My mum is sick, the sort of sick where you don’t get better, and for the past few months my family has gone through the best of times and the worst of times. The worst because we are preparing to lose someone who means the world to us, and the best because we have all had time to be together, to care for mum and each other, and to create some incredible and special moments. All of this has been helped hugely by an incredible health system, and the sort of people who work within it that make me feel so utterly grateful to live in New Zealand.
Throughout all of this I’ve often found myself thinking about a song from my childhood – penned by the incomparable John Clarke and sung by one of his best characters – Fred Dagg. “We Don’t Know How Lucky We Are” is a stone cold Kiwi classic and augments that sense of what a privilege it is to live here in Godzone. While the rest of the planet may seem to be overdosing on crazy pills, there really is a sense that things are OK here, that despite the odd social and cultural fractions, we really don’t know how lucky we are.
“If we were in the US, our family would be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. My parents would most likely have had to sell their home to afford the care to allow my mum to pass from this life in dignity and without undue suffering.”
I don’t want to generalise on everyone’s experience of our health system, because not every system is perfect. I know that some people fall through the cracks, some are misdiagnosed, some services in the regions could be better. What I do know is that witnessing my mum go through a terminal illness with every resource available and dealing with intelligent, caring, and dedicated professionals has been an incredibly sobering experience. I think of those in other ‘first world’ countries who do not have access to the healthcare we do, without paying substantial sums of money and being held accountable to insurance companies. If we were in the US, our family would be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. My parents would most likely have had to sell their home to afford the care to allow my mum to pass from this life in dignity and without undue suffering.
Instead we live here, where not only first rate oncology care is provided, but also on demand palliative nursing where mum is treated with respect, devotion and amazing attention. I can’t really believe that this level of care exists. I had always thought that hospices were end of life centres where the dying were cared for and made as comfortable as possible. Well, that bit is true but hospice care also extends to community palliative care where the focus is on ensuring terminal patients are accorded all the care possible to provide the best quality of life, under the circumstances.
“That makes sense to me, and I’ve learned a hell of a lot about life by witnessing my mum facing death.”
Mum being mum, she had resisted a lot of this as it has been offered, not through stubbornness, but as a coping mechanism in the face of her own mortality. That makes sense to me, and I’ve learned a hell of a lot about life by witnessing my mum facing death. She has not wanted to be a bother, or a burden, she has tried to shield us from the pain that she is going through. She’s a mum, she doesn’t want her kids to be sad, at a loss, confused and bereft. This may be an entirely new and terrifying thing for us, but we are not alone.
We have nurses, doctors, coordinators, specialists, available when we need them and they take great pains to explain to us everything that is happening, without being patronising or making us feel as if we are a burden on their time and attention. After mum was first diagnosed, she was sent a letter, detailing her condition – filled with latin terms and medical gobbledegook. It was a formality and the first of many letters, educating us about mum’s condition. The thing that got me was a handwritten note at the bottom of it, penned by the family coordinator who had met mum and dad twice. It said how very sorry she was and that she wished she had news other than this to tell them. This person deals with the dying daily, has for years and will for years to come. But her empathy and consolation meant so much to us and mum showed that letter to everyone who visited her after they found out about her illness. It meant something.
So, while we may not be perfect, we aren’t far off.