Helen Hays

    She has devoted her career to improving care and easing pain for people at the end of life

    By Alix Kemp on December 5, 2013

    We honour doctors for healing the sick and wounded, but doctors who care for those who cannot be healed deserve perhaps a particular regard. Helen Hays, ’71 MD, has spent her life treating people with terminal illness, pioneering new approaches to end-of-life care and researching methods to ease chronic pain.

    As a child in Cornwall, England, Hays wanted to be a doctor like her father. But female physicians were a rarity in the 1950s, so she graduated in nursing. It wasn’t until coming to Canada with her husband in 1967 and being urged by the U of A’s dean of medicine, Walter C. Mackenzie, to become a doctor that she followed her dream.

    Her interest in palliative care was spurred by a patient in her private practice in Edmonton — a young mother dying of leukemia. Hays realized her medical training had not prepared her to deal with the complexities of end-of-life care and she set out to change that.

    She was recruited in 1982 to lead the new palliative care unit at Edmonton General Hospital, the first of its kind in the region. She tended to the special needs of palliative patients and their families and researched pioneering techniques to ease her patients’ suffering.

    She also launched an ambitious campaign to educate the province’s doctors about pain management and palliative care. Palliative care was a relatively new discipline at the time, and most doctors had little to no training. Despite her introverted nature, Hays toured Alberta to lead forums and workshops in cities and small towns. She also mentored many young physicians in her role as associate clinical professor at the University of Alberta.

    In 1988, Hays became medical director of palliative care services at Edmonton’s Misericordia Hospital, where she championed an interdisciplinary approach to end-of-life care that is now in common use. It involves not only doctors and nurses but also social workers, chaplains and therapeutic specialists.

    She and Marion Boyd, ’81 BScN, ’87 MEd, a nurse, founded Edmonton’s Pilgrims Hospice in 1994. Still operating today, the hospice offers practical and emotional support for people with terminal illness and their families through outpatient programs and services.

    Hays returned to private practice shortly after opening Pilgrims Hospice in order to focus on her research. She was responsible for several groundbreaking studies on pain medication, including the first study to demonstrate potentially lethal side-effects of methadone.