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  • lisa phelan

A Personal Pandemic

It has been extraordinary to witness the transition from living without fear to living with fear in a very short space of time. Our consciousness would never have contemplated such a shift or imagined such an existence. The previous coronavirus episodes in Asia had always caught our attention but always seemed too far removed to really change our thinking here in Australia. In fact, we would casually question ‘What’s with the masks?'

It began as a wave in Wuhan that again seemed scary but far off. Quickly it caught our breath as it spread to Europe then the US. We desperately hoped that as an island we might not bare the full brunt of it here in Australia. Yet our hopes were dashed decisively when it landed in March 2020.

The week beginning 16th March ’20 is one that I will never forget. It tested my strength and resolve and fear coursed through every vein in my body. Our youngest daughter Talia was living and working in New York as an interior designer for the Rockwell Group. I had enormous admiration and respect for her ability to secure the job before she left Australia and to set off with her best friend to experience the world with no contacts or place to live. It was challenging but exhilarating for her. Finding an apartment, negotiating the rental, employment, tax and health systems that did not favour the individual was excruciatingly hard work. But she did it, landed on her feet and was making a life for herself.

Back in Melbourne the media was streaming terrible scenes of sickness and death that the pandemic was wreaking on NYC. The deaths each day across the continent were in the thousands, infections were out of control and the US was struggling to come to terms with such a force of destruction. We listened with horror as Central Park became a morgue with refrigerated trucks parked in long lines around its perimeters. Their systems were failing. Those that had family or friends outside of the city were fleeing to other states or rural areas to try and outrun the virus. Talia was living with three housemates who all fled to family homes in other states. She was in her Manhattan apartment alone. She was an asthmatic and had been struggling to cope with the severity of the winter there. We didn’t want to think of what might happen if she caught Covid. We knew that apart from hospitality and retail, the architecture and interior design industry would be one of the hardest hit, losing their projects and potentially not surviving.

The dilemma for Talia was, if she lost her job she would lose her health insurance as it is tied into your employment contract and she wouldn’t be able to pay her rent. Since the health system in the US is mostly privatised accessing health care is unaffordable without health insurance. This meant she would be homeless, vulnerable and without a work visa. For us there was no dilemma, Talia had to get out of there. Just as we realised this was her only option PM Scott Morrison announced that any Australians living abroad who wanted to get back to Australia had to secure a flight in 72 hours before our country’s borders would close. The urgency was now palpable.

The week before this I had gone to my GP to investigate a lump I had felt in my right breast. Even though breast cancer was something I never thought would touch me as it is not in my family, I was concerned because it felt odd and I was getting lots of weird pain around my breast. My GP ordered both a mammogram and ultrasound and I returned on the Friday to get the results. I had a deep feeling that something was not right so I took my husband in with me for support. When my GP stood at the door to call us in she had a look on her face that I will never forget. She announced that yes I had a breast cancer and that it was malignant. I wasn’t shocked but was immediately frightened. I was thinking how could I be one of the statistics I hear every day about women with breast cancer. But straight away I went into survival mode. We tried her recommendation of a surgeon and it went nowhere. My husband Alan made lots of calls and we secured an appointment with a fabulous breast surgeon who is a contact and is at the head of his field. We see him on Monday 16th March. He announces that the tumour is large and that the best way to move forward is to remove the breast. This took my breath away. I had no notion that this would be a solution, I was simply focussing on surgery to take it out and possible chemotherapy and radiotherapy. This approach was much more brutal, but as he explained, it avoided chemotherapy and often avoided a long protracted road to get rid of it. I trusted him. He then said because of Covid 19 we needed to get in fast to do the operation before the hospitals were inundated with Covid patients. Again the urgency was palpable.

My surgeon’s office made an appointment for me to have the mastectomy on Friday 20th March, seven days after being diagnosed. But before going in for surgery, every day that week I needed to attend appointments for blood tests, sentinel node biopsies, body scans, ultrasounds etc. It was so fast it was a blur. I was frightened the whole time but kept a brave face for all the technicians. I was not so brave at home although my family insists that I was. I was also worried about going into hospital where Covid could leak in at any moment. But the surgery needed to be done and there was no turning back.

At the same time this was happening my husband and I began the process of trying to secure a flight for Talia to return to Australia. I thought it would be difficult but nowhere near the hurdles we encountered. Alan was on the phone incessantly to Qantas for 48 hours solid, bar a few hours sleep, pleading, cajoling and begging them for a single seat on a flight home. We had to get her to LA then to Melbourne and connecting flights were not happening. But somehow, due to Alan’s incredible persistence and efforts, we finally got a business class seat, the only option left, and then had to tell her that she had 24 hours to pack up her life and get to the airport. Talia was in Mexico on a short holiday when she got the news about having to get home before the borders closed and that her Mum had breast cancer. She was frightened, angry, distressed and thrown into panic. She had to get back to NYC, gather her belongings, pack them in 3 suitcases and get to the airport. She instructed her office that she had to leave due to our government’s announcement and a family health problem but hoped she could continue to do some work for them remotely in Australia. As she got to JFK airport she received a text saying she was laid off.

She phoned us from the airport to report scenes of chaos. People everywhere were either crying and hugging one another or cursing because their flight had been cancelled. The airport was full of angry, frightened people with no way to leave and the situation was worsening by the minute. It was like a disaster movie playing out in front of her. By sheer luck her flight was still leaving, so she raced onto the aircraft and sank down into her seat. She literally hung on and didn’t move in case someone else got hold of her seat. She phoned us again, this time in tears, so thankful she was on a flight yet at the same time so upset she had to pack up her life and flee. For the next 24 hours she was shaken, disturbed, depressed and happy all at the same time.

Talia was due to arrive in Melbourne on Friday 20th March, the same day of my operation. She would have to quarantine for 14 days and at that stage you could do it at home. I was due to be at the hospital in a couple of hours. She couldn’t quarantine at our home since I would have just come out of surgery. So thankfully a girlfriend picked her up from the airport, flouting the rules, ready to take her to quarantine with her best friend, who happened to arrive back in Melbourne from London on the same day. On the way there, they stop by our house. So at 10am that morning Talia is standing at our front gate, again flouting the rules, so worried about me but unable to come in the house. All I wanted to do was to hug her and hold her. She’d been away for one year on the other side of the world. She’d experienced a mega city being brought to its knees. She’d seen the fear running through the streets of her temporary home. Through tears we blew kisses to each other. Through heaving hearts we mimed flying our love to each other. All I wanted was to have her with us, but quickly she had to leave for her friend’s home to quarantine. I don’t even know what was said as we were so upset but I know she wished me well for the operation and that she knew I would be alright. So as she drove off to her isolation, I set off for the hospital with my life in the hands of my surgeon, hoping and praying for a good outcome and trying to cope with the rollercoaster of emotions hitting me.

The stars did align in some small ways here. It would be a long road for Talia to come to terms with the situation, having the rug pulled out from underneath her. But she was Covid negative and well and used her time back here to transition to another career, prioritising her physical and mental wellbeing. The surgery was a success. I didn’t need any chemotherapy or radiotherapy because of the sort of rare tumour that it was and I have enjoyed good health since. Losing a breast was eclipsed by the health and safety of my daughter, the perfect antidote to feeling sorry for myself or questioning why me? I have learned that life is precarious, it can change in an instant, that things like a pandemic or cancer literally fly in from nowhere and can wreak havoc and destruction for no reason whatsoever. This might prompt one to live life like there is no tomorrow, but since experiencing lockdowns for nearly two years, we have come to realise that living a simple life where we stop to smell the roses has been the remedy we had been looking for. It turns out that the urgency of cramming everything possible into your life is not so palpable. Taking time to reflect, observe, nurture and love has been our cure. As for the meaning of life, for me, no doubt, it is the love and connection with family, art and nature, my relationships with them and our planet that drive my spirit and love of life. No pandemic or cancer will ever take that away. Life truly is beautiful.


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