cycle Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting hospices and palliative care units across Ontario, raising funds through the annual Healing Cycle Ride, now in its 16th year.
Over the past 15 years, The Healing Cycle Foundation has raised more than $3 million dollars for Ontario hospices and palliative care units.