Medicine and music, compassion and community: Remembering the Abriels

by Kristen Lipscombe

Whether it was medicine, music or making Christmas magical for their community, David and Heather Abriel approached life with a genuine sense of joy that won't soon be forgotten by family members, friends and colleagues.

David, 63, spent about two decades practising family medicine in the Mahone Bay Area and the past 14 years as a palliative care doctor in ‎Lunenburg and Queens Counties while Heather, 64, stood steadfastly by his side as his partner in life, music and volunteerism.  The caring Mahone Bay couple "passed away together" Feb. 2, describes their obituary, following a tragic crash on Highway 103 near Ingramport. Their sudden and shocking deaths shook their South Shore community to its core, a feeling that reverberated thoughout Nova Scotia Health Authority, particularly among their friends at Fishermen's Memorial.

While their untimely deaths devastated those who know them, memories of the Abriels among hospital colleagues consist of happiness and humour, kindness and compassion.

Here, some of David's colleagues remember the well-respected doctor and his loving wife Heather.

Palliative care health services manager Janet Carver wrote a moving tribute to the Abriels, which was read aloud at their celebration of life, held Feb. 11.

"It is beyond measure, the role that Dave has played, over the past two decades, to advance palliative care here on the South Shore," Carver wrote. " Indeed, Dave, was the epitome of palliative care.

We all know the old adage, that behind every person, who does great work, there is someone who quietly and steadfastly supports them.  For Dave, this was his life partner, Heather," she said.

"It’s impossible to talk about Dave without talking about Heather.  They were inseparable.  We, the work family,  want you to know that Heather, too, played an important part in the life of our palliative care team. 

I firmly believe that he couldn’t have done what he did without Heather.  She was his rock, the wind beneath his wings." 

David and Heather also shared their music with their palliative care colleagues, patients and their families.

"Over the years, we have held celebrations of life to remember our palliative care patients who have died. Dave and Heather often provided the comforting music for these special events, always closing with This Little Light of Mine. Heather, always sang The Circle of Life," Carver recalled.

"They were well known for their music and love of community," added registered nurse Heather Cameron. "Christmas will never be the same without him as Santa."

Cameron said she and so many others "lost a teacher/mentor, source of knowledge, a musician and a great friend."

"The community, including the hospital community, lost a phenomenal resource for patients and theri families, as well as an educator and a passionate supporter of Dying with Dignity."

Cameron's favourite memory of David and Heather was arriving at their home "last year on a Saturday morning to deliver a basket of 'goodies' from the team. I could hear the music playing as I went up the path and they didn't hear me knock, so I peeked in and Dave was playing mandolin and Heather was playing harp by their kitchen table. They were absorbed in their music and the joy of playing together, and it was a wonderful sight to see."

Fellow RN Kerry South said the couple's sudden deaths hit her and many others hard, both personally and professionally.

"Like me, many of our colleagues had known Dave for years," South recalled. "There were many tears. The community, our clients and colleagues provided an amazing amount of support. Even terminal patients and their families, who were in various stages of anticipatory grieving, took the time to offer condolences."

"They loved life and were generous in giving of themselves to others," South said of the late Abriels.

Office assistant Lydia Brake said it still feels "very much" as though something important is missing in the hospital.

"I can look over from my room and see his, knowing he will not be in it again," Brake said. "Knowing that next December no one will hear his little jingle bells (that) he tied to his shoelaces."

David "was always very good at lightening an otherwise potentially very dreary atmosphere," Brake explained, adding she wish she had an opportunity to thank the good doctor "for such a huge contribution in making the workplace somewhere I want to be."

Social work student Deanna Rafuse-Pool described David as "the most approachable" doctor she has ever met.

"My last contact with him sums up his ability to relate to everyone he meets: He joined a lunch table and ate lunch with a variety of us, from student to receptionist to casual clerk, and engaged in conversations ranging from clothing to TV programs," Rafuse-Pool shared. "It was like having lunch with 'one of the girls.' ""

One patient told me that upon his first meeting with Dr. Abriel, he introduced himself as Dr. Abriel but  said, 'you can call me Dave.' To me, these things say more about Dr. Abriel as a person than as a professional."

Social worker and bereavement program coordinator Allison Rew agreed David took special care to make the palliative care department as welcoming an environment as possible.

"A couple of years ago, Dave facilitated a Death Café at the Mahone Bay Centre," she remembered. In a culture where we tend to be uncomfortable with death, I’m grateful that he chose palliative care as his medical focus and worked to raise our awareness of, and willingness, to face the reality that death is part of living."

David and Heather are survived by their three children, Katie, Dan and Shelagh, their three grandchildren, Eden and Elliot Kerr and Alice Abriel, as well as their extended "family" at Fishermen's Memorial Hospital, across their community and throughout Nova Scotia Health Authority.

To read a poignant South Shore Health community award nomination for David, written by social worker Shirley Oickle, please click here.

To view the full memorial service held Feb. 28 for the Abriels at Fishermen's Memorial Hospital, please click here.

From all of us at Fishermen's Memorial Hospital and NSHA, thank you David and Heather, for all you have done for your community and our province. You have left a beautiful song in all of our hearts.