My beautiful mum passed away at 12.30am on Monday in a palliative care unit in Melbourne. Her death was not a failure of the health system, but rather the triumph of compassion and care over chaos, sparking like flint in the Covid-normal darkness of rising case numbers.
Despite hospitals being at breaking point and ambulances ramping at emergency, healthcare workers showed up to do everything they could for her, ensuring her death was peaceful.
My mum, an aged pensioner, lived her entire life for other people. Born in the early days of the second world war, she was raised by parents for whom the Great Depression was a recent and painful wound. As a bookish young woman and the youngest of three girls, she was denied the education that would have allowed her to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor. Education was wasted on women who were marriage-bound. So, she left school at 14 and trained as a telephone operator, reluctantly giving up work when pregnant with her first child.
She asked for so little in life. I am sure, had she been able to speak in her final days, she would have been content to stay in a tiny room on the fourth floor of the hospital, causing as little trouble as possible for the busy nursing staff while thanking them profusely for looking after her. But she was silent, her voice stripped away by a sudden, catastrophic stroke.
Instead, there was a miracle of sorts, which meant mum was able to spend her final 12 hours with her face tilted towards the garden, the winter sun streaming through the glass and illuminating her features in warm, golden light. Strings were expertly pulled by the palliative care team and a patient transport crew was dispatched to move her across the hospital’s sprawling car park to hospice care. She took her last breaths wrapped in a jewel-colored pashmina as Judith Durham’s voice hovered like a sea bird over the gentle harmonies of the other three members of the Seekers, lulling her into her final sleep.
Afterwards, while waiting tearfully in the corridor for mum’s body to be laid out, I spotted a small sign on the whiteboard: The whole world is short-staffed. Be kind to the ones that showed up. The sign reminded me that a healthcare system is not just the sum of its buildings, technology, infrastructure and waiting lists. It is a living, breathing thing, reliant on its own lifeblood: the care and compassion of the people who ebb and flow with quiet efficiency through the wards, corridors, kitchens and emergency departments, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
A healthcare system’s beating heart is humanity at its very core; the professionals who genuinely care about others and who chose it as a career because they wanted to make a difference. They include the paramedics, patient transport officers, nurses, doctors, orderlies, cleaners, caterers, pharmacists and even the staff just inside the door quizzing for symptoms and handing out P2 masks, taking the time to gently help my grief-stricken dad work out the straps.
It remains to be seen whether a career in healthcare will be desirable for young people after the pandemic, and will probably come down to our willingness as a society to invest in a sector struggling from chronic underfunding and staff shortages, even when we need it the most.
This current climate of science denial and abuse and finger pointing towards health staff from members of the public, patients and their families must seem like a relentless grindstone, eating away at the resolve of these remarkable people every time they clock on for a shift. Understandably, the system is haemorrhaging; they are leaving in droves.
My mum lived a good life and died a good death. It was the people in healthcare who made the last part possible, against all odds. Long after the Thank you, healthcare workers! signs and rainbow fences of 2020 have faded and the “Spoonvilles” have toppled over, composting in the park, they continue to show up. And what remains is a debt of gratitude I will never be able to repay.