Terminal cancer can’t stop Ottawa woman from chasing goals

Christina Vernon has spent nearly 20 years helping people adjust after brain injury.

“I’m one of the very lucky people who can really love what they’re doing,” says Vernon, the longtime behaviorist at The Ottawa Hospital.

Vernon also likes to bring fun to work, which she describes as “so stressful,” like leading impromptu Zumba sessions in the nursing ward.

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 her cancer reach stage four, meaning there is no cure, only treatment.

“Yeah, it 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, examining tulips from bulbs planted after Vernon was diagnosed with terminal cancer. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Doctor becomes advocate and friend

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

Even on the difficult days.

“Sometimes [she needs] a quarterback and sometimes… a cheerleader, and sometimes it treats constipation,” Whetter said.

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

Last fall’s bulbs have now also come out: “It showed me that my journey is not yet finished.”

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

‘She won’t live until 2023’

Vernon set himself a different goal. As a passionate fan of singer-songwriter Chris de Burgh, she was delighted to learn that he would be coming to Ottawa for a concert on April 20.

What Christina needs most today is… no changes with her pain medication… She needs Chris de Burgh.– dr. Christine Wetter

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

Vernon was devastated.

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

This concert – like planting tulip bulbs – had been an important “goal” now out of reach.

Then Wetter went beyond medical care to find a solution.

“What Christina needs most today is really no change with her pain medication or to talk about bowels or to talk about hydration,” Whetter said. “She needs Chris de Burgh.”

Wetter tried to reach the Burgh. She joined a virtual fan club and sent heartfelt messages that one of the singer’s most ardent fans was running out of time.

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

‘I don’t go out without smiling and laughing’

Growing up in the 70s and 80s, Vernon says the soundtrack to her life was from de Burgh woman in red and Patricia the stripper† She learned calligraphy by copying the lyrics of his song, Lonesome Sky

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

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

In the video, which lasts almost four minutes, de Burgh explains why the concert in Ottawa was postponed. He apologizes to Vernon, then performs versions of: The woman in red and Patricia the stripper

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

VIEW | 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 following a personal request from her palliative care physician, Christine Whetter. 2:30

This is also a medicine.

“If you only have six months or nine months, you can spend that time dying, regretting and losing, or you can live,” Whetter said. “Christina has lived – and she will live every day to the fullest.”

“I have a good life. I have love. I have support and I am happy. Yes, I know I am near the end. So what? God or someone wants me for something. But here I am,” said Vernon .

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

Vernon and her 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 Chris de Burgh’s music will be part of the celebration of life.

“To be Lonely Sky that I want,” said Vernon.

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

“Watch out. Lots of love and hugs from me. Goodbye for now,” de Burgh said as he signed off, leaving Vernon in tears.

‘Isn’t that beautiful? What a gift,’ she said.

Leave a Comment