10 minutes with Bernadette Gallagher
After the death of her husband Noel, Bernadette Gallagher started working as a volunteer to support patients receiving palliative care and their families. Recently awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM), she gives a moving insight into the impact Noel’s death had on their four young children, and how that experience equipped her to support others.
Congratulations on making it to this year’s Queens Birthday Honours list, Bernadette. What made you want to focus your volunteering on palliative care?
In 1988 my husband Noel was diagnosed with cancer and he died six months later. Our four girls were aged nine, eight, seven and five, at the time. I’d pick them up from school and bring them to Eversleigh Hospital in Marrickville, Sydney, where Noel was receiving palliative care.
Back then I didn’t really know what palliative care was. It was explained to me as being pain management, and that was it. But now I realise it is about controlling other symptoms and providing personal support to patients and their family as well.
I gave up work when Noel was sick. Then, after Noel died, I decided to do something while the girls were at school. I went back to Eversleigh Hospital and started visiting patients and having a chat, taking them for appointments and sometimes helping the nurses. I used to call in and do a couple of hours every day. It was good therapy for me. I got a lot out of it. It helped me to cope with my situation. And I did a six-week volunteer training program which I really enjoyed.
About two years after Noel died I got a big feeling of satisfaction being able to support the family of a young man who was dying. They had three young children. Having been through it myself, I really could put myself in her shoes. I said come for a cup of coffee and she just cried. I told her my story and she had lots of questions about what I’d told the children when Noel was dying.
What did you tell them?
I just got them all together on the lounge room floor. I said Daddy is very sick and may not come home. He is going to the angels.
My eldest daughter said “I’m glad you had this talk with us because the phone here at home was ringing so often and we didn’t know what was happening”.
How did your children cope with their father’s death?
They accepted it and they were marvellous at the funeral. They coped really well. As a precaution we saw a counsellor, but she saw them drawing and said they didn’t need counselling. Obviously, it was incredibly sad for us all and a big adjustment.
A few years after my husband died, my eight-year daughter drew a picture of the two of them sitting on a bench, between two trees, and she wrote this little story, called ‘Who I would like to spend a day with’.
“I would like to spend a day with my Dad because he is dead and I have not seen him for two-and-a-half years. I would really like to see him.
“First I would have breakfast with him and give him a wonderful meal. Then I would take him to where ever he wanted to go. That would probably be the golf course.
“Then I would get all my money out of the bank and take all my spending money and take him to the most expensive restaurant I know of. Then I would go to the park and sit down and talk with him. Then we would feed the birds and I would give him the biggest hug I have ever given anyone. When he goes I will be happy about the day I gave him. He is the only famous person I know in my life.”
My daughter is in her thirties now.
People often say they don’t know how I did it, raising four girls on my own, but I just carried on with a normal routine and they have all done very well for themselves now.
What do you spend most of your time doing as a volunteer?
Really, it’s just talking to people. If someone is feeling down and depressed, the main thing is to talk to that person.
We have barbeques every so often for those patients who are able to attend, but it’s the relatives who need the comfort more than anything. For a lot of relatives it is all gloom and doom if someone is dying. I try to comment on different things from the outside and they like to hear that.
I don’t give them sympathy – I give them empathy. I try to be as normal as possible, and have a little laugh here and there. But I can tell when someone doesn’t want to be bothered and I say I’ll come back later.
Sometimes I take the jolly trolley around. It has gin, scotch and vodka -- all the spirits on it – as well as soft drinks, chips, lollies and magazines. Often a very sick person will want a scotch or a gin and tonic and the doctor says they can.
It’s good to have time to talk to the patients because the nurses are so busy they often don’t have time. The nurses really appreciate volunteers and they are especially lovely to work with. So are the cleaners. We are all like one big team.
I really enjoy it. I’ve been doing it for more than 20 years now. But I’m a very young seventy-three. I’m a recycled teenager, actually.
Where have you worked over those 20 years?
When Eversleigh closed down I started at a new palliative care unit at Concord Repatriation General Hospital. Of the 12 volunteers at Everleigh, I was the only one who kept going. Then, while a beautiful new 20-bed palliative care facility was being built here at Concord, we moved to Canterbury Hospital for a while for a few years.
Back at Concord I found there was a lot of need for spiritual support for people who were dying and so I ended up doing pastoral work, helping a priest, as well as visiting people in palliative care. Now I do one day a week for palliative care, a day escorting patients around the hospital to appointments and another day providing pastoral visits.
I’ve done thousands of hours over the years. I can’t begin to count. But it is very rewarding indeed, and we have a good volunteer coordinator.
How did you react when you learned you’d been awarded an OAM?
I was having one of those days where everything was going wrong, and then I got the letter in the post to say I had been nominated. I couldn’t believe it; me, getting an OAM.
I thought, after all these years of work, I’ve been rewarded. I really didn’t expect anything, but it was a real thrill for me.