When people think of palliative care, they often picture someone frail spending their last days surrounded by beeping machines and strangers.
For Ken Ryan, things are a little different.
The 75-year-old, known as the “King of Kensington” and the “Radio Shack guy” around town, is spending his last months in his North Burnaby home with his family.
When the NOW dropped by for an interview, Ryan was in his kitchen, sipping a cup of coffee and wearing red pajama pants.
Two months ago, Ryan, who founded the Kensington Community Fair in 1993, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and was given six months to live.
“Whether it’s six days, six weeks, six months or six years, we’ve passed the first two sixes, there’s only two left,” he said, joking.
Always giving back
For most of his life, Ryan has dedicated his time to giving back to his community. The list is so long his son Brad said it’s hard to keep track.
He has sat on numerous committees, including the Burnaby North Community Association, anti-graffiti, Comshare, Hats Off Day, the Optimist Club, Coats for Kids, Block Watch and many more.
For 20 years, Ryan was Santa for the kids at the Lochdale Community School and dressed up in the red suit. He helped fund the school’s seniors’ tea and pancake breakfast. During the summer, he’d run Comshare, a children’s six-week camp that featured sports, cooking, crafts and day trips to fun locations like the aquarium and Cultus Lake.
For a decade, Ryan organized Kool Down, a free swim for teens on Friday nights at the Kensington pool. For $1, youth were given a pop and a hot dog. Meanwhile, through the Optimist Club and the Burnaby North Community Association, he provided upwards of $20,000 worth of food hampers over the last 10 years at Christmastime. Ryan also helped start up the food bank at Confederation Centre some 15 years ago, which has since moved to St. Timothy’s Anglican Church. A few years later, he started an emergency food bank out of Cliff Avenue United Church, accessible to anyone young and old.
He and his wife Lou are the kind of people to open their home to strangers, people who are down on their luck and have nowhere to go, noted Brad.
“Six years ago, at the food bank, there was a chap sleeping under the overhang,” recalled Ryan. “He’d come and help us unload the car and keep the coffee pots full. It was pretty miserable out there, so I said, ‘Lou, let’s clean that bed off and give him a warm place to stay.’ He was there for three years. Lou didn’t do dishes for three years.”
“(Dad) got all his paperwork sorted out, his pension, some social assistance. He got independent living, and they managed to get him his own place,” Brad added.
The couple has also coordinated a deaf and hard of hearing initiative, where they bring 30 youth from across the province to participate in a communications contest. Some sign, while others speak through their hearing implants.
Asked if he has a favourite volunteering moment, Ryan mentioned travelling to Disneyland 11 years ago with the Sunshine Foundation of Canada, an organization that makes dreams come true for kids living with physical disabilities or life-threatening illnesses. Seventy-five kids boarded the plane that day.
“Makes me proud,” Brad said of his father’s accomplishments, which also includes the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal. “It’s big steps to follow.”
Ryan received the cancer diagnosis in mid-September, after he went to the hospital for shortness of breath.
“I was in emergency for three days, then up on 3B for three weeks, then down to palliative care, so I figured, oh Christ, here we are, we’re going,” he told the NOW.
“That was a shock. He’s always been a pretty healthy man, you know,” Lou added.
According to Brad, the family is living day by day, enjoying the moments they have left together, between appointments, check-ups and visits from the nurse.
“It’s been tough, but the one good thing that’s come of all this, one of the benefits of him being involved with so many people is that there’s been a ton of people coming to say hello, drop off food, phone calls, people from various organizations he’s been involved with, customers, so really an outpouring of love and support, which has been very comforting,” he said.
Brad said his dad’s sense of humour has lifted the family’s spirits during this difficult time. Even when the oncologist came in to give him the bad news, Ryan – strapped with a Bluetooth device to his ear at all times – took a phone call in the middle of it all. Until this week, he ran a bookkeeping and tax preparation business out of his home, serving some 200 clients over the years.
“He says, “So Ken, it’s not good. We found cancer.’ He then all of a sudden goes, ‘Hello? Yeah, no. I’m with the doctor right now. I’ll have to call you back. OK, bye.’ The doctor looks (at me). I go, ‘He’s answering the phone.’ The doctor goes, ‘Well I must say, this is a first,’” Brad explained, chuckling.
Shirley Hatch has known Ryan for 25 years through his work at Lochdale Community School. She said she was devastated to learn of his diagnosis and that he’s inspired her immensely.
“(He’s) just an all-around, wonderful, extraordinary man. He’s basically taught us how to be giving people. He brings the community together,” she said.
Hatch is organizing an appreciation event for Ryan on Saturday, Nov. 5 at the school (6990 Aubrey St.), between noon and 3 p.m.
“I came up with the idea to do this so he knows now, before he goes, how much he is loved and respected and appreciated and will be missed,” she said. “He’s just been a true blessing to our school. We already feel lost without his presence.”
Everyone is welcome to attend. RSVP by emailing email@example.com. Photos or notes of gratitude can be dropped off at the school by Nov. 1. A scrapbook will be made for Ryan after the event.