Dr. John Hofhuis has never shied away from matters related to death and dying, and he’s not about to start now. His motivation to support the frequently forgotten field of palliative care has perhaps never been stronger.

While Canada has slipped from ninth to 11th out of 80 countries on the latest Quality of Death Index – based on the availability, affordability and quality of palliative care – Dr. Hofhuis has joined the team at Hospice of Elgin as Port Stanley campaign champion.

“Palliative care has always been near and dear to me,” said Dr. Hofhuis, 69, of Port Stanley. He was a doctor in the village for 37 years, retiring in 2016, and served as Elgin County coroner for many of those years. “It was a big part of my practice, so I appreciate this new opportunity.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines palliative care as “an approach that improves the quality of life of persons and their families facing the problem associated with life-limiting illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual.”

Some harsh realities are fueling Dr. Hofhuis’ drive to help raise $11 million to build a 16,000-square-foot campus of palliative care, anchoring services to be provided on site, in the community, or in homes. The Ontario Ministry of Health has committed to funding 50 per cent of operating costs.

Nationally, of the more than 270,000 Canadians who die each year, 90 per cent die of chronic illness, such as cancer, heart disease, organ failure, dementia or frailty.

Statistics Canada goes on in the 2018 Framework on Palliative Care in Canada to also report that by 2026, the number of deaths is projected to increase to 330,000, and to 425,000 by 2036.

While 75 per cent of Canadians would prefer to die at home, only about 15 per cent have access to palliative home care services and 60 per cent die in hospitals, according to the Framework.

In Elgin County, there are about 800 deaths annually, impacting about 4,000 family members and friends each year.

Yet Elgin is the only region in Southwestern Ontario without a hospice, and palliative care facilities in neighbouring communities have ever-growing waiting lists. Geography creates transportation barriers for seniors in rural settings.

There are no dedicated palliative care beds at St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital. Even if a suitable bed was available at the hospital, Dr. Hofhuis noted “there’s not a home-like setting, they don’t have the staff with the expertise.”

Hospice care is about one-third the cost of hospital acute care costs, he added, and without a hospice, families caring for loved ones at home, may need to shoulder the financial burden of private home care.

“Sylvia needed palliative care,” said Dr. Hofhuis. His wife Sylvia Hofhuis died in hospital in 2010. The former Central Elgin Mayor and Elgin County Warden was 55 years old. “She died of cancer.

“If there was a hospice back then, it would have been a better experience,” he added. “You can’t change the outcome, but you can have some control of the journey.

“Why no hospice here? It’s not for a lack of trying,” he continued. “I suppose there wasn’t the common will or the financial means. There was always this, ‘oh-you’ll-get-by’ sentiment.

“There is will now,” added Dr. Hofhuis. “More and more, people realize it’s something you need and that it’s out there.”

A two-acre parcel of land near Waterworks Park, in St. Thomas, has been gifted to Hospice of Elgin. St. Joseph Hospice of London is the over-seer organization.

“We are now at 70 per cent towards our goal in fundraising,” said Dr. Hofhuis. “Hope to break ground in late spring or early summer of this year. This is tentative. We’re hoping it will be functional by 2023.”

Dr. Hofhuis’ is confident the fundraising goal is realistic. “Damn right. We have to,” he said. “It does require some of the bigger donors. The general public donating is very important too. We want all of Elgin County involved because it’s going to help all of Elgin County.”

Besdies Dr. Hofhuis, Hospice of Elgin’s “champions” include: Dr. Bob Jones (Campaign Chair), Ken Monteith (Honourary Co-Chair), Dr. Duncan Sinclair (Honourary Co-Chair), Bill Graham, Robert Furneaux, Michael Broadhead, Ellen Luft, Paul Bode, Kate Dymock, Dean Kitts, Dr. Anne Howe, Shirley Biro, Corneilus Reimer, Carol Mailing, Liz Haselbah, Fran Kennedy, Lindsay Barber, Dan Kelly, Dan Reith, Dan Ross, Melanie Smith.