Community Honours Beloved Neighbour, Establishing Palliative Medicine Award at U of T

Jan 29, 2019

Brian Morrison with his Airedale Terrier, CooperBrian Morrison with his Airedale Terrier, Cooper When Brian Morrison died in August 2018 — after suffering for 20 years from severe aplastic anemia and other medical conditions related to a bone marrow transplant — his community of family and friends, many based in Niagara-on-the-Lake, rallied to honour his memory. Morrison’s long-time partner, Lyle Hall, spoke with Faculty of Medicine writer Carolyn Morris about how the community came together, raising $50,000 to create the Brian Morrison Graduate Memorial Award in Palliative Medicine at the University of Toronto.

It sounds like Brian was an incredible person, can you tell me about him?

He really was. Even though he faced so many health challenges, and had to cut short his career at Toronto-Dominion Bank 20 years ago, he didn’t stop living: he collected 18th and 19th century English china — spending time learning about the families that had commissioned the pieces, and how they were made and used — and he gardened and cooked. He was always connecting with people. He loved to host friends and tell stories.

We bought a house in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 2006, and Brian moved there permanently in 2012, while I commuted to Toronto for work. Brian built a large network of friends and neighbours as he walked our Airedale Terrier, Cooper. That helped; you meet the best people in town when you have a dog!

He suffered from medical conditions for a long time, can you tell me about that?

Originally, Brian was diagnosed with severe aplastic anemia in 1999. After having a bone marrow transplant, a recurring graft-versus-host disease created ongoing complications, including meningitis, pneumonia and scleroderma. He later needed spinal surgery to alleviate issues from large doses of steroids over several years, and required monthly blood transfusions at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

He then developed cancer, likely caused by the original chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and had separate surgeries to remove part of his tongue and lymph nodes in his neck. Last April, he had the left side of his jaw removed and replaced with a bone graft from his shin. But the cancer still spread, and took his life in August.

How did he handle all of this?

It was challenging, of course, but the tougher it got, Brian seemed to rally even more. In the periods where he was relatively well, he rarely ever raised his health issues with others. There seemed to be no end to his energy when around his friends. He was always “on.” 

During his frequent visits to the University Health Network’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and Toronto General Hospital — and at the end, Hospice Niagara — he always took the time to learn the names of his doctors, nurses and other caregivers. And he thanked them for being on his team.

How did the idea of making an award for palliative medicine at the University of Toronto in Brian’s memory come up?

It was our very special neighbour, David Hepburn, who thought of doing this and approached me when Brian was in the hospice. David and Brian had become close friends, and David really wanted to do something special to honour Brian’s memory. Brian was quite taken with the initiative and appreciated the focus being on palliative care, and supporting trainees studying palliative medicine.

For me, and for Brian’s family too, the interest in this initiative reinforced just how unique Brian really was. That this large community of friends and family — close to 50 people — would come together so quickly and generously to contribute to this award in Brian’s memory is quite amazing.

Of all the medical specialties Brian would have been involved with, how was palliative medicine chosen as the focus for this award?

Brian was so appreciative of the care he got at every stage. But once we came to grips with where things were going, the realization that it didn’t have to be painful and traumatic at the end was such a relief. The palliative care Brian got, both at Hospice Niagara and at home, made the end as peaceful as it could have been. We knew what was going to happen, the question was how, and the how was made so much easier thanks to palliative care.

 

You can make an online contribution to the Brian Morrison Graduate Memorial Award in Palliative Medicine at the University of Toronto, or find out more about donating to this or other initiatives at the University by contacting medicine.advancement@utoronto.ca.

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