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A life well-lived

Hugh McGeach
Hugh McGeach’s desire to “do his part” led to a storied life of service – and in his later years, Sunnybrook’s Veterans Centre and donor community helped him thrive

Born on a farm in London, Ont., on May 8, 1921, Hugh McGeach always dreamed of something bigger.

As it did for so many of his era, the outbreak of war in Europe changed his plans, and Hugh, the son of a Veteran of the Great War, decided to do his part and signed up with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

A mechanic by training, Hugh quickly became an invaluable member of the ground team, keeping Allied planes in fighting shape. But it didn’t take long for Hugh’s desire to join the fight more directly to move him to become part of a bomber crew, where he would serve missions as the in-flight engineer.

Hugh would later recount for The Last Salute – portraits of 40 World War II Veterans over the age of 100 at Sunnybrook – how on one mission his jet was shot down near Lithuania. He was captured by German forces and taken to Stalag Luft 6, a prisoner-of-war camp deep in German territory.

He spent the next two years there – until his captors forced the prisoners to march westward all day, every day, for several weeks, to evade the advancing Red Army.

Sensing their chance, Hugh and a handful of his fellow prisoners made their escape while walking through a heavily forested area, where they were soon picked up by American soldiers, who promptly dispatched him to London, and soon home to Canada.

Hugh would mostly remember his stint as a prisoner of war for the dreary monotony of it all, but despite that, his war years would very much set the course of his life. It was that path that took him to Sunnybrook’s Veterans Centre decades later, where the dedicated staff at Canada’s largest Veterans care facility helped him create a life of peace, fellowship and contentment.

From Spitfires to Skype

When Hugh arrived at Sunnybrook’s Veterans Centre in 2015, there was some trepidation as to what the future might hold for him. But the highly integrated team worked tirelessly to make sure his medical, social and holistic needs were met, recalls Cindy Cyr, one of his daughters.

Hugh’s initial medical prognosis was not good, but Cindy credits the care her father received with both his longevity and rich quality of life. Not even a pandemic was enough to stop the team from ensuring all the Veterans stayed connected to family with video messaging.

It is perhaps no surprise that a man who was once a whiz at disassembling and repairing a Spitfire engine was soon navigating Skype on an iPad with ease, and Cindy is eternally grateful to Sunnybrook and its donor community for helping make it happen.

Feeling at home

Sunnybrook’s Veterans Centre felt like home, and Hugh spent hours in the garden, walking to Sunny’s cafe for a small black coffee and reading. In a letter of appreciation, Cindy wrote about her father’s greatest pleasures: his weekly lunch group, his twice weekly physio workouts in the gym, regular trips to the library, special outings and daily programming that created a community for him.

“All of these elements and activities were thoughtfully planned and created by the Veterans Centre team, and successful in promoting a rich quality of life,” says Cindy.

That’s in large part because Sunnybrook’s Veterans Centre is home to the largest recreation and creative arts therapy program in Canada, which serves close to 250 Veterans. “Thanks to federal and donor funding, we have a team of more than 30 art, music, horticultural and recreation therapists, who are well-equipped to support our residents. Other places might have one or two therapists,” says Katherine Baldwin, manager of recreation and creative arts therapies. “There’s nothing that compares to Sunnybrook.”

Programming includes brain aerobics, art classes, pet therapy, music making and song-writing sessions. For Katherine, there’s a reason why Sunnybrook ensures its Veterans thrive. “Our philosophy is about helping everyone achieve their best lived experience. We know people come here to spend the rest of their lives. It’s our duty to make it special.”

Joining the 100 Club
Hugh McGeach celebrating his 100th birthday with Sunnybrook’s President and CEO Dr. Andy Smith (l) and Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Executive Dan Cass (r).
Hugh McGeach celebrating his 100th birthday with Sunnybrook’s President and CEO Dr. Andy Smith (l) and Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Executive Dan Cass (r).

Hugh passed away in February 2022, just a few months shy of his 102nd birthday. He was one of 50 inductees into the Veterans Centre’s new 100 Club, and Cindy shared how much he appreciated the photo he took to commemorate the occasion with Dr. Andy Smith, Sunnybrook’s President and CEO, and Dan Cass, Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Executive.

“Dad treasured the Sunnybrook photo and the certificate of recognition – far more than the acknowledgments from the prime minister and the Queen!” says Cindy.

So grateful for her father’s experience, Cindy decided to give back with a gift to Sunnybrook, directed to the garden and recreational programs in his honour. With donor support, Sunnybrook will continue to enhance our Veterans Centre, with a focus on renovating and relocating the gym and library to ensure we meet the needs of our residents.

Says Cindy: “Everyone should be aware of what a gem Sunnybrook has with its Veterans Centre.”