Circle of Life

Hospice campaign comes full circle for family of late Cookstown doctor

Dr. Donald McFarland laid foundation for palliative care in South Simcoe

Health care has changed a lot since Dr. Donald McFarland was a country doctor in Cookstown.

But in many ways, it has remained the same and, in some cases, it has come full circle.

McFarland and his family moved to Cookstown in 1955. Passionate about health care — from birth to end of life — he was a traditional country doctor. He tended to patients in his office, made house calls, served at Stevenson Memorial Hospital, as well as Simcoe Manor in Beeton, and he was acting as a coroner for the County of Simcoe. He was a general practitioner, who did it all, including obstetrics, surgery and geriatric care.

McFarland was particularly drawn to the elderly and to those in the last days of life. He knew that death was a part of the circle of life, and he spent many hours giving medical and emotional support to patients and their loved ones.

In the 1990s he began to advocate for a palliative care unit at Stevenson Memorial Hospital. He wanted a dedicated area where there was privacy, yet room for family to be with loved ones. A place where they could say goodbye in a comfortable homelike setting.

“He was one of the first physicians who truly understood palliative care, all it entails and the compassion it requires,” said Pat Owens, an RN who worked with him at Stevenson.

McFarland initiated plans for the palliative unit and worked with the hospital to make it a reality. The first hospice training in South Simcoe took place at the hospital in 1995. Unfortunately, at the same time, McFarland was living with a diagnosis of lymphoma.

“When he became too ill to work, nurses who knew Dad organized themselves to come to our home and help mom, because it was too much for her to manage alone,” said son John McFarland.

Ironically, McFarland was the first patient in the new palliative care unit, even before the official opening.

He passed away in 1996; and less than 10 years later, the palliative unit was discontinued.

However, in another circle of life, Matthews House Hospice was being birthed by Sally and Frank Taylor, and a handful of volunteers who had taken a hospice course. A house was purchased on Hwy 89 and by 2004 day programs were initiated for supporting clients and their families.

John McFarland said he was so impressed with the care and support at Matthews House, that when tenders went out for the new building, his company, Nu-Tek Electric, went after the electrical contract with passion, because he wanted to be a part of the project. His father helped build the idea of a place for palliative care, and his son wants to be an actual part of building the new place of compassion.

The McFarland family has started the Circle of Life Campaign, in honour of Dr. McFarland. They invite the community to give to the new building fund and to support Matthews House in an ongoing way.

To donate or for more details, call John or Joan McFarland at 705-458-1083 or email 

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Top Picture: The late Dr. Donald McFarland advocated for palliative care at Stevenson Memorial Hospital in the 1990s. His family, including son John and wife Joan, have started the Circle of Life Campaign in his honour. The campaign supports Matthews House Hospice’s new facility that is set to open next year in Alliston. – Andrea Roylance/Submitted

As published in the Alliston Herald by Kathryn Mooij