Naomi Wong and her great-grandmother

Naomi’s story

My name is Naomi Wong and I have been a Patient and Family Advisor at North York General for two years, but my connection with the hospital began 22 years ago when I was brought into the world. In this very hospital, I took my first breath and was held for the first time. My great-grandmother was among the first of my relatives to hold me. She raised me through early childhood while my parents, who had immigrated to Canada two years prior, went to English classes, worked and tried to make a life for our family in Toronto. My great-grandmother was affectionately known in Cantonese as 太太 (Tai Tai), resembling the Chinese word for sunshine, which described her presence perfectly. I still miss her rays of warmth and comfort every day.

On this Family Day, I want to share with you the story of my great-grandmother’s last day with us.

On August 14th, 2017 at 3 a.m., the call came. I was wide awake studying for an exam. The call was from a nurse on 8 West who I had gotten to know during my great-grandmother’s four-month hospital stay. She told me she wasn’t able to reach anyone in my family, but I should come to North York General as soon as possible because my great-grandmother’s condition was worsening.

I cried the whole drive over to the hospital, wrestling with the reality of what was happening and fully in shock. I spent those early morning hours sobbing at my great-grandmother’s bedside. All I wanted was to stay as close to her as possible and see her regain consciousness. But I was filled with conflicting fears that I would be alone with her when she passed away. The nurse who I had spoken to on the phone came over to my great-grandmother’s bed in the shared room to give me a box of tissues. It was such a kind gesture, but in that moment, all I really wanted was a hug. The respiratory therapist came by to check her vitals and said that my great-grandmother likely wouldn’t make it past morning.

At around 9 a.m., I was finally able to get a hold of my family members, who arrived shortly after. We were visited by a palliative care nurse and doctor who asked if we needed anything. My grandmother, who was in denial about what was happening, asked if there was anything else they could do to save her or help her regain consciousness. It was heartbreaking for me to translate back in Cantonese that there was nothing more they could do medically and see my grandma – who is usually very outspoken – grow quiet.

Since I had visited the hospital so frequently, I had gotten to know so many of the nurses on a first-name basis. I celebrated my 20th birthday there, translated discharge meetings, re-explained treatment options to family members who were too afraid to clarify with the doctors, and asked question after question when I couldn’t decipher medical jargon. I knew my great-grandmother likely wouldn’t recover, but it never crossed my mind that she would pass so suddenly. She was the first close family member that I lost.

At 7:30 p.m. I went downstairs for dinner in the cafeteria, when my family member called. I picked up expecting a dinner or coffee order when the words, “Great-grandma has passed” escaped her lips. During summer 2017, the hospital was busy with elevator modernization, so I bolted up eight flights of stairs only to be greeted by a nurse at her door saying: “She has passed”.

For the next three hours, my family and I stood beside my great-grandmother, holding her hand and stroking her cheek. One of the nurses, Emma, came in to convey her condolences with tears brimming and told us, “Your great-grandma – she was a special one”. Her words brought to mind the image of my 太太 (Tai Tai)‘s smile and kind eyes. Even though she could no longer speak in her final days, my great-grandma still communicated with the nurses through her smile and mischievous chuckles. Emma’s tears gave our family members permission to grieve.

I realized this experience was full circle. The first place my great-grandmother held me as a baby was the last place I held her after she passed. Although this hospital is the place where she spent her last days, it is not where her story began. She had a life before entering the hospital. This Family Day, I want to honour 太太 (Tai Tai)’s memory: her dignity, her strength and the life she had before entering the hospital.

Thank you for holding space for me to share my story.