CAPTURING THE HEART OF A COMMUNITY

The Life of Constable Bruce Denniston

David Bruce Denniston arrived on December 13, 1951 in Victoria, BC, one of four children born to Jim and Ethel Denniston, including brothers Drew and Ian together with sister Janice.


While growing up Bruce made and kept many childhood friends. Ian Hooey and Denniston were preschoolers together and grew up as best friends in Esquimalt in the 1950s. Hooey recalls that Bruce had “the type of personality that everyone wishes he could have a share in.”


Bruce served as a member of the Auxiliary in the Victoria area, which spurred his interest in police work. He started his career with the R.C.M.P. in November of 1972 (regimental # 30106), and was transferred to Vegreville, AB in May of 1973. A series of transfers followed, which were commonly referred to as the “$35.00 plan” because that is the amount the Force gave members to move. In December of 1973 he was in Elk Point, AB; May of 1974 he was in Provost, AB; in September of 1974 he was in Hinton, AB and then in March of 1976 he decided to see the world and tried out for the RCMP Musical Ride. While waiting to get into the Ride he was stationed in Wainwright, AB before joining the Ride in December of 1976.


During his two year stint with the Ride, Bruce received the Queens Silver Jubilee medal that he so proudly wore. He traveled to Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, U.S. and Canada.  Bruce chose to go back to General Duty Policing in BC and was transferred to Powell River Detachment where he arrived in January 1979 with his new wife Joanne. It wasn’t long before Bruce was making an impact on his co-workers.


When Bruce and Joanne bought a house in which to make their home, members of the Detachment spent many days buried in sawdust as they cut cedar planks for the rec room that was to become a second home to many of them. They also built a pool, hot tub and deck. If the rec room was their second home, the hot tub became their third. Bruce and his colleagues spent many hours there solving the problems of the world generally and the R.C.M.P. specifically.


Cst. Denniston wanted to do it all, and he did. He was a member of the Masonic Lodge (Powell River) and Westview Flying Club, a past Kinsmen, and active community worker. Bruce had more hobbies than most. His days were filled with fishing, golfing, scuba diving, and flying, while trying to finish the house, the pool, and the yard. He squeezed in running every day at lunchtime. Yet he always had time for his friends. There were countless occasions when someone called him from out of town to arrange fishing trips, diving expeditions and hunting forays. Somehow he managed to pull them off. His coworkers wondered how Bruce and his family coped with the constant telephone calls and large number of people that just dropped in at all hours of the day and night.


Most people can count the number of close friends they have on one hand, but Bruce was different. Bruce collected “best friends.” He was faithful to his friends. One of them was having a real tough time with alcohol and got to the point where he needed to go to the dry-out center in Vancouver. Bruce was sick at the time but got up and flew him to Vancouver. It was important to him.


Bruce was more than the average member. To him being part of the R.C.M.P. wasn’t just a job. He was dedicated to the Force. When the Force first started they hired men who could ride and shoot, and Bruce could do that. Whether it was cars, trucks, horses, motorcycles, boats, hang gliders, airplanes or helicopters, Bruce had to ride them. And shoot. He was an expert shot, receiving his Crowns with both the rifle and handgun. One day he successfully shot the course blindfolded. He qualified for his crossed revolvers that way as well.


In the words of former Powell River RCMP Cpl. Frank Shedden, “Bruce epitomized what we would like to see in a member. He was dedicated, tough when required, tenacious when needed but compassionate when necessary. He was a traditionalist. He was what the Force was really meant to be.”


“Although Bruce was a ‘policemen’s policeman’ who goes out of his way to assist other members both on and off the job, he also enjoyed a good laugh. Bruce reveled in getting others to perform many of his jokes. He was the behind-the-scenes man when the pie in the face craze hit the Powell River office.”


By the fall of 1987 Bruce and Joanne’s family had grown to include Kari age 7, Krista age 6, and Matthew who was almost 3 years old.

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Bruce wanted to become a commercial airline pilot for the RCMP, and was told he would first require minor eye surgery. A routine blood test prior to the operation showed an unusually high white blood cell count, which explained the recent fatigue of this active family man.


Until that point Bruce had missed only one day of work in his fourteen year career with the RCMP, and then only because he was on the verge of pneumonia and could not get out of bed.  Incredibly, in November 1987 at the age of 36, Bruce was diagnosed with chronic myelocytic leukemia. So began a year of optimism, tragedy and renewed hope.


Leukemia is cancer of the blood-forming organs of the body. The disease causes bone marrow to be flooded by abnormal white blood cells that pass on to the spleen, the liver and other sites, seriously reducing the body’s ability to fight infection.


The news left Bruce reeling, unable to comprehend what the future held for him and his family. In an interview with Kathy Northrup of the Powell River News published on February 17, 1988 he said, “You sort of get a numb feeling, then your mind starts to race and you think what if you really do; and you start wondering what kind (of leukemia) and what is it going to mean?”


Wife Joanne was also hit hard by the news. “At first I didn’t believe it. It was just unbelievable.” Sitting in the oncologist’s office in Vancouver she could not accept the diagnosis. “I didn’t want to be involved with it.” When she entered the bone marrow clinic at Vancouver General Hospital and talked with Dr. Michael Barnett, Joanne finally realized the severity of the illness. “He told me there is an average of 3 ½ years before it turns acute. I started thinking that Mattie would only be 6 and Bruce wouldn’t be 40. Then it hit me.”


Bruce had never really considered illness or death, although danger is a known quantity in the work he had chosen. “If you hear some complaint going on, or gun fire, you don’t think twice whether you are going to jump in there, you just go. It is not as if you look for it but it is something that is there.” But the doctor’s words that November day presented a new kind of danger. “It puts a completely different perspective on my life,” he said. “It makes you use each day to its fullest value instead of wasting time."


Bruce was still feeling few effects of the leukemia, and even then he and others found it hard to believe he had a fatal disease. His appearance gave no indication of his illness. Joanne said, “I have people say to me, ‘He doesn’t look sick.’ If he was sick in bed it would seem real. It all seems like a big dream.”


Since the diagnosis, some aspects of Bruce’s life had, surprisingly, improved. “I actually feel better than I did before because a lot of the stresses of life have been lifted, like succeeding at work. It was so important – not to say that work is not important now – it certainly is, but it has been put back into perspective.” Bruce admitted he was so dedicated to his job that work sometimes took precedence over time with his family. Now, he said, “family definitely comes at the top of the list where possibly in the past things I thought were more important and had to be done really aren’t all that important in the end. You certainly appreciate the simple things such as a fishing trip, a hunting trip or just a weekend camping with the kids.” He did worry about the future. “The hardest part is thinking ahead,” said Bruce. “You think you want to be around for your kids to graduate or to teach them to drive. Those things hit you probably the hardest.”


Bruce was told the best chance for recovery was a bone marrow transplant. Bone marrow, the pulpy tissue inside bones, can be taken from a healthy individual and take over the job of producing blood cells in the body of a patient with leukemia or another blood disease such as aplastic anemia. The donor need not be related to the patient but must have similar HLA (blood tissue type) antigens.


None of Bruce’s three siblings had matching HLA antigens. The Red Cross in Vancouver had recently established a bone marrow donor bank, but financial constraints were limiting the number of potential donors involved in the program, which was still in its embryonic stages. One technician worked out of a cubbyhole of an office typing 10 to 20 samples per week, a time-consuming, complex and expensive process.


Bruce always ignored fatigue, as well as the obvious mental trauma his condition caused, to grant media interviews and assist in whatever he could to publicize the importance of citizens registering for the Canadian Red Cross Unrelated Bone Marrow Registry.  

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John DeJong and Bruce Denniston were jogging companions and it was during a run late in 1987 that Bruce told John routine tests prior to eye surgery revealed he had leukemia. In January of 1988 Cpl. John DeJong teamed up with Bruce’s partner of four years, Cpl. Pete Jacques, and set out to find a donor for Bruce. They learned that people could join the registry only after attending an information seminar held at the Red Cross in Vancouver on a weekly basis, and that only 50 people could be accommodated at each session.


The team of Jacques and DeJong contacted Red Cross in Vancouver and invited Director of Transfusions, Dr. Noel Buskard, to travel to Powell River to tell local residents about the organization’s bone marrow donor bank, and how they could join. Jacques and De Jong hoped at least 200 people would register as a result of the seminar. Everyone, especially the Red Cross, thought this was a very ambitious goal.


In addition Jacques and DeJong spearheaded a separate drive throughout their RCMP subdivision, which they hoped would eventually spread across Canada. On February 17, 1988 communication was sent out via Telex:


                             RCMP Organizing Manhunt to Save Life of Brother Officer                                                                            

POWELL RIVER: THE RCMP HERE HAVE STARTED A MANHUNT, BUT THIS TIME THEY’RE LOOKING FOR THE MAN OR WOMAN WHO CAN SAVE THE LIFE OF THEIR BROTHER OFFICER, CONST. BRUCE DENNISTON, WHO HAS CHRONIC LEUKEMIA. CONST. DENNISTON’S ONLY HOPE LIES IN FINDING AN UNRELATED BONE MARROW DONOR WHOSE TISSUE TYPE MATCHES HIS. A FOURTEEN YEAR VETERAN OF THE FORCE AND FORMER MEMBER OF THE MUSICAL RIDE, DENNISTON HAS SPENT THE PAST 8 YEARS IN POWELL RIVER AS A PLAINCLOTHES INVESTIGATOR SPECIALIZING IN DRUG ENFORCEMENT. HE IS 37, MARRIED AND HAS THREE CHILDREN RANGING IN AGE FROM 2 TO 8. ACCORDING TO DR. NOEL BUSKARD, PROVINCIAL MEDICAL DIRECTOR FOR THE RED CROSS, THE ONLY CURE FOR LEUKEMIA INVOLVES A BONE MARROW TRANSPLANT FROM A LIVING DONOR. “THE DIFFICULTY LIES IN THE FACT THAT THE DONOR’S MARROW HAS TO CLOSELY MATCH THAT OF THE RECIPIENT,” SAYS DR. BUSKARD. MOST BONE MARROW TRANSPLANTS INVOLVE BROTHERS OR SISTERS OF THE VICTIM. EVEN IF THE VICTIM HAS SIBLINGS THERE IS ONLY A 30% TO 40% PERCENT CHANCE OF A MATCH. EACH YEAR OVER 300 CANADIANS DIE OF THIS DISEASE BECAUSE A MATCHING DONOR CAN’T BE FOUND.”


MacMillan Bloedel sent their aircraft to Vancouver to bring the Red Cross team to Powell River for a presentation to the community on February 22, 1988. Half an hour before the program started, there was standing room only. More than 1000 Powell River residents crowded into a room with seating for 800, to learn how to help Constable Bruce Denniston fight leukemia.


The community’s kindness surprised Bruce. He had always thought police officers were somewhat unpopular in communities, but he was overwhelmed by the kindness of Powell River Residents. “As a cop, you have to do a lot of things people don’t like you for, and you begin to think that a lot of people are against you, but tonight the response of the community was so unbelievable. It showed me that people really do appreciate us. They just don’t always have the opportunity to show it.” Denniston said he feels a little more comfortable about the fact he doesn’t work in the traffic division. “I think if I was a traffic cop, I’d have a hard time after all this dropping tickets on people.”


That night 900 people signed forms pledging to donate blood samples to determine if they were a suitable match to Bruce for a bone marrow transplant. Six hundred of those who signed pledge forms had not previously been regular blood donors. The outpouring of community support from the town of 18,000 astounded the Red Cross, whose unrelated bone marrow transplant program had been labouring in relative obscurity.


Bruce’s parents traveled from Victoria and his sister from Gold River for the seminar. He said later he could not describe his feelings as he watched the support shown by his community. “It was really an indescribable type of feeling. You feel you could use hundreds of words to describe it, but you have to feel it. I was very touched that people would come out.”


After the event volunteers organized lists and called donors to notify them of their appointment times for tissue typing; local lab technicians donated their time to take samples; samples were driven to the airport by RCMP and flown to Vancouver free of charge by Air BC and then taken to the Red Cross by RCMP members. Red Cross reported they had been swamped with calls from people across BC wanting to join the Registry, which at that time held just over 300 names (1500 across Canada).


The Red Cross advised that the weekly information sessions in Vancouver about registering as a bone marrow donor were booked until the middle of April, and there were over 500 people in Vancouver itself, not including the rest of the Lower Mainland, waiting for the orientation session. The Red Cross was averaging 15 phone calls daily after news of Denniston’s illness and the bone marrow registry surfaced.


The Vancouver Red Cross promised to test a few Powell River donors each week, but cited the lack of adequate funding. RCMP members and Powell River volunteers who had taken on the task of finding potential donors for the registry, then promised to provide funds for expanding the program, which operated solely on donations.


The community of Powell River became a beehive of activity, with seemingly every business and service club raising money for The Bruce Fund, as efforts were undertaken to raise $30,000 so another lab technologist could be hired to tissue-type the additional blood samples at the Red Cross testing unit in Vancouver.  The RCMP also got involved in fundraising activities. 


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By November Bruce’s leukemia had become acute. He was undergoing both radiation and chemotherapy. Bruce was tough and strong-willed. He knew he should be saving his strength but he felt it was important to be involved. He realized the work of the Society was providing a chance not just for him, but for everyone who faced a similar problem. He wanted that to be the mainstay of the Society – that it wasn`t just for him.


Although there were now 2400 names on the registry, none of them were a match for Bruce. However, the size of the registry now entitled Canada to access registries in the US and Britain.   Three days before Christmas a matching donor was found on the registry in England. The bone marrow was collected in London (Britain’s registry was at that time the largest in the world with 160,000 potential donors, while the U.S. registry had just 27,000 participants) from British donor Pauline Humphreys, and flown back to Vancouver in the care of Dr. Bob Crossland of Powell River. Crossland made his own headlines a year earlier when he became the first Powell River resident to be selected as a bone marrow donor through the Red Cross Unrelated Bone Marrow Registry.


Bruce entered Vancouver General Hospital on January 19, 1989 to begin four days of intense chemotherapy and four days of radiation prior to the transplant. Donors of bone marrow have the right to withdraw from the program at any time, but they’re informed that if they do so after the patient has received the conditioning regimen for the transplant, the patient will undoubtedly die without infusion of the donor’s bone marrow. The radiation and chemotherapy completely destroys the patient’s immune system so his or her chances of rejecting the donor bone marrow are minimized. This naturally leaves them open to any infection.  


The bone marrow was given to Denniston within 14 hours, well within the 48 hour limit.  Then came the waiting, the hoping and the praying over the two week critical period. People were optimistic and the comments on the streets of Powell River were always upbeat as residents sought to reassure one another. But in less than two weeks it was announced that Denniston’s condition had been downgraded from fair to serious. It briefly returned to fair and hope soared in this town of roller coaster emotions.


The news came via Telex from OIC Admin Services “E” Division of the RCMP:


CST. DAVID BRUCE DENNISTON PASSED AWAY AT 9:14 A.M. SUNDAY 89 FEB 12 AT THE VANCOUVER GENERAL HOSPITAL. ALL FLAGS IN “E” DIVISION ARE TO BE LOWERED TO HALF MAST UNTIL SUNSET THE DAY OF THE FUNERAL.


Ironically, Bruce’s body never rejected the bone marrow. Vancouver General Hospital spokesman Peter Walton said Const. Denniston slipped into a coma Thursday night, following liver and kidney failure believed to be due to intensive chemotherapy and radiation that was necessary prior to his bone marrow transplant. He was so weak and ill that he just couldn’t fight anymore. Help had come too late.


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In the May 25th, 1989 issue of Western people C. Heather Allen reported, “The community flocked to the funeral and tears blurred the sight of more than 70 red-coated Mounties who had come to honor their former colleague. The sadness was palpable but there was no despair. Even those who worked the hardest did not feel their efforts were in vain. There were approximately 500 people, including RCMP colleagues of Const. Denniston from the Yukon, North West Territories, Alberta and British Columbia, gathered to pay tribute to the man whose widely-publicized battle with Leukemia and subsequent search for a bone marrow donor gained national notoriety."


Constable Denniston was eulogized by former Powell River RCMP Cpl. Frank Shedden as a dedicated officer and great friend. Cpl. Jacques said it was “difficult to put into words” what Const. Denniston meant to him and others in the Force who knew him. “Bruce was like the character in the J.D. Salinger’s novel Catcher in the Rye. In a dream sequence in the book, children are running in a field of rye and the character catches the kids to keep them from falling over a cliff. That’s what Bruce was like.”


This story is based on the work of writer Kathy Northrup and photographer Paul Galinski, whose documentation of Bruce Denniston’s courage and plight in fighting leukemia was judged the top news story in Canadian community newspapers for 1988. Powell River News–Town Crier publisher Joyce Carlson echoed the community’s sentiments when she said, “The only thing that would have made this award better would be if Bruce was still here to share it with us.”

Story #2

PETER'S STORY

On Oct. 7 2010 I was taken by ambulance to the bone marrow transplant ward at Vancouver General Hospital, a rather dramatic way to spoil my wife's birthday.


I was diagnosed with acute mast cell leukemia, which is a not too common variant of leukemia and has a pretty dismal record of successful treatment and recovery.


In the leukemia ward at Vancouver General Hospital you don’t just have one doctor, you have a whole team of doctors that strategize and formulate a treatment plan and monitor results.


My nurses were a big part of the team. They not only looked after my numerous medical needs, they were all very personable. They made time to be with me, talk to me and even tell me jokes.


As my treatment progressed favourably, my team got larger. A transplant coordinator started the search for a stem cell donor and when one was found, started to coordinate the timing of the donor’s stem cell extraction and other events I only came to learn about much later on.


I had only the best of medical care. My team of doctors, nurses and support staff had managed to keep me alive and get me into a position where I could undergo a stem cell transplant.


On March 9, 2011 I received stem cells from an unrelated donor. I had a few rough patches in my recovery but my team got me through them. By the end of August I was healthy enough to go on a two day motorcycle ride with my son. It felt as though I had won the Mega Lottery of Life.


Two years after my transplant I was able to give my contact information to the Stem Cell Donor registry in the hope of being able to contact my donor. Not only did I want to be able to thank them for their gift to me but I was curious about who they were.

Some months later I was elated to get my donor’s contact information. I was very surprised to find he lived in Germany, which as you know is a long way from Vancouver.


The fact that my new stem cells came all the way from Germany brought more questions to mind: How did my new stem cells get to Vancouver? Were they sent by UPS in a box marked “Rush – Keep in a Cool Place?”


After doing some searching online I found the Bruce Denniston Bone Marrow Society and its group of volunteer stem cell couriers.

The thought that someone traveled from Vancouver to Germany, stood by in the hospital while my donor’s stem cells were extracted and then rushed them back to Vancouver made me feel pretty special and very grateful. I realized then that the team that had saved my life was much bigger than I had thought.


As a volunteer stem cell courier you are part of a team, a very important part. You are not just carrying someone’s donated stem cells; you are carrying someone else’s life.


My life was given back to me by every member of my team. The team gave my wife back her partner. The team gave my sons back their father. I want you to realize what an important part of the team you are and I want to thank you all for a job well done.

Story # 3

OUR TRIBUTE TO CEC FERGUSON by Chuck MacBey

On behalf of the Bruce Denniston Bone Marrow Society and as a Past President of the BC Branch, I have been asked to provide a recap of the great contribution Cec made to the Society.


The Society was established to grow the registry of suitable bone marrow donors and hopefully find a match to help Cec’s best friend, RCMP Constable Bruce Denniston in his battle with cancer. A donor match was found but unfortunately it was too late to help Bruce who passed away.


I was not part of part of the initial group who started the annual golf tourney known as the Bruce Denniston Bone Marrow Society Classic as we moved to Powell River after its start, but was witness to its success over next 15 years. Cec and some members of the local RCMP were the founding members. The tourney took place in April each year, initially at the Powell River Golf club, later at Myrtle Point Golf Club and the last ten years at Pheasant Glen Golf Resort where Barrie McWha joined Cec and continued putting on many more outstanding events.


For every organization, fundraising is always a challenge and Cec embraced the challenge as he did with all his endeavors. Through Cec’s vast personal contacts, he arranged for Helijet to get involved and they flew in many celebrities over the years. They landed their massive machines on the first and tenth tees at MPGC and then made some infamous flyovers of the Clubhouse for some very lucky people. The celebrities came for the event as they knew Cec put on a great show and the Society cause was a need everyone could embrace.


Not only was golf involved but a Gala event on Saturday night of the weekend was always a "must attend" social event. True happiness for Cec was when he was able to write across the advertising posters "Sold Out" well before the April date.


Norm Grohman and Neil McCrae, are a few of Cec’s friends who provided many laughs entertaining the crowd at the Saturday night gala. There were the years that footballs were thrown by Julio Caravetta, flying across dining patrons and where Norm did his best auction routine selling a birdhouse for several hundred dollars. It was a priceless moment as were other countless memories.

All the celebrities who attended did so because of Cec’s involvement and not one was paid for their time. The list was vast from Trevor Linden to Senator Ed Lawson, as it was a social event of the year. 


Cec helped to make the game of golf fun for everyone. One cannot recall The Denniston, without mention of the infamous Black Balloons plus the silent and live auction which helped to raise many dollars. For those of you here today who attended the golf tournament it will be easy to recall the excitement the balloons created. Cec loved the event except for the one year when one of the balloons holding the thousand dollar bill went missing. Luckily the balloon was found later that night under Barry’s desk.


Cec did this for twenty years, a long time for a celebrity fund raising golf event to last and it was very successful because of the time and commitment to make it the best. The funds raised over the years were in the thousands and it has helped the chapters in Powell River and Ottawa to continue to provide assistance to bone marrow donors, recipients and their families.


We recognized and thanked Cec at the 20th and last Denniston.  It was quite a ride. We wish to again acknowledge his outstanding contribution to the Society.


To Tanya, Crystal and Jason and Cec’s entire family we pass on our sincere condolences and want to let you know we mourn the loss of a great friend.


Rest in Peace Cec!