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Monday July 28, 2014

Doctor taught lessons in dying and healing

She lived her life among the terminally ill and the mentally disabled while touting values of spirituality and friendship

Special to The Globe and Mail

Continued from Page 1

"Thérèse graduated first in her officers' training class at Wellington Barracks," Pauline Vanier told Deborah and George Cowley, for their book, One Woman's Journey: A Portrait of Pauline Vanier, "which prompted Georges to say she had learned a most unfeminine number of ways in which even the strongest of men could be permanently disabled."

After the Normandy invasion in 1944, Thérèse Vanier was sent across the Channel as a liaison officer with the Free French, exercising her bilingualism and organizational skills with such aplomb that she was later awarded the Croix de Guerre.

With peace finally established, she studied medicine, first at the Sorbonne, then at Girton College, Cambridge, followed by clinical training at St. Thomas' Hospital in London, where she began a life-altering friendship with fellow trainee doctor Cicely Saunders.

A decade later, Dr. Vanier had become the first female consultant in hematology at St. Thomas' Hospital and Dr. Saunders had left organized medical practice to start St. Christopher's, a palliative centre for the terminally ill, thereby founding the modern hospice movement in England. Meanwhile, Dr. Vanier's younger brother Jean, a naval officer by training and a philosopher by vocation, abandoned his professional career in 1964 to live communally in northern France with a couple of intellectually challenged men whom he had befriended.

At the time, Dr. Vanier wrote to her parents at Government House in Ottawa, that Jean was "very busy over some new project which he may have mentioned to you ... a plan to set up some sort of house or houses near Compiègne for des débiles mentaux ... I hope it works out alright."

That first dwelling in TroslyBreuil, some 90 kilometres north of Paris, which Mr. Vanier named l'Arche in commemoration of Noah's Ark, has since grown to 146 ecumenical communities for the mentally disabled in 35 countries on five continents.

A frequent visitor to l'Arche in the early days and a confidante to her friend Dr. Saunders, as she built her "total pain, total care" palliative model, Dr.

Vanier pulled together the various strands of her life - medicine, community service and religious faith - to weave the fabric of her personal, spiritual and professional vocation.

Over Easter, 1971, she joined an international pilgrimage to Lourdes in France, organized by her brother Jean. That pilgrimage precipitated two monumental decisions for Dr. Vanier.

In 1972, she startled the medical establishment by resigning her prestigious appointment at St. Thomas' Hospital to work instead as a consultant at St. Christopher's Hospice, helping Dr. Saunders ease the fear, warm the bleakness and stifle the pain of dying patients.

"When there is nothing more that can be done, everything can still be done," was her guiding principle.

Although a traditionally trained doctor, she had an innate empathy with patients and was known to observe, "Doctors should be obliged to go into hospital once a year, so that they remember what it feels like."

That same year, her widowed mother, Pauline, moved into the l'Arche community at Trosly, and Dr. Vanier began fundraising and organizing to establish l'Arche in England, based on her brother's model that the mentally challenged should be active and distinct members of shared communities, rather than passive recipients of institutionalized care.

The first group home, in which the handicapped shared chores and life with "assistants," opened in January, 1974, in a former Anglican vicarage near Canterbury, a gift of the Archbishop - an early ecumenical gesture by the head of the Church of England.

For the next quarter-century, Dr. Vanier used all her skills to meet the physical, social and spiritual needs of the terminally ill and the mentally challenged, bridging the information gap about palliative care and spreading the message about the simple yet profound blessings that the "people of the heart" can bestow on the rest of us.

Eloquently bilingual and mesmerizingly empathetic, she undertook an international ministry by giving lectures, appearing on television shows and speaking on panels in French and English language countries, including Canada.

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