Kate Callaghan was lying on a bed at Wanaka Medical Centre when she turned to her husband Aaron and spoke her final words.
“I’m not sure if I can do it again,” she sighed as a tear rolled down the cheek of the 36-year-old mother of two, and she drifted off into unconsciousness.
Kate, a holistic nutritionist considered by medical professionals as “too healthy for cancer”, was not giving up her fight against breast cancer yet.
After 40 minutes of CPR she was breathing again but was considered too vulnerable to send on the Rescue Helicopter to Dunedin Hospital.
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She was taken to a hospice unit within a nearby nursing home. Soon friends arrived with plants and pictures to brighten the room and her children Olivia, 5, and Ed, 2, were on their way to see her.
But before they arrived Aaron knew Kate had reached the end.
“It was just me and her.I was holding her hand and she took her last breaths, which is still often an image I see when I go to bed at night,” he says.
“I couldn’t cry and I felt guilty for that. I was emotionally empty.”
For more than a year Kate and Aaron had been on a cancer “journey”.
In June 2019 doctors told her the lump in her breast was nothing to worry about, an eventual referral went missing and in November she received the cruel news that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and liver, so she was no longer eligible for treatment, only palliative care.
Kate was super healthy and with degrees in communications and dietetics she was driven to find and chase solutions, alongside conventional care. She and Aaron went to Mexico for treatment. Later on she sought spiritual advisers.
But on June 25 this year that journey came to an end and since then Aaron has cried a lot, seesawing between fully functioning father and being overwhelmed with emotion.
Last week, as he drove Ed, now 3, to daycare Ed asked to listen to Dance Monkey, one of the songs played at Kate’s funeral.
“So I’m driving him to daycare and crying, and he’s in the back saying ‘this is Mummy. Isn’t it Dad?’.
“I was in this really good space than all of a sudden I’m back down again and trying to sort myself out to take Ed in.”
Debbie Jamieson / STUFF
Aaron Callaghan leads hundreds of friends and family in a dance to celebrate the life of his wife Kate.
One night he was tucking Olivia into bed when she commented that she missed Mummy.
“I agreed and started crying. She just looked at me and said ‘Daddy, Mummy will always be there in your heart and in your mind.’ That’s pretty good for a five-year-old.”
Since Kate died Olivia and Ed have been sharing a bedroom with Aaron. Often they are all in the same bed, consoling each other, crying to sleep.
Ed constantly wants hugs. Olivia feels she is missing out. When they fall over, they want Mum.
“I feel pressure to do the best job I can,” Aaron says.
”But I am mindful that I don’t take all that responsibility on and burn out.”
He knows to ask for help when he needs it and has been overwhelmed by support from family, friends and the close-knit Lake Hawea community, where they live.
He’s talked to a counsellor and met a child psychologist who advocated, among other things, honesty with the children.
“So then Olivia asked me ‘will Mummy go rotten?’
“I said ‘Mummy is actually going to be cremated’. And as soon as I said that I thought ‘oh man I made a mistake here’.”
Olivia wanted to know what cremation was and the look of panic on her face when the fire was mentioned necessitated another trip to see Kate.
“The first thing she did was go to the coffin and put her hand straight on her heart. Then she gave her a pinch and pulled her hair.”
In her own way Olivia was testing the theory that Kate wouldn’t feel anything in the fire. She was satisfied.
During the last week Kate’s parents have returned to their home in Sydney and Aaron and the kids are now working on their routine.
Aaron, a former professional rugby player and personal trainer, is back at work as a coach development officer for Otago Rugby Union. The children are at school and daycare. But Kate is never far away.
Aaron says he still talks to her, the only woman he told that he loved, the woman who made him a better person whenever he was with her, the woman he “hit the jackpot” with.
“I miss the fun. We used to laugh and laugh and laugh. At ourselves. At each other. That’s very energising.”
A recent overnight trip to the Snow Farm for a 6km snow shoe expedition to a hut was the cause of many “conversations” with Kate.
“There were three other families plus me and eight kids of five or under. It was always going to be a disaster,” he says.
He felt compelled to take part to celebrate a supportive friend’s birthday but the night before the children had been up between 3am and 5am wanting their Mum.
“In my head I must have cancelled the trip five times but then it would always come back to ‘what would Kate do?’ Typically, I would be the stick in the mud and say ‘no’. Kate would always say ‘we’ve got to do these things’ so we ended up going.”
The idea was the children would be pulled in sleds by the adults. In reality Ed refused to go in the sled or a backpack, insisting on being carried by Aaron.
The group departed later than intended, the weather started closing in before they got to the hut, the kids were getting hungry and Aaron’s muscles were burning.
“There were numerous times on that walk that I was talking, yelling, laughing at myself, laughing at Kate. ‘This is your fault,’ I said. ‘I hope you’re laughing’.”
The cancer has changed things now and left Aaron with many questions such as what could have been done better? And why has this happened at all?
“There’s a bit of anger. Like lots of people I think it’s not fair but for me, I’ve got to be very careful that I don’t spend too much time in that sort of space. Things can become pretty dark pretty quickly.”
He sees failings in Kate’s diagnosis and care as coming from within the system.
The decision in June last year not to refer Kate for further investigation was because her good health, her age and her background counted against her.
“She wasn’t ticking any of the boxes so she couldn’t go to the next step because there might be a cost to our system.”
While the original GP practice that did not refer Kate has since changed its procedures, there is no assurance it won’t happen elsewhere. He also saw problems with miscommunication between departments within the same hospitals.
These are the result of systemic issues that need time and money to be resolved and won’t happen in one election cycle, he says.
He was also shocked at an apparent lack of empathy from some doctors.
One example was the phone call Kate received from the Dunedin-based specialist two or three days before she was due to have surgery in November.
“I wasn’t actually here when Kate got the phone call but the surgeon was saying ‘it’s gone to your liver, there’s nothing we can do, palliative care. Bye’.
“That’s a pretty hard phone call to take.”
Language, he says, can be devastating and it can be powerful.
“So if you walk in and you’re told there’s nothing that can be done and statistically blah blah blah… it’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
He has advice for others who might find themselves in a similar situation – find out what you can and question the experts.
“If there’s any doubt, you’ve just got to be bloody prepared to drive it yourself.”
Aaron says he is telling his story in the hope that it can help anyone who finds themselves on a similar journey. That’s what Kate would have wanted.
In the future he hopes to share some of what he has learned and is considering coaching men’s health and bringing together different cancer experts to share their knowledge.
But for now he is focused on his children and the long road ahead.
“It’s going to be hard. It’s never something that you anticipate but as a family we will be OK. I’m confident of that.”