In the last week, two people  told me that they can’t read our blog anymore as it makes them too sad, but I am convinced that as humans, we have the complex capacity to carry both joy and sorrow at the same time. Therefore, I apologise in advance that this is again not a candy-floss blog. Today, I am writing with a heart which is cracked wide open after a beloved patient died, but that same bruised heart is filled with gratitude as I got to have a front row seat as her last year of life unfolded in front of my eyes. We were dragged right to the edge of the cliff to watch her fight off death for exactly 365 days. We witnessed her bravery and humour and experienced firsthand how she loved, and how she was loved. Her name was Jean. She was known as the come-back queen as she cheated death so many times, we lost count.

 

Let me start at the beginning.

 

Have you ever wanted to go back in time so that you could tell yourself that this moment, this very second, is when your life would change course? In June 2020 I had such a moment. It was the day I met Jean’s daughter, Clare. Picture this: it is 2020, the world has stopped and is showing no signs of reawakening. We had two guest houses with 42 rooms and no guests. For weeks, I had been talking to the hospitals about offering our rooms to them, expecting them to be bursting out the seams with bodies piling up in the parking lots like it did in Italy and Spain. But, if you remember correctly, South Africa’s first COVID episode was less a wave and more like a wavelet, and no patients were ever turned away and none of the COVID emergency tents were ever really put to use. And so, the hospital patients never came to me, but they did go to the hospitals, and there, a lot of the Netcare staff got sick, very sick, but not sick enough to be admitted.

 

In this chaotic time, the super-efficient Clare, headed up HR at Netcare Sunninghill and gave me a call. She was on the team with many other HR managers looking after their staff nationwide, making sure they were cared for and able to isolate. Clare phoned me on a chilly June morning and asked if she could come and see me. She arrived, dressed in a space suit and so organised that if she were on Putin’s team, he would already have won the war. She wanted us to open our rooms for sick Netcare staff and she wanted it done that day. She had a list of exactly what we would need (hasmut suits, masks, screens, gloves, specific menu’s, specification about how laundry was to be handled and a precise budget… and she wanted it all to be done within six hours when the first 9 of her 42 patients would arrive).

 

We didn’t have time to think about it or analyse the pros and cons. We knew we wanted to help, and maybe, I was a bit too scared to say no to Clare. She might be beautiful and dainty, but boy, I would not ever want to take her on in a boardroom. We jumped into action, bought enough PPE to kill the ozone layer forever, got rooms ready, brought staff back from furlough and dressed them up, did training, and by that early evening, we opened our gates as one ambulance after another started dropping off sick, scared people.

 

That is how we rolled through the rest of the Winter and into early Spring. Our staff were amazing. Not one of us got sick and we all realised that we didn’t just love caring, we were really good at it. Netcare staff that were staying in clinical environments were not doing as well as the ones staying with us. Despite the masks and screens, we made the people feel safe, managed their fears, communicated to their loved ones. It seemed, that in the desperation of COVID times we found our purpose, and by the September we decided to change our entire business model and focus solely on care, recovery and medical guests.

 

If you read this blog regularly, you know the rest of the story. We renovated rooms, went for months of training, built new relationships and enhanced ones we had been building for two decades, and voila! – the Recovery Lodge was born.

 

Just because sometimes God messes with us and shows off with His perfect timing, the Recovery lodge’s birth coincided with my dad needing care. We never anticipated doing his end-of-life care, but we did, and it was the biggest privilege of my life. To honour him, we have kept the care we give our end-of-life patients to his standards, caring for all our guests like as though they are our own parents and loved-ones, and somehow that combination of genuine love and compassion, humour, flexibility and kindness became our trademark, and more and more people wanted their parents or loved ones to come and have a dignified final journey.

 

Clare and I stayed in contact after all her patients had left, and we would often bump in to each other at the hospital. She phoned one morning and said her mom was sick and would need end of life care… but for now, she was very much alive. A few months later she phoned again and said her mom was back in ICU and asked if I would go and see her? And so, my friendship with Jean started. I was surprised to meet a good-looking, vibrant woman in ICU with a blade sharp wit and twinkling eyes. She looked a hundred times better than everyone else in the ward! We agreed that she would not go home upon discharge, but that she would come to SRL for two weeks first… two weeks MAXIMUM she said wagging her finger with a perfectly painted nail.

 

She arrived and loved her room, loved her view and within a week she agreed that she would stay the winter, and go home in the spring. For her birthday, her three daughters arranged for one of our carers, who adored Jean, to go along on safari and Jean celebrated her birthday in the bush, with her beloved daughters. She settled into a rhythm with us: she had good days, great days and really tough days. Her friends came regularly, there were special outings and every day, every single day, Clare came. Jean’s room was always filled with fresh flowers. She was always beautifully dressed (even her pj’s were lovely), her nails manicured and her hair done. She became part of our family and although it took her a little while, she decided to stay with us for the rest of her life. No one could ever predict how long she had left, which made every day a fragile gift to be cherished.

 

The last months were brutal at times. I have never seen a person fight back a disease with so much vigour. She loved her daughters and life so much that she simply never wanted to give up. We laughed with her as she kept returning from the jaws of death. We were amazed that she just kept on going, and her doctors were even more surprised. Her one year anniversary approached. We were all so grateful in the beginning that she survived the first two weeks, then winter, then spring, then a beautiful Christmas, and then the start of winter. We planned a tiny celebration for the big anniversary day with her daughters… 365 days of victory. She made the anniversary, but did not live long enough for the celebration planned for later that afternoon.

 

I’m not really able to unpack the last months in this blog and organise my thoughts around it. Maybe later I will get a better grip on the process and on our collective grief. For now, the loss of her presence in our lives is sitting so heavily on me that I cannot look it directly in the eye. I want to laugh with her again about how bizarre it was how this journey started with Clare and I meeting across a table with our hazmat suits on… and now, three years later, without either of us ever being able to envision it, we gave both our parents beautiful dignified final journeys and we will forever hold a friendship built on this beautiful thing we created.