At 77, in the middle of February, Joan Marie Pitcher passed away as most of us would wish to – at home, surrounded by her family and close friends.
In this case, though, the home address might surprise you.
It was the Waterford Hospital in St. John’s – the only home ‘Joanie’ had known for 64 years.
When she was 13, and challenged with severe developmental delays, Joanie’s family made the difficult decision to place her in the hospital on Waterford Bridge Road, where staff could provide the care they no longer could.
North 2B is a unit designed for people like Joanie, who need constant care and who even when they became adults, could not have functioned on their own, in the outside community.
Joanie’s sister, Edwina Cooper, remembers the day her older sister moved into the Waterford.
“I was kind of scared. I didn’t know much about the place,” she says. “But when I’d visit, and see Joanie dressed so nicely and walking hand in hand with a staff member, I felt better. It brought comfort.”
For Joanie, who never spoke, North 2B quickly became home, her refuge – and for her family – a preferred address. The staff quickly took to Joanie.
“Joanie was very childlike, very trusting – with big blue eyes that sparkled when she was happy,” says Marlene Miller, the patient care coordinator of North 2B. “Our unit is a family, and she became part of our family – and we became part of hers.
“We care deeply for those we have the privilege and responsibility for caring for, and it was a privilege to have Joanie as part of my life.”
And so it was a very natural thing for Joanie’s ‘Waterford family’ to be part of her death, as well.
As she passed, she was surrounded by staff and her fellow residents, who had become in some cases, lifelong friends.
Fellow resident of North 2B, David Thistle, says he was a good friend to Joanie – as she was to him. When he knew that she had passed, he went into her room, stood by her bed, and offered a farewell blessing:
“So long, Joanie,” he said. “God bless you – and may you have a good eternal life.”
Linda Maher echoed David’s thoughts when she officiated at Joanie’s funeral service – held at the Waterford Chapel.
She was the chaplain at the Waterford for many years, and had gotten to know Joanie; so at the family’s request, she returned to conduct Joanie’s farewell.
“I remember the first time I met Joanie,” she reminisced. “I started to speak to her, and I didn’t really expect much of a response. But then her head lifted in my direction! I was really touched by that, and humbled to be in relationship with her.
“It was a gift to me as a new chaplain.”
As a much-loved resident of the Waterford Hospital, Joanie Pitcher’s funeral service was organized by the staff – and held close to ‘home’ in the hospital Chapel.
Many of the staff members of N2B – past and present – attended and took part in the celebration of her life.
Susan Cummings is a pastoral care and ethics manager, based at the Waterford Hospital. Several such funerals have been held in the past year or so, as these permanent residents of Waterford’s N2B unit have reached their senior years, and passed away.
She believes that the care bestowed on these, ‘our most vulnerable patients’ over the years has been exemplary – demonstrating selflessness and deep loyalty.
As it should be.
“Dignity and love are the hall marks of the relationships we witnessed today in the funeral service for Joanie Pitcher,” Susan added. “Every human being is entitled to care, and dignity in the provision of that care. Not long ago one of the patients at the Waterford told me that our patients were ‘God’s spies,’ and that God was watching how we cared for them! He believed that we would be judged in direct proportion to our love and care of them.”
Susan feels the staff have nothing to worry about….especially on N2B.
“What I’ve seen over the years is that the staff members on N2B have hearts that are tender, judgment that is wise and who provide a standard of care that is second to none.”
To Joanie’s sister Edwina and her brother, Robert Pitcher, that kind of care has meant a lot over the past 64 years, assuring the family that their sister was in good hands.
They were touched by the funeral service, believing it to a fitting farewell for a sister who was much-loved – and who will be much missed, as evidenced by a poem Edwina read at the service:
Joanie, Fate was most unkind
Giving you an adult body, but a child’s mind.
Yet from you so much love was spread.
You gave so much and asked very little in return.
We know you are in a new home called Heaven.
There’ll be no more pain, no more ills. No more bitter pills.
I know you are safe now and nothing can harm you.
Remember, although we’re apart, we will always be together.
Forgive us if today we are sad,
For we loved you so much.
Her Waterford family will miss her, too. Only a dozen or so remain of these men and women who have called the Waterford Hospital their permanent home, who have been surrounded by their ‘second’ families for most of their adult lives.
Each patient has left a lasting impression on their professional caretakers…from the oldest to the youngest on staff.
With each passing, Unit N2B mourns – and remembers.
Sharon Walsh-White is a licensed practical nurse who helped care for Joanie since the mid-70s – nearly 40 years. Following the funeral, in a voice choked with emotion, she put it this way:
“Joanie was like a little ‘Tinkerbell’ – just a gentle lamb. And her spirit will live on in us.” ■
This story was written by Deborah Collins, a communications manager with Eastern Health, based in St. John’s.