Your Stories

Dr. Ina Cummings: Lessons Learned from Dr. Balfour Mount

Watching the short films…. has triggered for me a stream of memories, of experiences, of feelings as I looked back on the many years that I worked alongside Bal Mount in Palliative Care. There was excitement, there was joy, there was frustration, there was enormous respect.

One of the early documents that Bal and I worked on was grandly titled “The Ten Commandments of Palliative Care.” In keeping with that tradition, I have jotted down ten lessons that I learned from Bal, that have guided and changed how I have tried to live my life. I thought I would share them with you, to trigger your own memories, or to stimulate your reflections.

1. Passionately embrace life and live each moment fully. Bal defines passion, as he warmly embraces each new discovery life brings, and seeks to share this excitement with those around. As you will see in the films, living fully in the moment may mean playing with the dogs, or sharing in meditation, but the passion never leaves.

2. Settle for nothing less than excellence. This International Congress of Palliative Care, started so many years ago by Bal, bringing together volunteers, health care workers and experts from many fields speaks to this.

3. Live life with integrity and honesty. I did not always agree with Bal, but I always respected him. His goals were altruistic, and he was always ready to listen to a different point of view. He was a ready advocate for a vulnerable patient, an incredible teacher and spokesperson, but he never used his skills for personal self-aggrandizement.

4. Explore the unknown, have the courage to move beyond the safety of the accepted. Palliative Care would never have been born, had not an academic surgeon who was being groomed for a leading referral surgical role at McGill had the courage to look beyond, and consider the needs of the whole person.

5. Avoid easy judgments. Look beyond first impressions. I was totally humbled once when I had commented negatively on an individual we both knew, and Bal pointed out that I had not walked in her shoes. I thought of that so often when my early assessments proved wrong, and said thank you Bal.

6. Encourage others to grow into their potential. Bal believes in people. Even when we had little idea what to do, Bal believed that we could learn and could do what was needed. With his encouragement, he was right and we did.

7. Communicate. The greatest need we have is to share what is important to us. Bal uses a wide range of vocabularies – listening, words, art, music, body movement.

8. Cast your net widely. Bal has surrounded himself with those of different backgrounds, different skills, different world views, all seeking excellence from their unique perspective. The combined richness has been far greater that could have been imagined.

9. Avoid the luxury of self pity and bitterness. Bal has used each adversity in his life as a stimulus to go deeper, and become more fully engaged in life.

10. Let agape become a way of life. Bal personifies love as a life style.

Bal has taught me much, as a friend, a mentor, a fellow traveler on life’s path. My response is to take up the challenge he leaves us at the end of the film: “I only have that much time left. What am I going to do with it?”

Remarks on the occasion of the screening of Canadian Virtual Hospice’s films "Dr. Balfour Mount: Reflections on Living and Dying," at the International Congress on Palliative Care, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, September, 2008.