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Harriet Maclean at her partner's bedside in the ICU ward at Sunnybrook Hospital. Rheo Eybel was diagnosed with Glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain tumour. (Moe Doiron/(Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail))

Harriet Maclean at her partner's bedside in the ICU ward at Sunnybrook Hospital. Rheo Eybel was diagnosed with Glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain tumour.

(Moe Doiron/(Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail))

Critical care: Spending 10 weeks with patients facing death Add to ...

“Everybody fully appreciates you are able to call the shots here,” he said through his mask. “Even though your muscles aren’t so strong right now, your mind is super-sharp. We appreciate your direction here.”

Her husband, Morty Goldmacher, said he thought his wife could still find value in the life she has left. “She can still get some enjoyment, some pleasure.”

Earlier this week, Ms. Isacovics was excited to be on the path to returning home. She had come a long way from that day in July that she expressed a wish to die. She wanted to say something. The alphabet board was taken from the windowsill and placed on her wheelchair table.

Her two right fingers searched for the letters. She spelled out: H, then O, P, E.

What has been joined, let no one put asunder Rheo Eybel was eventually able to develop different muscles to help him breathe, and to get off the respirator, though he is still in a wheelchair, unable to walk. He described his three weeks on the machine as a living hell, in which he was trapped inside his own head.

“It’s just beyond words really,” said Mr. Eybel, now 45. “If I had to do that, even for another two weeks, I wonder if I would have gone insane. … I can’t even explain how lonely, lost and how very scared you feel when you can’t voice your opinion and you’re on these stupid machines.”

After some days’ contemplation, it became clear to Mr. Eybel what he should do, and that was to get as close as possible to home in Fergus, a place of rolling hills, a quaint downtown of grey stone buildings, a gorge and his family.

Even the small community hospital seemed an institution of decades past – an elderly, bespectacled gentleman with a blue volunteer’s vest stood in the lobby, studying a newspaper; a sign said the gift shop was selling ice cream for 75 cents; the cafeteria worked on the honour system.

It was at this hospital that Mr. Eybel met The Globe again this fall, dimples on each cheek framing a toothy grin, his long, thinning grey hair pulled back into a ponytail.

He was now able to move his shoulders and arms, and he could talk, though he kept his tracheotomy intact, just in case: He had been warned that his tumour could grow back and climb into his brain or go down to his diaphragm and stop his breathing again.

Remembering his panic and anguish when he was first diagnosed in August, he said, “My will to survive surprised me.”

He and Ms. MacLean had five kids between them – two from her past marriage and three from his. After his divorce, he had never been keen to remarry. But now, with a limited time to live, it was all he could think about.

There was also a practical reason: They had property and assets together, and he didn’t want any disagreements about who was owed what among relatives.

And so on Oct. 1, more than 50 people packed into their family home in Fergus. Trucks parked on the gravel side road. Some people gathered in the barn, others in the house, and a few on the deck looking out over the sprawling farm, where fall had brought bales of hay.

Ms. MacLean put on a dressy skirt and flowered suit jacket, and was having her makeup done just outside the kitchen so that Mr. Eybel could not see her. Friends made a cake, a sister brought a bouquet and others brought trays of meat, vegetables and pasta.

“To make her feel whole, that will make me feel whole,” Mr. Eybel said minutes before the ceremony, wearing a yellow dress shirt beneath his brown, fleece jacket with a white boutonniere. “She’s got something missing and I’ve got something missing; that ‘happy wife, happy life’ idea. … I expect that I will have better luck this time.”

His doctor has told him that he is stable and may live up to another year.

There’s a distant, even more positive hope too: Mr. Eybel was accepted for a clinical trial in Texas, with a targeted therapy for his cancer, although travelling would risk his health.

As for that pesky DNR, he got around to that too. “I had to sign something,” he pointed out. If he has a heart attack, he won’t be revived – but he has no plans to go, at least not yet.

“I just thank God every day. I just thank Him for another day,” he said.

And he thinks back to dancing with Ms. MacLean, his brown-eyed girl, and now his wife.

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