As Linda Hagen and Jennifer Champagne stood by a bed in the intensive care unit of Ridge Meadows Hospital, they struggled to connect the man they saw before them with the father they knew.
Their 79-year-old father, Gail Watson, had always had the health of a much younger man. He was active his entire life, and right up until his hospitalization he had played on an adult senior hockey league team, and competed in badminton matches twice a week.
But now he was convulsing uncontrollably as his immune system battled a raging infection. His daughters were scared, and they wondered if he would even survive. Then in walked Dr. Edward Auersperg, an internal medicine physician, and suddenly everything changed.
“He took one look at dad, put his hand on his arm and said, ‘Just go with it, don’t fight it,’” Linda recalled. “Then he turned to our family, introduced himself and started to explain what was going on. He was just so natural and calm that we all felt, ‘Okay, it’s under control.’”
Their father, they learned, was suffering from an advanced group C streptococcus infection. The infection was complicated by their father’s other conditions: a narrowed heart valve, colorectal cancer and an inflammatory disorder. He spent weeks in the Maple Ridge hospital cared for by Dr. Auersperg, whom the family dubbed Dr. Bug after his passion for sharing information about infectious diseases. At every step, the doctor was there for them, bonding over hockey with his patient, answering personal texts and emails from Linda and Jennifer, sending them information about treating infections, and soothing their worries with his good humour.
“As the days turned into weeks, our knowledge increased, which caused our hope for Dad’s recovery to grow,” the sisters recalled in a testament they wrote to Dr. Auersperg’s care. “Along with our hope, a wonderful respect grew. Dad was always very stoic and quiet, but Dr. Auersperg’s consistent compassionate care and amazing bedside manner always brought a smile to his face. Not only did we all like Dr. Bug, we trusted him implicitly.”
They weren’t the only ones. They watched as he made time to mentor grateful nurses and interns, and were amazed that at every site they visited for various tests – including St. Paul’s Hospital and Royal Columbian Hospital – the team would light up at the mention of his name. Again and again, they would hear, “You are so lucky to have him caring for your dad.”
For his part, Dr. Auersperg simply believes helping to relieve the stress on his patients and families is part of his job.
“I just do what I can to put them at ease, and I do that most often with humour,” he said. “I think humour is just a nice break from what is going on in their lives, which I think they need.”
Mr. Watson, the doctor recalled, impressed him with both his fortitude and attitude.
“As a patient, he got everything you could get, just one misery after another. As a person, he was wonderful. He was just what I want to be at that age, still playing hockey, still having fun, he was always optimistic, always fighting hard.”
Thanks in part to his good physical condition, Mr. Watson recovered and was discharged in June of 2013. But the infection was never truly cured, only managed, and over time, his health faltered again. In January of 2016, he fell ill and collapsed and was rushed via ambulance back to Ridge Meadows Hospital, and back into the care of Dr. Auersperg.
This time, in addition to the streptococcus infection, he was diagnosed with a C. difficile infection, kidney stones and pneumonia, and, as his condition worsened, extreme swelling and difficulty breathing. As the days went on, the family realized this time their father would not recover. But even then, Dr. Auersperg was a comfort, taking time to prepare them for their palliative care journey.
“He gave me calm and confidence that dad was in good hands,” Jennifer said. “I knew that whatever I would ask Dr. Auersperg, he would tell me the truth, and I believed and trusted him. I know that my dad felt the same kind of trust as we did. It really helped him come to terms with what was going on.”
It wasn’t until after their father passed away on February 14 that Linda and Jennifer realized the true extent of the doctor’s compassion. After they shared news of his death, Dr. Auersperg sent them this heartfelt note: “I feel like I’ve lost an example of how we should all live. Smiling, stoic, enjoying everything that is possible to enjoy. You and your sister were so lucky to have him, and he was luckier to have you.”
Linda and Jennifer insist they were the lucky ones.
“Dr. Auersperg gave us the most amazing gift,” Linda explained. “He didn’t just take care of my dad; he took care of my family. When you’re confident that the person you care about is not just a number, or even a patient, but that they are seen as a human being, it is an amazing feeling.”
(left to right): Jennifer Champagne, Gail Watson and Linda Hagen
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