St. Michael’s staff stop at nothing to make wishes come true

The Three Wishes program brought nursing and spiritual care staff together for an ICU wedding that honours end-of-life.

After more than 20 years together, Bonnie Handy and Denyse Dufour were making plans for their wedding when Handy, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other conditions, had trouble breathing and was taken to St. Michael’s Hospital.

Unfortunately, her condition worsened, and Dufour learned that Handy would no longer be able to breathe on her own. “Once we were told that, it was just a matter of making her as comfortable and pain-free as possible. All we wanted was no loud noise, and for me to be there at all times,” she recalls. Those wishes were granted by Handy’s dedicated care team, but it was when Dufour made a comment to St. Michael’s spiritual care staff that a really special wish came true. 

“I’d spoken to the staff the morning before Bonnie lost consciousness and said, ‘Tomorrow we were supposed to get married,’” Dufour says. “And they said, ‘Well, if we could make it happen, would you like that?’ So I asked Bonnie and she said yes, and the next thing I knew, it happened.”

Staff members, including spiritual care providers Pamela Lucas and Rev. Anne-Louise Jannaway and MSICU nurse Jia Shang, worked together under the auspices of St. Michael’s Three Wishes program, which aims to honour and celebrate life at the end-of-life, to give Handy and Dufour a beautiful wedding. And they pulled it off that same afternoon. “They are wonderful, wonderful people,” says Dufour. “It was not just beyond my expectations, it was beyond my wildest dreams. They organized it all, they got flowers and a cake, and they did it all out of the goodness of their hearts.”

Luckily, Dufour had brought the necessary paperwork with her, just in case Handy was released. “It was wishful thinking on my part—but smart, because I was able to hand it over to the chaplain, and we proceeded with the wedding,” she says. “It was great because Bonnie was awake and aware, giving us the thumb’s up. It was a wonderful thing, a very happy day in a very sad situation. I couldn’t have wished for anything more. The staff in that unit was just so wonderful, so caring. For me, it was perfect.” Sadly, Handy passed away the next day.

Three Wishes was started by Dr. Deborah Cook at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont. She introduced it to Orla Smith, a critical care nurse and a scientist at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, and critical care chief Dr. Andrew Baker, who now heads it at St. Michael’s.

“It was an easy decision. It really fits with our vision for critical care, and our values of compassion and human dignity and excellence,” says Smith. “Our staff and spiritual care advisors are often doing small, possibly invisible things that are honouring a life and supporting a grieving family. So we thought, let’s bring it to St. Mike’s and set up the research aspects. That’s how we started. We wanted to integrate Three Wishes into our end-of-life processes, and we wanted the discussion of wishes to emerge from conversations we are already having with patients and families about what’s important to them.”

St. Michael’s staff have since granted hundreds of wishes, most of them simple, from playing Johnny Cash music in a patient’s room to obtaining a late student’s degree for her family and taking a picture of a mother holding her dying son’s hand. “We have a legacy of spiritual care providers, nurses, doctors and social workers doing these things for families, but it wasn’t documented,” says Smith.  

Indeed, Dufour says the St. Michael’s staff is so amazing that Three Wishes as a special initiative is almost unnecessary. It happens anyway.  

Still, Smith believes it’s worth documenting and evaluating the program. “We’re describing the process, the wishes, how much they cost, when are they implemented—the practical stuff,” she explains. “And we’re looking at spirituality and organ donation, since it often comes up in the context of end-of-life, the experience of family members and the impact for staff. There are many aspects of critical care work that bring stress, but it’s also important to focus on things that bring joy, purpose and meaning.”