Denise lived

Imagine as the father of Denise Duvall (Denise had a fatal accident on 2 Dec 1967) being asked the question no parent would like to be asked, “Do you give your permission for the medical team to use parts of your daughter’s body to save other lives?” What would you answer? Fortunately, for the family of Louis Washkansky, the answer was, “Yes, go ahead. Thus, along with his brother Marius, Dr Christian Barnard performed the world’s first successful heart transplant.

The operation was risky, yet Barnard was confident he could pull it off, and he reckoned there was an 80% chance of success. In the following days the patient was sitting up in bed and confidently discussing his post operational life happy he had taken this last chance at life. Eighteen days later he lay dead, having died from pneumonia.

His operation was controversial because the first heart transplant in 1964 to Boyd Rush, by Dr James Hardy was unsuccessful. Barnard was deemed by many to be taking a God like responsibility. It was a job for which no man was qualified to undertake according to his critics.

Through those same years my father was weakened by heart trouble that initially had him hospitalised for eleven weeks. His doctor was doing as his training dictated he do years before. From his experience rest was considered the best remedy for a stressed heart. Thank goodness Barnard stuck to his course because heart operations are now routine. Just as my sister-in-law recovers from open heart surgery all the evidence says the worst has passed. She was expected to walk the day after having four bypasses, and a pig’s heart valve, all parts were used to regenerate her heart.

In her case her troubles were genetic. A direct line of family members had each met their sudden deaths with similar problems. In other families different genetics have been responsible for a catalogue of different ailments with fatal consequences. It is just as well a fortunate few are in a position to benefit from medical science advancements. It gives us hope.

The lesson is, life is unpredictable. Birth itself is not without risk for the mother or the child. Too often, for a nation with excellent health facilities, a mother – or a child- will die in confinement. These unexpected deaths are awful, and many families never get over the loss. Fortunately we are beyond the period when most parents would make sure the family would continue breeding by having an heir and a spare. Or the terrible periods when infancy was unsure and the next child would carry forward the name of the dead sister, or brother.

As a young person death was unreal to you. You were about nine, and a troubled young lad of about seven went missing one evening. His body was found in the local swimming pool the next day. He had managed to squeeze under the gate after hours and drowned by misadventure. His death was certainly a loss to his grieving family – yet in the wider community, where it was considered sad, it was also assessed as being a fortunate release for them. It spared them the worry of his unsettled future behaviour.

Next, at about age thirteen, a boy of sixteen was killed by a car as he crossed the road. Not long after that the brother of one of your friends was killed when he was thrown from his motor bike. His leather helmet was no protection from the force of his body hitting the road. Motor accidents are cruel. One minute Clare was part of your community. The next she was gone and a gap was left in your life where she once lived.

Having lived to your thirties you saw disease took many of your loved ones. As you aged you became aware life was terminal. Many people you knew suffered with pain and disability. Some you didn’t know, but nevertheless they still they left you to feel genuine grief from the stories you heard about their brief lives.

In time you learnt a visit to a cemetery becomes a sobering reminder of how fickle life is. Especially when you pause and read the brief inscription on this headstone, or that one there. It does your head in to realise a life of any age can end in death. This is why I write today. On the weekend I was talking to Seamus. He is a tutor on – how to die.

He is a man approaching fifty. He is dying from a form of cancer. He has become quite matter of fact about his future. He says, “We all must die”. “I have cancer.” When I was given the diagnosis, I asked, “Why not me – instead of – why me? His treatment, he claims, has not caused him any bother. Having finished fifteen weeks of treatment he now has to wait two months for the doctors to reassess whether the treatment has worked. He says that despite being on benefits he will go back to work. “If two month from now the doctors tell me I am ok I will not have wasted two months. If they discover the treatment has not worked, I will have not wasted two months.” These answers are more than stoicism. He genuinely believes life is best lived – by living as best you can each day. In his conversation he followed up by saying, “We only have so much time and we should make the best of it.”

This much I agree. If we become sick our medicos may have the scientific knowledge to make us better. Or they might not. We will die. We could be hit by a tree branch just as we pass beneath it. Just as my paternal grandfather died over a century ago. Either way, living and dying is a gift. We had better get used to that.

Death can be beautiful.

Iris died looking at pictures of beautiful plants she admired, rolling on a screen, while she listened to the music of her choice. She knew she was dying. We gathered because we knew we were spending our last day with her. It was a lovely death.

Asking your friends to support your posted prepared message is wrong.

Two or three times a week someone will post a letter that makes you pause and think. The message usually says something like the following. “If you know someone with —— (fill in the disease. The messages are nearly all alike) Will you share this message with your friends as a sign you love them?” Or they might ask you to post back to them. They want to know you will do it if you love them because most people won’t.

I am one of those people who do not do as you asked. I do this because while I agree with the motherhood statement. I have no idea where the message started, or who might be collecting our names, just because the message is touching it is not enough to help others because they might have awful motives.

Do not mistrust your friends. They will love you unto death.