From the brightly decorated fifth-floor office in east-end Montreal where Andrée Gauvin spends most of her weekdays, the comforts of home are only a few steps away. Two doors to her left, a sitting room features plush couches and a piano; across the hall is a washing machine and dryer, and a small kitchen nearby has a refrigerator, coffee maker and microwave. Those are among the reassuring amenities of everyday life that Gauvin takes great care to provide to people for whom everything - and most especially life - can no longer be taken for granted. As the director of volunteer services at the Palliative Care Unit of Notre Dame Hospital, the 57-year-old Gauvin spends her days among the terminally ill and their families, patrolling the ward, chatting cheerfully on a first-name basis with them and ensuring, as she says, "that this final period of time together is as much about living as it is about dying."
Until Gauvin persuaded Notre Dame Hospital to set up a palliative care unit 16 years ago, there was no such service available for terminally ill francophones in Quebec or, indeed, anywhere else in the French-speaking world. Her experience at the time consisted of less than three years as a nurse and only two years in palliative care work as a volunteer at Montreal's then-largely English-speaking Royal Victoria Hospital. Among francophones, she said, "there seemed to be a notion that the dying posed a sort of threat to the living [and] that they did not deserve the same sort of attention."
Gauvin almost single-handedly changed that perception, both within Quebec and Europe. By the early 1980s, she had become recognized as a pioneer and expert in a fast-developing field, and began receiving regular invitations to provide advice and instruction in France and Switzerland. In recognition of her efforts, the government of France, which usually only honors its own citizens, in June named her a Knight of the National Order of the Légion d'Honneur, one of its highest honors.
But the vivacious Gauvin, who has three adult children with her husband, Pierre, an ophthalmologist, insists that her greatest satisfaction comes from her daily exposure to what she calls "the ultimate school of life." Says Gauvin: "The focus is not on dying, but on living that final experience. You learn that there is a richness and beauty to even the smallest of everyday occurrences." In her regular visits with patients and their families, she encourages them to feel as much at home as possible and promotes the notion that she and her team of 40 volunteers should be relied upon as an extended family. "Never talk down or provide false hope to a patient," Gauvin says, "and never be judgmental."
Her work has clearly affected her outlook. She is now guided by the strong belief that "life, to the end, is to be celebrated." Gauvin does that in several ways in her private life, playing tennis all year, skiing in winter and "devoting myself passionately to gardening" in summer. Despite her upbeat nature, she confesses that several times a year, "I need to get away for a bit, to put my work behind me, and recharge my spirit." But always, Gauvin comes back, fuelled by the need to remind others that when death is closest, the joys of life seem most precious.
Maclean's December 18, 1995