Terminal cancer can’t stop Ottawa woman from pursuing her goals

Christina Vernon has spent nearly 20 years helping people adapt after suffering brain damage.

“I’m one of the very lucky people who really love what they do,” said Vernon, a longtime behavioral therapist at The Ottawa Hospital.

Vernon also enjoys bringing fun to work, which she describes as “so stressful,” like leading impromptu Zumba sessions at the nursing station.

It has nothing to do with me. I just have to be one of the chosen ones.-Christina Vernon

Then in September 2020, she was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Vernon, 54, has seen his cancer progress to stage four, which means there is no cure, just treatment.

“Yeah, that sucks. But I’m fine. I’m at peace now,” she said.

“It has nothing to do with me. I just have to be one of the chosen ones.”

Vernon, left, and Dr. Christine Whetter, right, examine tulips from bulbs planted after Vernon was diagnosed with terminal cancer. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

The doctor becomes a lawyer and a friend

Dr. Christine Whetter is Vernon’s palliative care physician who has become a spokesperson and friend to a patient she describes as “full of life, energy, joy and passion.”

Even on difficult days.

“Occasionally [she needs] a quarterback and sometimes … a cheerleader, and sometimes he deals with constipation,” Whetter said.

Vernon now uses a hydromorphone pump to help control the pain. Despite an initial prognosis that said she had six to nine months to live, she planted tulips with friends in 2021, and was there to see them bloom last spring.

Last fall’s blisters also gushed: “It showed me that my journey isn’t over.”

Palliative care physician Dr. Christine Whetter has provided Vernon with care that goes beyond medicine, including tracking down musician Chris de Burgh. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

“She won’t live until 2023”

Vernon set another goal. An avid fan of singer-songwriter Chris de Burgh, she was thrilled to hear he was coming to Ottawa for a concert on April 20.

The thing Christina needs most today is… no changes with her painkillers… She needs Chris de Burgh.– Dr. Christine Whetter

She and her husband scored tickets, and Vernon was determined to make it to this concert, even if it meant attending the concert in a wheelchair. But COVID-19 forced the artist to postpone until next spring.

Vernon was devastated.

“She won’t live until 2023,” Whetter said. “Christina is in her last months of life.”

This gig – like the planting of tulip bulbs – had been an important “target goal” that was now out of reach.

Then Whetter went beyond medical care to find a solution.

“The thing Christina needs most today is actually not changes with her pain medications or talking about the gut or talking about hydration,” Whetter said. “She needs Chris de Burgh.”

Whetter attempted to contact de Burgh. She joined a virtual fan club and sent heartfelt messages that relayed one of the time-strapped singer’s most ardent fans.

Vernon has watched singer-songwriter Chris de Burgh’s video message, which she is viewing here, too many times to count. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

“I don’t go out without smiling and laughing”

Vernon grew up in the 70s and 80s and says the soundtrack to his life was by Burgh lady in red and Patricia the stripper. She learned calligraphy by copying the words of her song, lonely sky.

When an email from her idol arrived, with a very personal video message, she was undone.

“I opened the email. And there’s Chris de Burgh! He was smiling. I pressed play and he said, ‘Hello Christina.’ I was, like, he was talking to me!”

In the video, which is nearly four minutes long, de Burgh explains why the Ottawa concert was postponed. He apologizes to Vernon, then performs versions of The lady in red and Patricia the stripper.

Vernon says she started singing, laughing, crying and clapping, and shouting, “Woo-hoo! It’s Chris de Burgh!”

WATCH | Ottawa woman with terminal cancer receives message from music idol

Ottawa woman with terminal cancer receives message from music idol

Christina Vernon, 54, who is living with stage four pancreatic cancer, received a video message from singer-songwriter Chris de Burgh after a personal call from her palliative care doctor, Christine Whetter. 2h30

This too is medicine.

“If you’re only six or nine months old, you can spend that time thinking about death and regret and loss, or you can live,” Whetter said. “Christina has lived – and she will live every day to the fullest.”

“I have a great life. I have love. I have support and I’m happy. Yeah, I know I’m close to the end. So what? God or someone wants me for something? thing. But I’m here,” Veron said.

“I don’t go out without smiling and laughing.”

Vernon and his partner Scott, left, have a 17-year-old daughter. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Vernon, who also has a 17-year-old daughter, is planning her own wake and funeral, and music by Chris de Burgh will be part of the celebration of life.

“His lonely sky that I want,” Vernon said.

She has replayed de Burgh’s video message more times than she can count, she said.

“Take care. Lots of love and hugs from me. Goodbye for now,” de Burgh said during the signing, leaving Vernon in tears.

“Isn’t it beautiful? Such a gift,” she said.