We are sharing a very personal story sent to us by a reader living in Goonellabah. Staff member Janet Grist visited Dr Philip West to talk about his moving recollection of his wife Michelle’s final day.
Dr West said that a lot of people don’t realise that terrible things can happen suddenly on any day,
“And when they do happen, they come as an incredible shock and that’s what stands out for you. Your wife is fine in the morning and dead in the afternoon.
“In my case, Michelle lost consciousness so quickly that there was no time to do anything and I could not communicate in any way with her about what was happening. Had she remained conscious, at least for a little while, we could have talked to each other a bit; that would have made a big difference for me and perhaps for her too.”
Dr West went on to say he feels that it is important to talk about death and share your feelings about how much you value the person closest to you.
“I still sit back and think Michelle and I should have talked more about these things. It’s not till your wife is gone that you appreciate how much she meant to you, more than you had realised before. When she’s not there you start to understand just how much you did rely on each other.”
It started out as a normal Saturday morning. We had gone shopping. She bought a gift voucher for her daughter’s partner whose birthday was coming up. I left my boots with the cobbler to have a new set of heels. At the baker’s she bought a party pie for morning tea and I chose a sausage roll. A little before ten o’clock we were home again. We made our coffee and sat out on the balcony in a patch of winter sun to eat our bakery delights. I went off to check my emails and she to start preparing lunch.
Just before half past ten I heard her call out my name. I found her collapsed on the bed, obviously in some distress. It’s her stomach again, I thought. It often gave her trouble, but I was sure it would be better by lunch time as it always had been in the past. But, after a minute or so, I could see it was more than that. She was clutching her head and said, “Cold”. I got her a wet towel to cool it. She started to retch and said, “Bucket”. I got her that to throw up in. Now I could see it was something serious and I dialled the emergency number.
All the ambulances in our town were ‘busy’, the operator said, and it would have to come from the next town, some 30 km away. “Is the patient still breathing?” the operator asked. “Yes”, I said. “Ask her where the pain is now”, the operator said. I put the phone down and went to ask. “She can’t seem to hear me”, I said when I came back. Forty minutes it took the ambulance to reach us. That was a long, long time and I could only sit there beside her as she held her head and couldn’t seem to hear me or speak to me at all.
The para-medics knew their business. Within ten minutes they were ready to take her to the hospital. But their trolley was too large to get into the bedroom and so they rang for help to carry her out. Another ambulance arrived, this time within a few minutes, followed by a fire truck from the local fire station with six firemen ‒ more than enough help. The ambulance took her off and I hurried together a bag of clothing and toiletries that I knew she was going to need. I drove myself to the hospital.
“Do you realise how ill your wife is?” asked the nurse who let me in to the emergency ward. I didn’t, of course. And there she was, lying on a bed with various tubes coming out of her. Soon they took her off for a ‘scan’. I spent the next hour in the waiting room, waiting.
The doctor who had been attending her spoke to me when they wheeled her back. It was a massive stroke, he said. The surgeon specialists had said that nothing could be done and that, if she survived, she would have virtually no conscious brain function left. And so, just after half past five that afternoon, she died as I and one of our friends sat beside her bed in the hospital ward. I think she had known and felt nothing after about an hour from the onset of the stroke.
I’ve always been a realist and I know that these things happen. It’s not been six months yet and no doubt time will do its work and it will get better for me. But, for now, she occupies my mind every waking hour. It wasn’t quite like that before. I’d often spend the day on work or some project or other and think of her only when our paths crossed from time to time during the day.
Two things I’ve had to live with most of all. The first is that it was so totally and utterly unexpected. What had started out as a normal Saturday morning, with a normal healthy wife, ended up as a complete disaster. And secondly, after 34 years of marriage, there had been no chance to say any sort of goodbye or to give her even a little comfort by holding her hand. It will always be with me that her last two words to me were nothing more than “Cold” and “Bucket”.
In her retirement she had been studying Latin. Her text books and exercise books were lying open on her desk where she had been last using them. I bit the bullet a little while ago and tidied them away. But I left her text book open at the spot she had left off, so it would be ready for her when she comes back ‒ pathetic I know, but I felt better for it.
If this story has brought up difficult feelings for you, please get in touch with one of these organisations:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Beyond Blue on 1300 24 636
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 987