When Alison Ince treated a young man undergoing a leg amputation in 1977, she and the other nursing staff at Royal Columbian Hospital knew there was something special about him.
“He was the kind of patient that stood out in your memory,” Ince, the hospital’s former associate director of nursing, told the White Rock Rotary club Tuesday.
Ince, who turns 80 next week, shared her memories of Terry Fox, the young Port Coquitlam man who captured the world’s attention when he embarked on a cross-Canada run in 1980 to raise money and awareness for cancer research.
Ince’s visit to the Semiahmoo Peninsula came 35 years to the day that Terry was forced to abandon his Marathon of Hope outside of Thunder Bay, Ont., when doctors discovered his cancer had spread to his lungs.
Reflecting upon her time spent as Terry’s nurse, Ince, a Surrey resident, described him as stubborn, with a great sense of humour, an enormous sense of family and a penchant for modesty.
“He never considered himself special, or that what he did was extraordinary,” Ince said.
In early 1980, when Ince first learned about Terry’s ambitious plan to run across the country, she was not overly surprised.
“We all thought if anyone could do it, he could,” she said.
She and the rest of the staff at RCH followed his progress closely, rooting him on, like millions of others across Canada.
Upon hearing the devastating news that his cancer had returned 143 days and 5,373 kilometers into his trek, Ince said she reacted in a way that was “typical of the medical and nursing staff.”
“I said a very rude word, which I will not repeat, and I burst into tears,” she recalled.
Terry flew home from Ontario and was immediately admitted to RCH, where Ince now held the position of deputy director of nursing.
Caught off-guard by the intense public interest Terry’s arrival garnered, Ince was tasked with handling public relations surrounding his care.
“That evening, I had to call the radio stations and request that listeners not call the hospital about his condition,” Ince said, noting that callers were tying up the hospital’s main switchboard and emergency lines.
What followed in the weeks and months after Terry’s return was flurry of press conferences, daily health bulletins, bags upon bags of mail from around the world and never-ending phone calls from people concerned about Terry’s and wanting to help.
Ince fielded many of the phone calls, and recalled one from a little boy who wanted to contribute, but only had one dollar in his piggy bank.
“He had thought of a way he could help – he was going to sell their house,” Ince laughed. “I strongly suggested to him that he consult with his parents on that.”
As Terry’s condition began to worsen in the spring of 1981, Ince said she was forced to come to terms with the fact that he was going to die.
“God sure got an earful from me on that one,” she said.
True to form, Terry continued to live each day to the fullest extent that he was capable, Ince said, noting that all was not “doom and gloom” and there were many moments of happiness and laughter.
Dawn was just beginning to break on the morning of June 28 when Terry passed away, one month shy of his 23rd birthday.
“In spite of our anguish, there was love and an incredible feeling of peace,” Ince said.
Since the Marathon of Hope 35 years ago, close to $700 million has been raised for cancer research in Terry’s name.
His contribution to cancer patients, survivors and their families, however, goes far beyond monetary, Ince – herself a breast cancer survivor – said.
“He brought cancer front and centre in our society, at a time when it was still talked about in hushed tones, behind closed doors,” she said.
In the years since Terry’s death, Ince has volunteered at several Terry Fox Runs in Surrey; locally, this year’s run takes place Sept. 20 at 9 a.m. at the Rotary Field House.
She also spends time speaking at local schools, sharing Terry’s story, and is inspired by the impact he has on those who were born decades after he passed away. His legacy, she said, has become an integral part of Canada’s heritage.
“He taught us the awesome power of one,” she said. “How each of us, as individuals, can and do make a difference.”