Coffee companion's legacy of a listening heart

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, June 11, 2003

One of the guiding lights for this column passed away June 5 in Winnipeg of complications associated with Wilson's disease. Dort Breisch, known to many up and down the Bow Valley for her work in health care and the hospice movement, was 73.

I've known Dort all of my adult life. She and her pastor-husband Frank helped raise our two sons during their high school years in Banff. For me, she came to epitomize the saying, "It's better to light one candle than to curse the darkness."

There's one story in particular about her that I never tire of telling:

It started out as a typical shift for Dort one day while she was nursing supervisor at a busy Calgary hospital. She checked duty rosters, reviewed a mountain of reports, made her rounds to the various nursing stations. Finally seizing a moment to catch her breath, she was just about to head to the cafeteria for a coffee break when her phone rang.

"Dort, can you come down to Emergency right away?" one of her staff said urgently. "We've got a wild man here!"

It was quite a scene that greeted Dort upon her arrival in the ER.

Standing elbow to elbow in a five-metre circle, arms folded and eyes fixed at something in the centre of the circle, were over a dozen nurses and orderlies.

There in their midst sat a very agitated elderly man in his 80's.

"Don't get too close to him!" one of the nurses warned Dort. "He's abusive and violent. He might hurt you."

Her staff filled her in on the situation. The man had walked into the hospital about a half-hour earlier, demanding to be checked, they said. When it seemed no one was paying attention to him, he began yelling unintelligibly and grabbing at the nurses and receptionist. Finally some of the staff surrounded him, sat him down, and summoned Dort.

Ignoring the cautions, Dort stepped inside the circle and sat next to their trembling, troubled guest, pressing her arm and shoulder gently against his.

"Are you okay?" she asked softly.

Whether it was the warmth of Dort's smile, the gentleness of her touch, the tenderness of her voice, or her disarmingly beautiful silver hair, the man breathed deeply and started to speak more calmly.

"Check! Check!" it sounded like he was saying over and over in a heavy accent.

Suddenly it dawned on Dort what he'd really been saying all along. She raised her head and looked around at the contingent of health care personnel encircling them. "I think we've forgotten something here," she said to them. "Is there a Czech interpreter on duty?"

The solution to the problem was so simple. Somehow in the busyness of caring for the many patients who had come to Emergency that day, the admitting staff had missed the obvious: the old man couldn't speak English!

He wasn't saying, "check," but "Czech."

He required an interpreter for his Eastern European language to explain that he was having chest pains. He was crying out for his life, and no one seemed to understand – or care. Then Dort entered the scene and sensed beyond words the frightened gentleman's distress.

Her staff thought he needed a straitjacket; Dort offered him a listening heart.

When Dort told me this story over coffee back in 1990, I was not at all surprised. She had a knack for coming up with compassionate, common-sense solutions to complex social problems in hospital environments.

After her years as a nurse and supervisor at Banff's Mineral Springs Hospital and at Calgary's Holy Cross, Colonel Belcher, and Rockyview hospitals, Dort served for a while as residential hospice coordinator with Hospice Calgary before moving to Regina and, only recently, to Winnipeg, where Frank is pastoring a church.

Something once said by Cochrane global volunteer Leslie Davies – herself a person with a listening heart – captures remarkably well the essence of people like Dort.

"One of the greatest gifts we can give one another is to be present, that is, to truly bend our heart and spirit towards others, to take time to listen and to care."

Thank you, Dort, for your legacy of the listening heart.

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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