It was the spring of 1989 when my husband, David, was told by his surgeon to “go fishing.” Having been diagnosed with bowel cancer in 1986 and having spent three years with ongoing sur¬gery and various treatments, we now had to prepare for the next phase of our time together.
We had a property in the mid-north of South Australia, where we cropped and ran sheep and cattle. Our daugh¬ters, Sally, Mary-Jane, and Sarah, helped on the property during the holidays and exeats, or time off, from boarding school. David’s surgeon referred us to Joy Nugent, private palliative care services, to assist us in the best way to move forward with comfort and confidence. We were quite taken aback with Joy’s words, “Aren’t you lucky to have cancer?” As time elapsed, it became clear what she meant.
We had time to plan what we needed to do to prepare for the amount of precious time we had together as a family. It was not possible for David to receive the care he needed and tend to our beloved property. We leased a town house and Joy and her team arrived to assist us through this time. Recovery from cancer was not an option for David, but removing fear and fostering realistic hope were options. Throughout this time David organized the sale of our property and farm equipment.
David’s decision not to seek further active treatment was taken after a rather uncomfortable night when urinary func¬tion ceased. The peaceful atmosphere of a bedroom over¬looking Aldinga Beach helped David and me to switch from the fight to beat cancer to dying well. David’s peacefulness and courage came from the support of his family and friends.
David’s room was seldom empty; there always seemed to be happy, teasing, satisfying reminiscences from all the facets of his life. The home environment made this possible. A minister visited and thought he was at the wrong house, as he could hear laughter coming from within. David, myself, and the girls received communion together.
We were always encouraged to participate in the nurs¬ing care. I will always remember one of my brothers trying to hold his nose as well as the basin of water while Joy changed the drainage bag that collected the strong smell¬ing discharge from David’s abdominal fistula.
The time from deciding to refuse further interventions to death was a week. David’s palliative care doctor visited our leased Adelaide home. In that week David had eighty visi¬tors.
David’s death seemed timely. He indicated that he was comfortable and did not wish to hasten his death. He ap¬peared to be waiting for his last visitor, who was a young
farm hand he had helped. In his last moments, I whispered in his ear that it was time to go to join his mother for the Sunday roast (she died fifteen years before David). His final words to me were, “Keep on smiling!”
All the family was present when David quietly stopped breathing. Everyone who could fit in the room joined hands and said the Lord’s Prayer before David was prepared for the funeral director. Sarah, his youngest daughter, took off her friendship bracelet of many years to tie around David’s wrist. David, aged forty-nine, died in character and by his example took away the fear of dying for all those who were privileged to be with him during his last week.
Joy’s care did not stop with David’s death. She was there to help us plan the funeral and to choose readings for each of his daughters to read at his funeral service. At the funeral, a close friend who was to sing “The Rose” arrived in shorts, which was so symbolic of David’s preferred dress. “Joy to the world” is what Joy has become to our family and a strong bond remains until this day.
About the Author
Joy Nugent completed her four-year hospital-based training at the Royal Brisbane and Princess Alexandra Hospitals before nursing in Canada at St Joseph’s Hospital in Toronto. She completed part one of midwifery training at the Simpson Memorial Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland, before private nursing in London. For thirty years she was a wife and mother to four children as well as working in her husband’s orthodontic practice. Her midlife crisis came at age forty-eight when she completed a refresher course at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and returned to nursing—her “unfinished business.”
She writes that over the three decades of nursing people at the time of death it has been impossible for her not to question what comes next. Removing fear at the time of death has been a priority for Joy. She shares that she believes there is life in some energetic form after death. Indeed, one elderly man who had been a mechanic, replied in a hoarse voice to this statement with; “There better be!” For Joy the Cosmic Christ is the Divine Presence pervading all of creation.
When Joy first began her career as a private palliative care nurse in 1987 she was asked to care for an elderly woman suffering from cancer. This woman was welcoming her death although she said that her family would be upset. She had given her life to the selfless deed of translating books into braille and raising another woman’s children as her own. Joy stayed with her for several nights until another referral called her away. When the dying woman was told of Joy’s last night with her she said; “It’s alright Joy we have met many times before and we will meet again.” Joy replied that Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross said that the wisest people on earth are those who are dying and know it. Her comment in a steady calm voice was: “I think she may be right.”
From that time Joy has been searching to make sense of the big questions in life. Why am I here? Is there life after death? When energy leaves the body after death what happens to it? Her journeying has taken her to study Eastern & Western traditions and philosophies. In 2013 she showed a copy of the book Proof of Heaven written by an American neuroscientist Dr Eben Alexander to a man who was coming to the end of his life. He surprised everyone by dying unexpectedly and peacefully a day later. This doctor’s word, to Joy’s mind, replaced fear with curiosity. The mystery of consciousness gained Joy’s attention in earnest.
In her early nurse practice Joy spoke to many people who had experienced near death experiences (NDEs). She particularly remembered one woman who told her of the accidental death of her eighteen year old son. It had been a shattering loss until she saw her son’s dog swimming lengths in her swimming pool. The dog hated water and wouldn’t go near the pool and yet here it was giving this mother a sign that her son was fine and doing lengths in another dimension. Florence Nightingale wrote in Suggestions for Thought that she believed our life purpose is to come from imperfection to perfection and that it needed more than one lifetime to do so. She also wrote that this realm is a reflection of a greater reality as suggested in the allegory of Plato’s Cave. Joy noted that Nightingale had studied Classical Greek and had translated Plato.
Joy noted that reincarnation was a common belief in Nightingale’s lifetime (1820 -1910). For example, Max Muller (1823 – 1900), a founder of Comparative Religious studies who lived and studied in Britain for most of his life, introduced concepts of reincarnation by means of his translations of Indian scriptures and wrote:
I cannot help thinking that the souls towards whom we feel drawn in this life are the very souls whom we knew and loved in the former life, and the souls who repel us here but we do not know why, are souls that earned our disapproval, the souls from whom we kept aloof in a former life.
Like Nightingale Joy prizes freedom of thought and sees it as a privilege for oneself and a quality to respect in others.
For eighteen months, Joy worked part-time at the Mary Potter Hospice in North Adelaide. She was so inspired by this work that she helped to found the Mary Potter Foundation. On the tenth anniversary of the foundation, Sister Christina from the Little Co