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Jennifer Dawson Oakes

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What I Know About Flaherty's Struggle With Disease

Posted: 04/11/2014 9:12 am

Thursday afternoon, along with the rest of Canada, I learned that recently retired Finance Minister Jim Flaherty died suddenly, of an apparent heart attack. According to a release issued by his wife, Christine Elliott, Flaherty passed away peacefully at home.

It has been not quite four weeks since Flaherty resigned his position in Ottawa. He was stepping away from the public life. To many, his retirement was an unexpected announcement.

There had been rumours Flaherty was quite unwell and, I had often wondered what was going on with him. I had noted a change in Flaherty's appearance, he sometimes looked very full in the face and his face often looked flushed. Because of speculations, Flaherty announced in 2013 that he had been living with an autoimmune disease called bullous pemphigoid. Autoimmune diseases occur as a result of a person's immune system attacking healthy tissues within their own body.

Flaherty was reportedly taking prednisone to help with the disease. This is a really tough drug. While it helps in so many ways, it comes with a host of side-effects that can sometimes be worse than the symptoms or conditions for which it is prescribed to treat.

Prednisone is a corticosteroid, and is an immunosuppressant drug. This means the drug works by suppressing a person's immune system. While it will help calm the autoimmune disease activity, it will also make a person more susceptible to viral or bacterial infections, since the entire immune system is, in effect, being switched off. Some of the side-effects of prednisone include 'moon face' -- a swelling that can make a person look very full in the face. This was evident with Flaherty.

While Flaherty and I did not share many things in common, we did share this one challenge: I live with lupus, which is also an autoimmune disease. I have had to take prednisone in the past as part of my own treatment. I know the havoc it can wreak on one's system.

Depending on the dose, prednisone can make a person very jittery, you feel very on edge. It's difficult to sleep, something the body really needs when ill so that it can rebuild and get better. I am not a coffee drinker, but I had no trouble imagining what drinking one hundred cups might make me feel like.

Prednisone thins a person's skin. The slightest touch can be excruciating. I remember being very ill and on a fairly high dose of the drug. My uncle ever so gently placed his hand on my upper arm as he moved past me. I had to leave the room because that simple touch immediately brought tears to my eyes; the pain was incredible. Prednisone causes severe burning in the stomach. Often a second drug will be prescribed, to help protect the stomach from the effects of prednisone. So yes -- you have to take one drug to help tolerate another drug. And the stomach medications often do very little to protect the stomach, or relieve the symptoms.

Many of the diseases in the autoimmune family will ebb and flow, and sometimes people will enjoy periods of remission. But it is important to note that even if a person is in remission, they are often still not feeling 100 per cent. Autoimmune diseases often cause widespread pain in the muscles and joints.

Many illnesses within this family also cause skin issues such as rashes or blisters. The disease with which Flaherty was diagnosed causes blistering and swelling of the skin. These blisters can be very painful and itchy. People who live with autoimmune diseases often live in a heightened state of worry and awareness, as they can be so vulnerable to infections.

That Flaherty had been able to carry on in such a busy, high-level and demanding job, while living with active bullous pemphigoid is, quite frankly, amazing.

When Flaherty resigned his position last month, I felt happy for him. It was my sincere hope that he would have time to relax and be able to focus on his health, away from such a challenging professional schedule. Flaherty had such a short amount of time to enjoy life as a private citizen and this is heartbreaking.

By all accounts, Flaherty was a good guy. He had the respect of colleagues right across Canadian and international political spectrums. News of his death has shocked many people. It was evident, in the tears and wavering voices, fond memories, and heartfelt condolences being offered by politicians, media-types and Canadian citizens that Flaherty was beloved far beyond his work in provincial and federal politics. On March 18, talk focused on Flaherty's political legacy after he announced his retirement. We mourn his death and we are now reflecting upon his lifelong legacy to our country.

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  • Jim Flaherty with his wife(left) after giving his speech at the Provincial Progressive Conservative Party Leadership Convention, held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Mar. 22, 2002 Photo by Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

  • Jim Flaherty posing with the Stanley Cup while on the campaign trail for the provincial PC leadership at the Hockey Hall of Fame. Feb. 26, 2002 Photo by Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

  • Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership candidate, Jim Flaherty, on Feb. 27, 2002 Photo by Tibor Kolley / The Globe and Mail

  • At the Ontario Progressive Conservative Leadership debate, Chris Stockwell looks on as Jim Flaherty, left, gets some last minute touch-up to his make-up. Picture taken on Feb.27, 2002. Photo by Tibor Kolley

  • Jim Flaherty becomes new Ontario finance minister, after Ernie Eves resigned from the post. New cabinet members were sworn in today, February 8, 2001, at Queen's Park. Photo by Patti Gower / The Globe and Mail.

  • Jim Flaherty becomes new Ontario finance minister, after Ernie Eves resigned from the post. New cabinet members were sworn in today, February 8, 2001, at Queen's Park. Photo by Patti Gower / The Globe and Mail.

  • Sunday. Mar.18/07. Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will deliver the budget in Ottawa tomorrow.During a pre-budget photo op, he purchased a pair of Canadian-made skates for his son John (16) at Blades Custom Skate Care Inc. in Whitby, Ont. The skates are CCM Reebok 9K pump skates. The total price including all taxes was $456.00. Before the photo op he was scrummed by the media. Pictures taken on Mar.15/ 2007 Photo by Tibor Kolley

  • Canadian Finance minister Jim Flaherty smiles as he takes part in a conference during a meeting of the Group of eight (G8) Finance in Lecce on June 12, 2009. World powers launched a project on the sidelines of G8 talks to develop vaccines against pneumococcal diseases as part of a new market-based mechanism for the developing world. AFP PHOTO / ALBERTO PIZZOLI (Photo credit should read ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tables the federal budget in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Thursday March 4, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

  • Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty shows a green shoe as he shops in Ottawa on March 28, 2012 for a new pair of shoes as part of the tradition of budget day. The tradition holds that Ministers of Finance purchase or wear new shoes when the budget is delivered. AFP PHOTO/ROGERIO BARBOSA (Photo credit should read ROGERIO BARBOSA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Canada's Finance Minister Jim Flaherty successfully exits an igloo outside the Nunavut legislature in Iqaluit, Canada during a break in proceedings at the G7 Finance Ministers Meeting, February 6, 2010. Moments earlier Minister Flaherty dislodged a large piece of snow from the entry way of another smaller igloo as he attempted to exit. AFP PHOTO/ GEOFF ROBINS (Photo credit should read GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty speaks to reporters at the Port of Montreal, Monday, September 27, 2010. Flaherty insists the government will be "fair and reasonable" in assisting stimulus projects that are supposed to be complete by the end of March. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

  • Hanoi, VIET NAM: Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty (R) meets with his Vietnamese counterpart Vu Van Ninh during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the APEC finances ministers' meeting held in Hanoi 07 September 2006. Pacific Rim finance ministers will this week push for renewed talks to free up global trade and pledge steps against terrorist financing, according to a draft of a joint statement. AFP PHOTO/HOANG DINH Nam AFP PHOTO/HOANG DINH Nam (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

  • France's Minister of the Economy, Industry and Employment Christine Lagarde (L), Canada's Minister of Finance, Jim Flaherty (C) and US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner attend the final press conference for the G7 Finance Ministers Meeting in Iqaluit, Canada, February 6, 2010. AFP PHOTO/ GEOFF ROBINS (Photo credit should read GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • From left: Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and British Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling watch as US President George W. Bush delivers a statement with G7 finance ministers and heads of international financial institutions October 11, 2008 in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty poses for a photo following an interview in Ottawa on Monday, Dec. 21, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Pawel Dwulit

  • Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty and Prime Minister Stephen Harper enter the House of Commons on budget day on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, February 11, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Patrick Doyle

  • Finance Minister Jim Flaherty appears during a news conference at the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, on Monday, May 14, 2012. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Sean Kilpatrick)

  • Finance Minister Jim Flaherty holds the last penny struck in Canada at the Royal Canadian Mint in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Friday, May 4, 2012. Flaherty announced in the March budget that the coin would no longer be produced because the cost of making it is more than it's worth. He has estimated that the government will save $11 million a year. Ian Bennett, president and CEO of the Royal Canadian Mint, smiles at left. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, John Woods)

  • Finance Minister Jim Flaherty holds the last penny struck in Canada at the Royal Canadian Mint in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Friday, May 4, 2012. Flaherty announced in the March budget that the coin would no longer be produced because the cost of making it is more than it's worth. He has estimated that the government will save $11 million a year. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, John Woods)

  • Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty arrives for a G-20 dinner, during the Spring Meetings of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund Thursday, April 18, 2013 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

  • Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, left, and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, right look on as Prime Minister Stephen Harper announces funding for new subways in Toronto, Sunday, September 22, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

  • A emotional Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty listens to a speaker during an announcement in Ottawa, ON Friday October 21, 2011. (CP)

  • Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, March 3, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

  • The photo from the last tweet from Jim Flaherty's account.

 

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