WHEN Anita Pickett's late husband was nearing the end of his cancer battle, she knew palliative care was nigh.
She contacted the Mercy Health team in Albury and Gordon Godbolt was moved to the unit.
He was already under the care of their nurses and they too knew he didn't have long to live.
Not unexpectedly, Gordon passed away within a week.
Quite unexpectedly, however, what was what happened next for Mrs Pickett nine years ago.
Having only settled in Lavington two-and-a-half years before Gordon, a Hereford cattle stud groom, was diagnosed with cancer, Mrs Pickett was mourning the loss of her husband of 38 years and the life they had mapped out together on the Border.
She says once the funeral was over and life went on all around her, she felt adrift in a strange place.
"A few weeks afterwards, I got a call from Mercy's grief and loss counsellor to see if I wanted to join a walking group," she recalls.
"I wanted to stick my head under the pillow and not come out, but off I went, really dragging my heels.
"It was literally minutes before I realised, I wasn't on my own any more."
Still too bereft to open her mouth for about six weeks, Mrs Pickett found her port in a storm in that walking group.
Hitting the back tracks and cycle paths around Albury they would: Walk, talk, laugh, cry, drink coffee. Repeat.
"That was my saviour," Mrs Pickett says.
"I did 12 months and met other people; it makes you come back to life again."
Training as a volunteer at Mercy Health palliative care, Mrs Pickett first became a facilitator with the women's bereavement group - Marigold Ladies - six years ago.
They provide a safe place once a fortnight for women to talk about loss and life.
"You don't realise, until it happens to you, how deep grief can be," Mrs Pickett says.
"You think all of these strange thoughts and you have emotional upheaval that can be triggered by sounds or smells or a memory.
"Simply sitting together with other people who are in the same boat can be a nice, comfortable place to be.
"Going through the dying experience (with a loved one) is quite surreal.
"The beauty of these groups is that you're surrounded by others who have been through it too."
A few weeks afterwards, I got a call from Mercy's grief and loss counsellor to see if I wanted to join a walking group. I wanted to stick my head under the pillow and not come out, but off I went, really dragging my heels. It was literally minutes before I realised, I wasn't on my own any more.- MERCY HEALTH VOLUNTEER ANITA PICKETT
Mercy Health palliative care loss and grief support worker Michelle Enright explains that part of her role is to help people speak more comfortably about death and dying.
With a background as a counsellor, Ms Enright says typically Australians struggle to talk about end of life matters and to articulate difficult emotions associated with it.
"Helping people understand that death is part of life is vital; if we can normalise grief - that it's part of life - then we can deal with it," she says.
"Shielding people from adversity is not going to help them grow and develop resilience."
Ms Enright says the tide is turning as Australians have become exposed to more trauma recently in light of the Summer Bushfire Crisis 2019-2020 and the global pandemic.
"These different experiences in our country have given voice to people's resilience and ability to keep going despite the tragedy and the trauma," she says.
Having worked at Mercy Health for the past 13 years, Ms Enright sees her role as a privilege.
She says it's important patients' feelings are heard and validated and that families are supported too.
"I try to tap into someone's strengths; they need to have the self-belief that they can go forward and live a meaningful life after the loss of a loved one," she says.
"I've seen a lot of healing happen here too.
"Sometimes someone who has been estranged from their family meets up with them again here and with a softening in their hearts there can be reconciliation.
"Some people say a good death is when the wishes or desires of the person have been met in where they die, who is with them and that their pain is under control."
Mercy Health Albury has run a 10-bed inpatient palliative care service in Poole Street since the mid-1980s; it was the first dedicated community palliative care service in Albury.
Palliative care includes a range of services that support people with advanced disease when cure is no longer possible.
Mercy's mission is to give each person the best quality of life possible - physically, personally, socially and spiritually.
Mercy Health Albury nurse unit manager Sarah Docherty says there is a misconception that palliative care relates entirely to end of life.
Ms Docherty says it also supports people to live well when they have a life-limiting condition.
She says they have 100 community registered patients at any given time.
"Someone might live with an illness for many years or months, which means they're experiencing pain and other symptoms like breathlessness," she explains.
"Some people may come to the palliative care unit for only a few days or a month.
"For example, people with a cancer diagnosis, motor neuron disease, end-stage disease in lungs, kidneys or liver failure; any life-limiting illness can classify as a palliative care condition."
Ms Docherty says the NSW Health-funded inpatient ward and community service have evolved over almost four decades to meet best practice.
It has grown from two or three nurses working out of a single office to four specialist palliative care nurses.
It also employs a grief and loss counsellor, support co-ordinator, occupational therapist, volunteers and an inpatient team, which consists of many registered and enrolled nurses, occupational therapist, physiotherapist, social worker, dietician, administration and nurse unit manager.
Ms Docherty says the global pandemic has been challenging across the board but particularly in the healthcare sector.
"We have 40 community volunteers at the moment," Ms Docherty says.
"We've had up to 70 volunteers in the past, pre-pandemic; now we can focus on getting that back up and running."
Ms Docherty says among other welcome changes for the service in recent years is an in-house physician.
She says two years ago they got their first palliative care specialist doctor who worked in the building, admitted patients to the ward and consulted with those in the community.
"That has helped us further home in that quality of service," she says.
Marking her first-year anniversary at Mercy Health this week, palliative care doctor Alison Lam says specialising in the field became a natural choice for her early in her career.
Her interest in palliative care sparked as a medical student.
"It was one of the rotations I was doing in my training and after being away from the patients for a couple of days, I was always really looking forward to going back to see how they were doing," Dr Lam says.
"It was great to get to know the patients and the families as people and not just be treating them as patients."
Dr Lam says the Mercy has a long and proud tradition of looking after the vulnerable on the Border community.
Together with their Albury Wodonga Health colleagues, Dr Lam says they aim to offer quality palliative care.
"I'm blessed and privileged to work in this role," Dr Lam says.
"A lot of people think palliative care is a very sad field but death is part of life.
"It's also about helping to maximise the quality of life people have until the end.
"It's a privilege to be let into people's lives at a very delicate time for them."
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