History

London Magazine article cont'd

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It’s been exactly one year since the new John Gordon Home opened its doors to Londoners at Interiors ’97. In spite of the loss of one of its founders, and moving from a historic home on Dufferin Ave. to a newly constructed, professionally decorated place on Pall Mall, the John Gordon Home continues its tradition of offering a safe place to those with HIV and AIDS.“It feels like home,” says Shearing, simply.

That was precisely the goal of Betty Anne Thomas and Dr. Iain Mackie, when they first determined, in the late 1980’s, to create an AIDS hospice in London. Both Thomas and Mackie were dealing with AIDS: Thomas, whose brother was one of the first people in Ontario tested and diagnosed with HIV, was the executive director of the Regional HIV/AIDS Connection (ACOL); Mackie saw AIDS patients regularly in his medical practice, where he was quickly earning a reputation as a pioneer in AIDS treatment, and also sat on the ACOL board of directors.

The ACOL was doing its best to provide palliative home care, but it became increasingly clear to Thomas and Mackie that there needed to be a haven or sanctuary – an alternative to home or the hospital. “We wanted something as close to a home as possible,” says Thomas.

They knew their task wouldn’t be easy. When AIDS burst on the scene in the mid-80’s, “there was a tremendous amount of fear in the gay and mainstream communities,” recalls Thomas. As a result, many AIDS patients were estranged from their families and marginalized from society. At that time, says Lisa Poultney, acting executive director of John Gordon Home, those with AIDS were dying in hospitals, surrounded by doctors and nurses in gowns, masks and gloves. Many people refused to touch them.

“Iain and I would talk about need a place,” remembers Thomas, in which AIDS patents could die with dignity and peace. Their experience with those who had contracted AIDS revealed that most wanted to die at home. And a home was what Thomas and Mackie wanted to give them.

One hot summer night, the two sat together to come up with a list of people who could help them achieve their goal. Their list was long but they contacted every person on it. Then the ACOL created a committee with a mandate to create or find an appropriate place. In spite of a number of hurdles, “I knew absolutely that it would happen,” says Thomas, noting that “Iain felt the same. ‘No’ was not an acceptable answer.”

They suffered a setback when, with their hearts set on buying Grosvenor Lodge, they were turned down by London’s board of control. During their lobbying for the heritage home, however, they created a great deal of support for their cause.

In 1992, a gift horse appeared in the form of city councilor Joe Swan, who owned a house at 414 Dufferin Ave. Swan offered to rent it out to be used as an AIDS hospice. It had just about everything the group wanted: It was central, close to St. Joseph’s hospital and offered privacy for the residents.

In spite of the continued fear surrounding AIDS and HIV, the citizens of London responded to the hospice project “in a remarkable way,” says Thomas. “It was magic.”

More than 5,000 volunteer hours were logged over that summer turning the house into the John Gordon Home. (The name was chosen to commemorate the first person in southwestern Ontario to go public with his HIV status.) One father, whose son had recently died of AIDS took on the project of restoring two antique pillars in the front room. Day after day, he quietly stripped away the layers of paint that his the beautiful carving beneath. His wife provided volunteers with home-baked goodies to reward their efforts.

Other responded similarly. A call went out for bar fridges for each bedroom. They appeared. Another man, whose partner had just died, donated a large urn filled with flowers that found a home in the front lobby.

The home became a stopping point for many whose lives were affected by AIDS. There they found sympathy and compassion, and man, in turn, offered their time and energy to the hospice. As Thomas says, “it was a community before we even opened the doors.”

After roughly two years of planning and one year of renovation, the John Gordon Home opened in 1992 with one resident. Others soon followed. Most were young, gay men. Over the years, a few residents – both men and women – have been married, but many are alone, through choice or rejection. “I’ve lost a lot of friends,” says Norman Shearing, “and I’ve seen a lot of friends die.” For him and other, the John Gordon Home has become “like a family.”

Head of the family was Sam Conti, a founding member of the John Gordon Home, who was appointed executive director in 1994. Described by close friend Betty Anne Thomas as a man who could “move mountains,” Conti convinced the Ministry of Health to pay for 24-hour staffing at the home in October 1994, a task that had previously been handled by volunteers. (The home also receives rent from the residents themselves, based on their ability to pay.)

But in the face of increased medical research, both the disease and the needs of those living with it were changing. Those who worked in the field, including Lisa Poultney, saw that those with AIDS and HIV were “less ill,” she says, “their stays at the John Gordon Home were longer, and their illnesses were different.”

As a result, the focus at the John Gordon Home was shifting. “It’s no longer a question of ‘how well can I die?’,” says Poultney, “but ‘how do I live with this disease?’”

Betty Anne Thomas admits the John Gordon Home simply wasn’t working well anymore. “Among other challenges, the ability to get up and down the stairs was difficult for some residents.” There began talk of building a new John Gordon Home, to be designed exclusively with the need of people with AIDS and HIV in mind. Sam Conti got to work convincing Queen’s Park that there needed to be funding for such an undertaking. It was eventually acquired through the Ministry of Housing.

Construction of the home began and by spring of 1997, Conti had convinced Orchestra London to stage Interiors, its fundraising initiative, at the new John Gordon Home before it opened its doors to residents. Beautifully decorated, the home at 596 Pall Mall St. proudly displayed itself to Londoners. In July of 1997, residents moved into their self-contained apartments.

The new home has an elevator, individual heat-controls (People with AIDS and HIV have very different temperature needs and must be comfortable, explains Poultney.), air conditioning, self-contained apartments as well as a common kitchen, dining and living area. It can accommodate eight residents and operates at capacity much of the time. A few residents, with the help of new and better medication, are able to move back out on their own, “although it doesn’t happen often,” admits Poultney.

On February 12, 1998, the community suffered a blow when Conti died at the age of 46 from complications that arose following routine elective surgery. Staff, residents and volunteers all felt the loss. Betty Anne Thomas described Conti as “the epitome of what I think everyone would strive to be. His integrity, his gentleness, his passion and compassion are hallmarks of who Sam was.” He clearly touched a lot of people and a memorial service at Dufferin Hall the following Sunday was filled with the laughter and tears of those who had loved him.

In spite of its loss, he John Gordon Home continues to evolve. Funding for a ‘healing garden,’ a pet project of Conti, has been approved. Brightly painted stakes joined by string mark off where it will be growing at the side of the home by mid-summer.

Norman Shearing still feels the loss of Sam Conti, someone he considered a friend. But he’s seen enough friends die to dwell on it. Instead, much like his friend Conti, he’s determined to make a difference with the time he has left. He frequently speaks to high school students, often in his hometown of St. Thomas. “I was their age when I was infected and if I can stop one kid from getting it,” he explains. “I’m there to tell them AIDS doesn’t just happen in the big cities. I tell them that AIDS is out there.”

It is. But with London’s own John Gordon Home, those who’ve contracted AIDS don’t have to live with it – or die – alone.

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