When challenged to descend from their ivory towers, academics often get defensive and return to their cloistered existence of theorizing.
Not Danial Dempster.
Starting on May 16 in the newly created position of CEO of the AIDS hospice Casey House, Dempster will bring a decade of direct experience from the trenches of hospice work. For the last three years, he’s been at Dorothy Ley Hospice in Etobicoke, and from 1994 to 2001 was at Philip Aziz Centre.
Before that he was teaching history at Trent University, but when dared to “do something” by a good friend (James Orbinski, who went on to become international president of Doctors Without Borders), he couldn’t let the dare slide.
“He challenged me,” Dempster says. “‘How can you know all of this about the origins of capitalism and how the world was developed and not do something about it?’ and it really did strike me.”
Around the same time, he was asked to be on the board of a fledlging hospice in North York, the Philip Aziz Centre. The death of the relatively young cousin, as well as seeing colleagues, students and old college friends die of AIDS, led him to push the hospice concept forward at Philip Aziz.
“I kept saying ‘Come on, let’s go,’ and finally the board said, ‘Well, why don’t you do it [get the hospice off the ground]?'”
The first CEO of Casey House, Dempster is taking charge of the newly combined boards of the hospice and the foundation. “I love bringing people together, listening, collaborating,” he says. “I sometimes am a mirror to what is going on. Sometimes you can reflect the good things a little bit brighter.”
Dempster has a distinct interest in the global AIDS epidemic.
“We have to be ready to look for any changes that may be coming in the epidemiology of AIDS in the gay community in the future,” he says. “We may be facing challenges with different strains of AIDS. We know that what is happening in Africa, it is a plane ride away.”
In part that is why he believes Casey House needs to do more work reaching out to otherwise underserviced communities. For example, because the stigma can be particularly harsh in certain cultures, some HIV-positive people aren’t seeking any treatment at all.
Flexibility is also important. Even among gay men, the disease is changing. Successful retrovirals are meaning people are living longer and stronger. A high percentage of Casey House residents will eventually leave and go back to their lives, a wonderful but shocking circumstance that creates new challenges for caregivers. For example, patients and their families may need psycho-social support and spiritual counselling.
On the political front he says that George Smitherman, Minister Of Health And Long-term Care, is “probably the most sympathetic minister of health to hospice that we’ve had.” He also thinks Casey House’s current plans to expand into the community parallels the provincial Liberals’ agenda of transformation.
“The important thing is to keep at it, not to give up. Always make people know who you are, what your needs are. We are not going away.”