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The Globe and Mail

A 'gentle' passing ends the life of a brave cancer patient

Rheo Eybel is photographed on Jan. 5, 2012 in Fergus, ON. )

Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Rheo Eybel, who strived to live a large life in the midst of a fatal diagnosis, died in a Fergus, Ont., hospital on Wednesday morning. He was 45.

A bright, well-spoken man whose job was making truck parts, Eybel was given tragic medical news last summer when he learned he had an aggressive, incurable spinal tumour called glioblastoma. The cancer had rendered him quadriplegic and guaranteed a certain death.

The Globe and Mail followed Eybel after he learned of his illness while at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre's critical care unit this past summer and then to his home in Fergus, north of Guelph, as part of an end-of-life series.

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Though he faced death within months, he packed in as much living as he could: He married his long-time love, Harriet MacLean, on his farm. He spent more time with his family and, being a pragmatic man, put his financial affairs in order.

He dreamed of spending his last months at home, which he managed to pull off most weekends – that is, until he had a medical scare in late December in the form of low sodium levels. An intravenous of salt water and highly salted food worked like a charm. And by New Year's Eve, he was washing down all his favourite foods with champagne from his hospital bed: Chinese, pizza, Caesar salad and chicken wings.

During a visit on Jan. 5, his spirits seemed good. Though he appeared paler and could barely move his arms, he occasionally broke into his characteristic dimpled grin, having just survived another medical crisis.

"I thought maybe that was the end of it," Eybel said in an interview, sitting in his wheelchair at a dining room table at a relative's home in Fergus.

It wasn't the end and, in fact, one physician expected him to live several more weeks. But as it turned out, death can be unpredictable even when it's expected.

Christopher Lund, a general practitioner in oncology, had planned to see Eybel during rounds late Wednesday afternoon at Groves Memorial Community Hospital in Fergus, but instead received a telephone call from another physician that morning saying he had died.

"I liked Rheo a lot," Lund said in a telephone interview. "He was a smart, well-informed patient making his own decisions as best as he could, and that's the way it should be."

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Those decisions included a do-not-resuscitate order that stated there would be no attempt to revive him if his heart stopped. When the order was initially discussed with him in August at Sunnybrook, he balked, perhaps it being a case of too much too soon. But by fall, he thought it necessary as a way to direct his care.

Bill Bisley, the critical-care nurse at Sunnybrook who cared for Eybel, said it was fortunate he had the time to get married and look after his affairs. There are some patients, he said, that a nurse gets attached to, and Eybel was one of them.

"He was a very memorable guy," Bisley said. "It is sad. I think he knew, as well as everyone else, this cancer was a fairly aggressive one and it would come back at some point."

No one, however, knew when. And even Eybel was making plans for the future. Three days before he died, he tried to hatch a plan with Harriet's sister, Kathy Sellers, to go shopping for a present for his wife's birthday, which is next week. He wanted to get her something special.

"He really wanted to go and get her something, but he couldn't [due to his medical condition]" Sellers said. Instead, she suggested bringing a birthday cake to the hospital this Sunday for a bedside celebration.

But it wasn't to be. At around 3:15 a.m. Wednesday, the telephone rang at MacLean's farm in Fergus. It was the hospital. She jumped into her truck, navigating foggy, rural roads for the five-minute drive.

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"When I walked in the door, he had just passed," she said, noting his death was a gentle one. "He just faded away."

Little more three months after they exchanged marriage vows on the back deck of their farm, MacLean was making funeral arrangements. But she has no regrets.

"I don't think he or I would have changed a thing," she said yesterday.

Eybel is also survived by children Caitlin, Mariah, Skylar, Adam and Jennifer.

Visitation is on Thursday from 7 to 9 and Friday from 3 to 5 and 7 to 9 at Graham A. Giddy Funeral Homes in Fergus. A funeral mass is to be held Saturday at 1 p.m. at St. Joseph's Parish in Fergus.

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