I Am Living

Gail O’Brien AO

I read journalist Leigh Sales’ book, Any Ordinary Day, in 2022. Through the book Sales recounts stories of people whose lives are turned upside down by tragedy on a day that starts like any other. With the question begging, what happens the day after…and the day after that…?

The truth is, we are all beset by crises of varying degrees of gravity. A journey travelled alone is made by many.

An “Ordinary Day” which has had a massive impact on my life, was 25 November 2006.

My husband and I were planning dinner that night with friends and were also expecting the arrival of about 20 excited 16-year-old boys and girls to gather before the year 11 semi formal.

Instead that day, my husband Chris O’Brien was diagnosed with a brain tumour and given six months to live. A world-renowned cancer surgeon at the height of his career, he had become a household name through the channel 9 reality TV programme RPA and was seen by the community as a very down to earth, caring and compassionate doctor.

Over the next two and half years, Chris squeezed out every drop from the life he had left. He used his unique position as a high-profile cancer surgeon who was dying of the disease himself, to campaign tirelessly for better cancer care in Australia. He sought to capture the nation’s imagination on how we could do better in fighting a disease which affects tens of thousands of Australians each year.

Another “Ordinary Day” came on 30 April 2011 when my eldest son, Adam, in his 20s and on the brink of his career, suffered an inexplicable seizure in his sleep. He was a strong, strapping young man. But the seizure took his life. We say it was epilepsy, but the cause was ambivalent. I had never heard of SUDEP before, an acronym for Sudden Unexplained Death in Epilepsy, which affects young people, teenagers and young adults. I think he died from a broken heart.

The natural human response to catastrophe is to absorb the impact of the worst news, and then to begin searching immediately for whatever good news can be found in the wreckage. In the context of a cancer diagnosis, there are glimmers of light on an otherwise dark horizon. In the context of sudden death, it’s ground zero. An abyss, seemingly without end.

I’m not telling you all of this as a story of grief — though it certainly is that.

Neither is it a story of misery, of giving up, or falling down — even though there were days I almost did.

Rather, I want to tell you about what I gained, what I learnt, as well as what I longed for as I walked in this new world. Because I have found that the passage towards the end of life CAN be a tender and enriching experience.

For the past five years I have had the privilege of being an advisor to the I Am Living initiative, which encourages people to have open and honest conversations about death and dying, especially as they approach the end of their life.

Conversations about death and dying aren’t usually top of mind. They can be easy to avoid, especially when we lead such busy lives and feel as though time is not in our control. Adam’s passing was inconceivable, it’s no wonder talking about death wasn’t on our radar. His death taught me that time is a gift. Time offers glimmers of light.

In the situation that Chris and I found ourselves, where it was clear time was finite, conversations didn’t always come easy. It took patience, understanding, persistence and trust. But I’m so glad now that I have those memories. The conversations we had together were powerful, they gave us moments of connection, meaning and hope. In fact, Chris’ passionate advocacy was a conversation with the nation.

In western culture, there is a need to normalise death and reduce fear by talking more openly about this part of life which will come to us all in time. Whether that be conversations with our loved ones about our wishes at end-of-life, or sharing our end-of-life experiences with others, like 11 people who have shared their stories as part of the I Am Living campaign.

I live Chris’ story every day in my work with those who are dying. I am grateful that the authenticity of Chris’ and my experience brings an element of trust and comfort to many people who themselves, once woke up to “Any Ordinary Day”.

About: Gail O’Brien is the wife of late celebrated cancer surgeon, Professor Chris O’Brien AO, and the mother of three children—Adam, Juliette and James. A health professional of 40 years, Gail is also a board member and patient advocate with Chris O’Brien Lifehouse and advisor to the I Am Living initiative.