Nova Scotia

Restaurant owner still serving, 18 years after MS diagnosis

Eighteen years after MS diagnosis, a woman from Chéticamp, N.S., continues to do the job she loves: running a Cape Breton restaurant.

'It's not work, it's my life. So I'll have a hard time to stop,' says Brenda Lee Doucet

Brenda Lee Doucet is a co-owner of a restaurant in Chéticamp, N.S. (Norma Jean MacPhee/CBC)

Brenda Lee Doucet wasn't about to let illness stop her from doing what she loves.

"It's not work, it's my life," the Chéticamp, N.S., woman said in an interview. "So I'll have a hard time to stop."

Doucet has worked at Le Gabriel restaurant in Chéticamp since it opened in 1987. Today she does that work in a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis.

At 57, she still greets customers in the family restaurant just as she has for decades.

'The rock of this place'

She started at the restaurant washing dishes and, soon after, waiting tables. Now she and her husband Billy own the restaurant.  

"She's the rock of this place," said Billy Doucet.

Doucet said her passion for people and her job was unchanged by her diagnosis 18 years ago.

"When I became sick I didn't want to stop. That's the first thing I said, 'I have no time for this', but you have no choice," she said.

Brenda Lee and Billy Doucet own Le Gabriel restaurant. (Norma Jean MacPhee/CBC)

After her diagnosis she first waited tables with a tray to help with her balance. Six years ago she needed to start using a wheelchair.

The restaurant was rearranged to give her better access. She manoeuvres her motorized wheelchair along the booths, around the tables and in and out of the kitchen with orders.

Customers like Susie Chandler from Kentucky marvel at her determination.

"To do that with MS, that's amazing," said Chandler. "She's so smooth it's seamless, so you don't even realize she's in a wheelchair. She engages you so quickly."

Brenda Lee Doucet in the dining room of the Le Gabriel restaurant. (Norma Jean MacPhee/CBC)

Doucet said the concern of repeat customers also buoys her decision to keep working.

"It's the people you met," said Doucet. "I mean, there's people that come every year just to say 'Hi.' They say, 'Ah, you're still here!' Yeah, I'm still here. So it feels good."

Quitting wasn't an option.

"It never crossed my mind, not once," she said. "My son says I'm too stubborn to quit, and I guess I am."

'There's still something you can give'

Her son works in the restaurant bar and her husband works in the kitchen.     

Billy Doucet said an unintended benefit of his wife's stubbornness is that she sets an example for all who stop into the restaurant.

"I think people leave here that do have a sickness of one type or another and I think it works on them," he said. "And if she can change one, good, that's a job done."

Brenda Lee Doucet said she hopes others in similar situations stay active and inspired by life.

"Everybody that's in a chair shouldn't stop. There's still something you can give," she said.  "I don't have use of my legs, but I have everything else."

'I can't give it up'

For her, it's just another day on the job.

"I love it — I have one day off a week, and I want to be here."

From bus tours to groups of cyclists coming in, the restaurant is never quiet.

"I can't give up, not yet," she said.

Read more stories at CBC Nova Scotia

About the Author

From people around the corner to those around the world, Norma Jean MacPhee has more than a decade of experience telling their stories on the radio, TV and online. Reach Norma Jean at norma.jean.macphee@cbc.ca

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