My walk with Christie

short-story-thumbsIt was September 1998 and a beautiful day in Sydney. The sun was shining and it seemed a perfect day to be singing at a wedding. Nothing out of the ordinary about this wedding. Lovely back drop of Sydney Harbour Bridge. The Bride and Groom were very happy. I didn’t know either of them but the bride was a nurse. I knew of her but had never worked with her. Little did I know how this wedding would come to touch me further down the track in my career.

Simon and Christie were both in their 30’s. They had met whilst travelling overseas. It was love at first sight according to the groom. She eventually came around. A match made in heaven, so the family were told.

Fast forward to September 2007. I was in the middle of a 3 month contract to Far North Queensland. My phone rang one day. It was my friend Anne, who had accompanied Catherine and I during the duet we sang for the signing of the register at Simon and Christie’s wedding.

Anne was a friend of the groom’s family. She asked me if I remembered that wedding. I did indeed. The duet we sang was an unusual piece to sing but was very well received. Challenging to sing as well, being completely in French and it pushed us to the upper echelon of our soprano range. Anne said she had some sad news. The bride, Christie, had been diagnosed with a brain tumour and was being palliated in a private hospital in Sydney. She was not expected to live more than a few months. The groom had requested the wedding music to be sung again at the funeral. I duly agreed but with the uncertainty of life expectancy, quietly hoped I would be back in Sydney at the right time.

I returned to Sydney in December 2007. Feeling quite pleased that I had secured a 3 month contract in palliative care at a local hospital, I duly appeared for my first shift. I made myself a cup of coffee and sat down ready for handover. What I didn’t expect was that listed amongst my allocated group of patients, was Christie. She had just been transferred a couple of days before from another hospital. I was unaware she had been moved. It was a very strange feeling knowing that I was on standby to sing at her funeral.

Over the next couple of weeks Christie’s condition slowly began to deteriorate. After a few days I re-introduced myself to Simon as one of those involved in the music at his wedding. He thought he recognized me but wasn’t sure. I wondered how he would react to me but he seemed very pleased and wanted to talk about the day that changed his life. It was important for him to remember that day. His eyes lit up when he recalled that day. He remembered the music very well and as a result of that, wanted it repeated at the funeral. I could see the compromise in his face and the hesitancy in his voice. He knew the end was nigh but at the same time still held out hope, particularly for little Sophie, their 6 year old daughter.

Over the next couple of weeks Christie‘s condition slowly deteriorated. She fell in and out of reality. Simon was desperate for her to live until Christmas and so the challenges of comfort care versus the refusal on Simon’s part to give up began. Death was never discussed. Christie’s parents were deeply troubled by the prospect of losing their child. Children do not die before their parents.

It was a Wednesday. I remember the day of the week well as it was my choir practice night and as I had to drive to the city, I usually stayed at work for another couple of hours, or went shopping. This particular day, I got changed out of my uniform and went and sat with Christie as she had no visitors at this time. I chatted to her. I had never really spoken to her outside the realm of my duties as a nurse, but as she was gently drifting in and out of reality, I asked her if she knew who I was. She did. I asked if she remembered me singing at her wedding. She did. Nothing more of that day was mentioned.

We sat quietly for the next hour and I held her hand. I noticed some oil on her locker so I started gently massaging her hands. Her eyes were closed but she seemed content that someone, even me, was sitting with her. The conversation that followed was not planned. But it felt right and so I found myself reassuring her that her husband and daughter would be OK. I felt this overwhelming sense of her struggle with life and death. She knew Simon wanted her to hang on until Christmas, for the sake of Sophie. At the same time though, she knew her fate. No words were spoken from this time on. What followed was a strangely intimate and special moment. I recalled the time in my father’s hospital chaplaincy work, when he had been called on to anoint the sick and dying. I had not done this before, and indeed haven’t since, but I picked up the bottle of oil, placed a little on my finger and very gently placed a small cross on her forehead. No verbal prayer was muttered. The air was calm. I felt connected with Christie and so honoured to be sharing this most precious moment in her life. Moments later, her breathing changed. I called for the Registered Nurse looking after Christie and asked for her to be reviewed. It was not my call to request breakthrough medication. I was off duty. He returned shortly and administered medication to aid her comfort and breathing. Her parents arrived and I took my leave to drive into the city.

At approximately 8:15pm I was driving home over the Harbour Bridge. I was reminded of the day Christie was married as the Bridge provided the perfect back drop that day. As I glanced over to the right and marvelled at the view of the Opera House so brilliantly lit, I knew at that moment she had died. A sense of finality to my walk with Christie.

On my return to work the next morning, I was informed that Christie had passed away at the same time I was driving over the Harbour Bridge. I remembered the lights from the Opera House. Thank you Christie.

I did not know Christie very well. We had only met at her wedding and again in hospital. But we shared two major events in her life in a most precious and special way. No words can ever describe what an enormous privilege it is to be able to be a part of our patient’s lives in these ways.

At the funeral, Simon spoke of angels singing at his wedding. As a confessed non-believer, he spoke of one of these angels being given the special job of seeing over his wife’s end of life care. What a privilege this profession is. For we are not only able to touch the lives of those patients and families for whom we care, but they also have this incredible ability to touch ours.

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