There Was Evening and There Was Morning, Another New Day

It is early morning. The sun has not yet appeared to disperse the hours of darkness that had settled upon our lives the previous evening.  But an early rise is necessary to prepare for another new day. I adopt a rush to cleanse, dress and ready myself for the day’s events. An unpredictable and challenging drive to the metropolis awaits. Seventy-five minutes in stop and go traffic to manoeuver among and defend against hurried and impatient drivers, who willingly risk damage to vehicles and injury to self and others in order to be the first in a growing maze of anxious commuters. Thankfully another safe arrival is achieved. After a twenty minute walk, I among many enter a familiar door. A long line of people to my left excitedly await to receive their order of caffeine, a perceived boost to begin the day. I walk past them, down a busy corridor leading to a stairwell. Even at this time of day, many people have gathered to attend to life’s needs. The circular staircase leads me two stories downward to a reception area on floor 2B. Without a call or announcement, I place my green, bar coded card under the light of the scanner. On the computer screen, my legal identify and birthdate appear along with the name of the room I am to enter, T11. We each scout for a place to sit, and then we wait.

Some sleep, others read. A few are talking to their neighbours in adjoining chairs or connected by cellphones. The TV screen showcasing yesterday’s news has become a good distraction. Others block out their environment by utilizing an iPod. Several pass the time reading and sending texts. Many are just content to be still and contemplate where life has brought them.

It is a place though of no discrimination. Race, physical attributes, gender, color, dress, religion, age, social status, economic welfare or language does not live here. What makes each one equal is their situation. Disease is no respecter of persons.

Mom holds the young child patient by his hand. As he plays, he is unware of his circumstance. A husband supports his wife as she carefully and slowly finds her way. A young man holds his Dad’s arm. Another Dad walks closely with his son. The contrast is striking. Sometimes families arrive to demonstrate love and support to one of their own. Several have arrived by wheelchair, barely strong enough to make the wheels turn and direct their way. Papa is accompanied by his granddaughter. Many widowers silently wait for their named to be called. Two very young women appear. Neither are acquainted with the other but their physical similarities cannot go unnoticed. During my assessment I wonder who cares for them and do they feel cared for.

There are one hundred and eighty therapists. They conduct 18,000 treatments annually. But with each separate and individualized treatment they must not only ensure the technical and clinical specifications are mastered to perfection, but as well it is their responsibility to make us all believe they care about us. So they call each of us by name. Sometimes it is Mervin, other times it is Mr. Hillier (just to be respectful). Pronunciations differ based on which therapist is at the door. Hillier may sound like Hillyer or Hiller, the English version. My favourite is the French version “illyay”!  My preference is simply to be called "Merv" but there is no need or desire to correct any of them.

With uninterrupted consistency their welcome is energized with a smile, a comforting voice and a verbal embrace. While no doubt repeated thousands of times they ask “How are you?” We do feel and believe they care about our wellbeing.  But they cannot take upon themselves our burden or they will become overburdened emotionally. They practice the science of caring but must be extremely careful they are not afflicted with the art of caring. Doing so will lead to dysfunction, and what does that achieve for them or for us? We just need them to stay focused on caring for us technically. It is important I say thank you to each of them for the tireless hours of standing, for the meticulous attention to detail and challenging repetition.

I am instructed to lie down on a eight foot long bench which is no more than twenty-four inches wide. Seven hundred and fifty milliliters of stored water is demanding immediate release. My feet are placed in a premanufactured plastic mould. Laser beams pointing from the side of each wall and the ceiling above are aligned to the designated tattoos on my abdomen. The “LINAC” is adjusted and positioned with the press of a few buttons. It appears simple but the therapist’s technical skill is critical to a successful outcome. A heavy wrap is placed on my legs to discourage any unnecessary movement. I wonder what will happen if I have to sneeze. The upbeat music is encouraging me to tap my foot. An itch develops on my cheek. I must contain myself just for ten minutes. My hands are held tightly as they rest on my upper chest. A buzzer sounds. All systems are ready to go. The attendants quickly exit the room to avoid the risk of being constantly contaminated by beams of destructive radiation. They watch me on a screen from a protected place. I lie patiently as the machine purrs, positions, rotates, stops, and then repeats its programmed cycle. There is no visible evidence of any productive work being accomplished. I can only hope. The momentary isolation and imprisonment can be unnerving. For a few moments I question God as to why I am here in this place and why my prayers for healing have not been answered. But I am reminded that the Creator has provided through human innovation a sophisticated and technological advanced method for providing healing that I must trust will accomplish what is intended. God’s ways are not my ways.

The therapist re-enters and with encouragement says: "All done!" It is time for me to dress and exit as another patient waits to take my place. She hurriedly removes all evidence of my presence. We say warm goodbyes to each other and acknowledge meeting again the next day. I walk quickly to my car and drive with haste to arrive at the office to attend to work’s obligations. My email folder has many messages but one in particular has caught my attention.

When we hear of people’s difficult situations, many of us do not know how to respond. We have all often heard:

“My thoughts are with you.”

“I will pray for you.”

“Hope everything works out well.”

“All the best.”

“May God help you!”

But these do little to demonstrate care or concern (though one's offering of continual prayer in such circumstances is comforting to those who believe in God and sometimes even to those who don't). Such words fall easily off our lips but have no real meaning or significant impact. From some I appreciate their honesty. “I don’t know what to say or do. If there is any way I can help please feel free to ask me.” Their admission is real and the concern is believable.

The words we say, are often times defined with shocking insensitivity.

Over the years a group of us have met regularly to enjoy a few days of ATVing. It is an activity I enjoy immensely. An email was sent by a member of the group to all of us calling for a September ATV trip. In parenthesis were the words:  “Merv, I realize your situation will not allow you to participate. Our thoughts and prayers are with you”. Then he continued to suggest dates and specifics for the rest of them to get together. An extended conversation about the difficulty to set a particular date due to the interference of vacations and travels ensued. Never was the question asked about when my treatments were finished or when I might feel ready to participate again. There was no real empathy towards my state of mind or my physical constraints.  

I am a sensitive individual by nature both in giving and receiving feedback. But this conversation made me question my own responses to others in challenging situations. Do my words speak of concern? Are they formed with empathy and sensitivity to the other person’s needs? Are there times that yes, my life activities are best temporarily suspended for the benefit of others and not my selfish desires? We may invoke God in an attempt to make others feel or believe we care but I believe God asks us to be more involved, take more action, be more responsible and develop and exercise a tangible example of genuine care.

How then do we, must we answer the question “Who Cares”?  Maybe we cannot expect the difficult from each other. Maybe our expectation can only be found as written in 1 Peter 5:7 – “Cast all your anxiety on God because God cares for you.” Is that enough? What does God expect of us? What do we expect of each other?

And then there was evening, and then there was morning. Another new day is presented to each one of us. But who cares?

Merv Hillier

T. 416.409.MERV


ZONE 5: "That's NOT Me!"

In life we will many times face a critical question, whose answer we may have to rethink often. Depending on our circumstance, the repeated question and the answer we give will determine the conditions of our journey.

When faced with what seems as the impossible, do I turn away embittered by circumstance or do I proceed motivated by faith?

The Starbucks attendant received my order for a soy based green tea latte. She told me when the order was ready, she would call my name as written in abbreviated form on the tall size cup. I was placed on a list like all others. I quickly scanned the small seating area and chose to sit at a raised bench like table, in front of a window facing University Avenue, close to all of the hospitals within the University Health Network. Next to me on my left was a young student who was immersed in her textbook quickly summarizing her readings in note form on her computer. She had placed herself in a zone that blocked out all interference around her.

On the other side of the window I was facing, the street was busy with various types of people, all in their own particular zone, focused on a journey to somewhere.

A businessman dressed in his finest grey suite, white shirt, blue tie and black shoes, holding securely his leather briefcase, with a determined look on his faced, developed a brisk stride to ensure he reached his destination successfully.

A family stopped and held a map up to the sky. Each one pointed to a place on the map which seemed to indicate their intended destination. A discussion developed and soon after agreement was reached. They moved forward based on an agreed upon path.

Two teenagers were captivated by something humorous. They would walk, stop and then break out in childlike giggles. Unperturbed by what others observed, they would continue their journey with intermittent bursts of uncontrollable laughter.

My mind reflected back just a week prior. I was standing in line at the Air Canada gate to board a flight to the USA. There were two signs. These signs segregated passengers in two distinct categories: a) Zones 1-2; b) Zones 3-5. During most of my professional career, I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to fly either first or business class, the former on long haul international flights and the latter domestically. Accordingly and howbeit wrongfully, I was considered different, more privileged and deserving than others. I was offered the best the airline had to offer, including the rare enthusiastic attitude of airline staff. I was called Super Elite. On this occasion, I was neither first nor business or super, let alone elite. Someone had determined because of my infrequent flying that my class had changed. As per my boarding pass, I was labelled Zone 5, the lowest zone, the least among many. All my privileges had been revoked. But I had not changed. I was still the person my name referenced for 50+ years. Upon check in, I was told to be seated and when ready, each zone would be called for boarding. I would be allowed to enter after everyone else.

The Starbucks attendant called out “Merv”. I responded: “That’s me”! I hurriedly claimed my latte while keeping a watch on my perfectly placed seat at the window. My neighbour continued her studies oblivious to my comings and goings. Pedestrian traffic increased significantly, with the approach of pre-set office hours.

It was now time to leave the comfort and security of the tiny zone I had been in for the last thirty minutes. My coffee cup with the name Merv printed on it was empty and so I threw it away, probably with more symbolism than I realized. I stepped out on the sidewalk and walked a short distance north. I entered the halls of Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH). It was a place I had never visited before but knew of many who did. I quickly became mesmerized. The crowds were as thick as any you would see at Disney World, but PMH was not the happiest place on earth. This was a different world, a different zone where happiness could be and more often is replaced by fear and despair. It was a zone on University Avenue, in the midst of a metropolitan world class city considered to be one of the best places to live, anywhere on earth, where to the battle of cancer is added the war between bitterness and faith. It is a place where thousands visit with anxious hope.

Since 2010, I have had three operations at Toronto General Hospital (TGH) to remove an aggressive and recurring cancerous tumour complimented with multiple minor procedures to correct surgery’s negative side effects. I reached the 4th floor of PMH and entered a zone populated by many. I surrendered my health card and UHN nameplate, to identify myself. As I had just experienced at the AC counter and Starbucks, my identity, my zone, was no different than any other. I was told to be seated and my name would be announced when ready.

The nurse called out, “Mr. Hillier”!” Quietly to myself I said: "That’s me". I quickly arose and followed her to a waiting room. After a long pause, the oncologist arrived. He asked, “Do you know why you are here?” I replied “yes” and began to provide my understanding of the situation. His response, startled me. PMH is one of the top five cancer research centres in the world. Even with my diagnosis I was comforted being in such a first class place. He replied “We have zero experience with your situation”. Seeking further explanation, he continued to tell me that with my next treatment, while they were encouraged by its potentially positive attack on the cancerous cells that were still present inside my body, they were less certain as to how my body would react to the treatment, given how it has been physically assaulted three times previously. Radiation therapy has a very high success rate and the side effects while at times significant, but in most cases were short term offering a good recovery. Upon further research, there were not more than five noted cases in North America characterized like mine. I was definitely in a zone I had never been in my entire life. It was my personal Zone 5.

So the question I, like many others must answer is: “do I turn away embittered or do I proceed motivated by faith?”

There must be only one answer. As my journey begins on August 9th and ends on September 23rd, 2016, consisting of 33 daily doses of radiation to a zone on my body permanently tattooed with 3 strategically placed ink spots to ensure consistent accuracy, I will believe (“faith”) that what my doctor has described as “going where no one has gone before” (I have heard that phrase said by someone else) or what I have tagged as Zone 5, will be in the end a memory of realized hope to share with others who may have to take a similar journey and discover the same place.

I will not be defined by a name printed on a coffee cup, a classified zone on an airplane boarding pass, a health card, a hospital identification tag or even a Zone 5 disease. While doctors may declare ignorance I will claim life, because my life matters, and my faith in God’s love and omnipotence rules over all things, including Zone 5.

We must appreciate, observe and practice all that medical science has to offer. But we must not become embittered by its limitations. We move forward not with irrational or blind denial but with an intelligent belief that what is labelled impossible by others becomes possible for those who believe in and trust God.

As I exit the doors at PMH onto the streets of Toronto, I will never forget the smile on a patient’s face, when tested after completing her treatments and in great anticipation of her doctor’s analysis, while in the waiting room her name is called and she says, “That’s me!” Then her doctor says “all clear, it’s gone.” Zone 5 had not become a permanent place but one frame in life’s exciting and unpredictable journey.



The Tree of Life

During a past visit to Disney World, after exploring the traditional theme parks of Epcot, Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and the Water Parks, we made our way to the Animal Kingdom. It is a theme park set into a large zoo within a forest. One of the most fascinating features you see as soon as you enter is the “Tree of Life”. It's purpose is to illustrate the interrelationship and interdependency of all aspects of life. Many of these characteristics were carved into its trunk and branches. It was exceptional in its intended reality. But it was clear that it was man made, constructed out of concrete and paint. There was no life in Disney’s tree of life. 

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What Hides Beneath

A few weeks ago, I was scheduled to visit the dermatologist to assess a few spots on my face for potential health risks. After his diagnosis he advised me the irregular facial spots were the result of abnormal sun exposure when I was a teenager. He said after 40 years I am just now experiencing the consequences. A stinging spray of nitrogen to freeze and then eliminate the damage was a small price to pay to lower the risk of future potential problems.

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Leadership 101: Standing Alone

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Hi, Come on in!

The greeter at the door was no different than many I have met in the past. His words were simple and common. With a welcoming smile and a peaceful tone, he enthusiastically said “Hi, come on in!”. So without hesitation I walked in with assurance and confidence. The place was familiar to me. I had visited it fifty eight times before. The surroundings had not changed. Many of the people there I had seen often and some were very close friends. There was certainly a high degree of comfort. Our conversation was filled with stories about the past. The conversations focused on our work, kids, and parents; world events; our dreams and aspirations. But in the midst of all of the chatter and activity, there was constraint. Though somewhat shallow, there was a measureable sense of anxiety. I had entered an unpredictable new year and I was not alone.

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A Short Autobiography

It’s my birthday today. Fifty-eight (58) years ago I was born in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. My parents, Bill and Joyce Hillier, had 6 children: 5 boys and 1 girl. I was number 5, the last of the sons but with a younger sister. I was born on my mom’s only sibling, her sister’s birthday. She is 88 today! We didn’t have much of the world’s goods. My Dad was a carpenter (cabinet maker) who was paid just over $3.63/hr and worked six days a week, 10 hours a day. My mom stayed at home with what was no doubt a very heavy workload managing home and family. We didn’t need much to be cared for properly or to have a great childhood. Our needs were covered quite adequately. Our wants, well that was another matter. Like every kid, especially at this time of the year, we all wanted a lot. But our unfulfilled wants did not interfere with our happiness.

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Why Not Me?

Many times when I read updates from those listed on Facebook, I tend to get a bit discouraged. Everyone seems to be having such a good time. Their lives appear to be so successful. So many wonderful posts and pictures let us believe life for them is just perfect. Stories of their latest travel adventures, purchase of beautiful homes, new cars in the driveway, constant partying, families so loving and successful, fulfilling jobs and everyone smiling and happy! Can it really be? When I read what they have to say I immediately ask, why not me? Why isn’t my life as wonderful as theirs?

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