BY BILL PHILLIPS
“The only reason I’m still here and still alive is because of him.”
While the community this week mourns the loss of Dr. Bert Kelly, who was a tireless champion of improving health care services in the North, Eva Patten mourns the loss of the man who saved her life.
“If not for his persistence, I don’t think I would be here,” Patten said Thursday, a day after Kelly died with his family by his side.
Patten’s days as a patient of Dr. Kelly go back to when he was practising in Fraser Lake and Patten was living in Vanderhoof. When Dr. Kelly moved to Prince George, she stayed on as his patient.
“I travelled to see him because it was worth it because of the care I got,” she said.
Like a lot of doctors, Dr. Kelly got to know Patten and her family … attending to her children’s health needs as well.
But it was in 2008, almost 10 years to the day that Dr. Kelly refused to give up on Patten.
“I had felt sick for more than a year and no one could figure out was wrong,” said Patten. “One doctor said it was all in my head. He didn’t give up. He said there was something going on. He kept digging.”
That digging resulted in a diagnosis of two rare cancers for Patten.
She was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, fairly uncommon at her age. Multiple myeloma causes cancer cells to accumulate in the bone marrow, where they crowd out healthy blood cells.
She was also diagnosed with amyloidosis, a rare disease that occurs when a substance called amyloid builds up in the organs. Amyloid is an abnormal protein that is produced in the bone marrow and can be deposited in any tissue or organ. It can affect the heart, kidneys, liver, spleen, nervous system, stomach or intestines. The condition is rare (affecting fewer than 4,000 people in the United States each year).
“That was the one, for me, that was creating all the havoc in my body,” said Patten. “He was very instrumental in keeping on it, and pursuing it until they found out what was wrong. During that process, he was just there. By the time they diagnosed it, I was basically in liver failure, my heart wasn’t working properly.”
She had a stem cell transplant, which worked well on the myeloma but not so well on the amyloidosis. She was sent home and basically put in palliative care. Her family was told she probably had about six months to live.
“Dr. Kelly didn’t give up,” said Patten. “I was diagnosed with something that not a single doctor here had dealt with. He made sure I had access to anything new, trials etc. I was kind of a guinea pig for a lot of things. Things started to work and turn around and I’m still here.”
And Dr. Kelly was with Patten through it all, remaining her family doctor until his own illness forced him to close his practice earlier this year.
“He never once charged me for anything,” said Patten. “He said ‘whatever I can do to help.’”
And, as most people know, in addition to helping countless patients like Patten, Dr. Kelly was a tireless advocate for improving health care services in the North and continued to practice even though he was well past the ‘standard’ retirement age.
“He said to me, ‘I have no regrets. I live life one day at a time … There’s a long list of people who can’t find doctors. If I retire that’s just going to add to that list.’ I felt it was so unfair for someone who so dedicated his life to helping others. He didn’t get that time to enjoy his retirement.”
Patten has taken Dr. Kelly’s advice to heart and lives her life one day at a time and the hope she can be just a little bit like the man she owes so much to.
“I feel like I owe him my life,” she said. “That’s why it doesn’t make sense to me that I’m still here and he’s gone. I don’t think he ever realized the impact he had and how much he’ll be missed.
“I wouldn’t have seen my grandchildren be born. I wouldn’t have seen my son get married. I’m extremely grateful for everything he’s done for me. I feel that hopefully by saving my life, I can go on to do some of the good that he’s done and given. All I can hope for is to carry on a little of his gift of caring and giving.”