Taff Cheeseman cuddling with her husband Rick Cheeseman in hospital in August. A post featuring the photo and her campaign to raise funds for a “cuddle bed” at the South Shore Regional Hospital has struck a chord, going ‘south shore viral.’ Photo: Contributed

The power of a viral photo has bolstered a South Shore woman’s fundraising campaign to honour the memory of her hug-loving paramedic husband.

When her husband Rick was dying in hospital of cancer this past August, all Taff Cheeseman wanted to do was cuddle with him like they always did.

There’s no dedicated palliative care unit at the South Shore Regional Hospital in Bridgewater, and there was no large palliative care bed to accommodate them. Her husband was in too much pain for her to be able to crawl into his regular hospital bed like she had during past hospital stays.

So she kept vigil by his bedside every night, holding his hand and wishing she could hold him instead.

About 10 days into what would be his final stay, hospital staff found a bariatric bed (used for larger patients). While not as comfortable as a dedicated and much larger palliative care bed would’ve been, it gave Cheeseman two weeks to be physically close to her husband before he died.

“I don’t want anybody else to feel like I felt as I was sitting there next to his bed 24 hours a day, every single day, holding his hand because I didn’t want to leave him and I didn’t want him to be alone,” she said.

The bariatric bed made a huge difference, allowing her to crawl in and be close to Rick. The two were able to cuddle and connect, something that calmed Rick “substantially.” The larger bed also helped her and their three children as they prepared to say goodbye.

“To be able to actually lay there with him was all I wanted. And he died in my arms,” Cheeseman said, her voice breaking. “We were in the bariatric bed and I was able to hold him while he died. If people want that, they should be allowed to be given that opportunity.”

Cheeseman recalls how before the arrival of the bariatric bed, online research had led her to discover the existence of palliative care beds, also dubbed cuddle beds. These “jumbo” hospital beds are specially designed to allow a patient’s family to comfortably crawl into bed and even to sleep alongside them.

Known for his fierce love of family and of hugs, this seemed a fitting tribute to Rick.

“I vowed to myself at that time that I would work my butt off to see a bed like that be available at our local hospital,” Cheeseman said in a Facebook post. “Everyone needs cuddles, especially from our loved ones at end of life.”

Nova Scotia Health spokesperson Brendan Elliott said in an email that they’re “not aware” of any provincial palliative care units with cuddle beds, meaning Bridgewater’s would be the first.

Even before Rick’s death, Cheeseman had already created a name for her campaign — Cuddles From Rick. Despite the steep $22,045 price tag for a cuddle bed, Cheeseman is determined to make her dream a reality “sooner rather than later.”

A photo taken the moment Cheeseman first climbed into the bariatric bed in August was shared on Facebook by the Health Services Foundation of the South Shore on Wednesday morning. It was accompanied by a post highlighting details of her fundraising initiative.

“One of the CCA’s took my phone and took a picture from the moment that I got into the bed,” Cheeseman said of the photo as she fought back tears.

“It’s all I had wanted up to that point that we were in the hospital, because I missed being in his arms and I missed laying next to him.”

By Thursday afternoon, that post had garnered 1,000 Facebook shares and donations to the cause had jumped from $2,000 to more than $6,000.

“I dubbed it as going South Shore viral,” Alison Clements, development officer with the Health Services Foundation of the South Shore, said in an interview.

“The fact that this post went viral just shows that everyone knows how important that sense of touch is, that hug, the reassurance that even though things are dire, they might not look so bright, that you can still have that connection and feel that love.”

Clements said as of Thursday morning, the post had reached more than 75,000 people.

“It’s truly the power of a photo. I think a lot of people saw the emotion, the raw, the sad, the love that was between Rick and Taff,” Clements said.

“I think that connected with a lot of people because if we’ve been fortunate, we haven’t had somebody in palliative care. But for the most part, we all have known someone who’s lost a person in hospital.”

Even before Rick’s Aug. 25 death, Cheeseman was determined to honour his memory and help other families facing similar sorrow. She said during one of his moments of clarity towards the end of his life, she told Rick what she planned to do and he was–as always–onboard with her plans.

“I know he’s proud…He was a paramedic who understood the power of touch, and that was always so important to him,” Cheeseman said.

The outpouring of support she’s received from the community has made Cheeseman even more determined to make sure the cuddle bed becomes a reality for the South Shore Regional Hospital. She said many comments on the post and messages she has since received reflect what she went through, and she doesn’t want any other family to experience it.

“If I can help just one family. It would mean the world to me…I would like for everybody to know how important (this) is not just to the patient, but to the family. Not just the spouse, but for the children or parents or the grandparents,” she said.

“It’s so important to not feel alone during those last days. And for us, not feeling alone was achieved more when we were able to be next to each other.”

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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