Scottish-Canadian tenor John McDermott has been going to Toronto's Sunnybrook hospital to put on a Christmas show for resident veterans for the past 15 years.
This year, he's bringing a much bigger gift.
His foundation, McDermott House Canada, will launch its first Canadian project on Monday — the renovation and expansion of the hospital's palliative care wing.
The issue is dear to his heart. His sister Alice was in palliative care in 2000 before she died of cancer. And this year, the mother of a close friend was in palliative care before she died.
Over the years, the former member of the Irish Tenors has visited several people whose family members spent their final days in palliative care. He asked them what would have made a difference in the time they spent with their loved one.
"A lot of stuff came back. Simple things you wouldn't think of, like privacy," said McDermott. "Usually there are two people or four people in a room separated by curtains or dividers, and there's little privacy."
The renovations the foundation is funding will add eight rooms, so the unit — which serves military vets, first responders and the community — will expand to 32 rooms.
McDermott's longtime friend, four-time Olympic alpine skier Brian Stemmle, jumped at the chance to be at Monday's launch and speak about his family's experience.
Stemmle's mother, Andrea, diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2009, was in palliative care at Sunnybrook this past summer. She died in July after a 15-month battle with cancer.
Stemmle, now a television commentator, would have preferred privacy for his family during his mother's final days. It was difficult because there was another woman in the room, he said.
"You want to be quiet but you want to say the things you needed to say to my mother, the last things you'd like to say but you'd have to say it quietly because there's other people around and visiting," said Stemmle.
Setting to be more like home than hospital
Once the renovations are complete, McDermott envisions a setting that's more like home than a hospital. An extra bed will be put in the rooms so family members can stay overnight.
"How many times have they tried to find a comfortable place in an uncomfortable chair or a hallway or on a floor?" asked McDermott.
The addition of Skype will allow patients to see and speak to people around the world by computer.
"My dad's brother died in Australia where he lived. And I think that was one of the things that bothered my dad a lot, that he never had the chance to see his brother or talk to him before that," McDermott said.
He opened McDermott House in Washington, D.C., a transitional home for homeless vets, in 1995. But he always wanted to do something for veterans in Canada.
He is now on tour, performing songs from his 2009 CD Journeys, and will play the Koerner Hall in Toronto on Dec. 18. Some of the CD's proceeds will go toward the palliative care wing.
McDermott will start recording tracks for two new CDs in January, one a Christmas album, the other an album of general songs, four of which were co-written by Dan Hill.
In November, McDermott was awarded the Minister of Veterans Affairs Commendation, presented to those who have contributed to the care and well-being of veterans.
He said he hopes the unit at Sunnybrook will be a model for the rest of the country and will "just improve the quality of time in that terminal illness, that time frame, that three-month period, to make it something more than just a death watch."