Lorraine Downes calls them her earth angels. Anne Brown, Katie McGregor and Susie Watkin are in fact palliative care nurses from Auckland's Mercy Hospice, but Lorraine feels as if they were heaven-sent to help her care for her husband Martin Crowe as he was dying of cancer.
"Without them, and without hospice and the services they offer, I honestly do not know how I would have coped," says Lorraine. "It would have just been hell. But instead they took the fear out of what was a very scary situation and not only looked after Marty, but supported me."
She's so grateful to Mercy for everything they did for both her and cricketing legend Marty in the last two years of his life that she's become an ambassador for Mercy Hospice, and is showing her support by taking part in a fashion show to raise awareness and money for them.
"It's the least I can do," says the former model and Miss Universe. "What a lot of people don't realise is that they rely on donations and fundraising to be able to provide the incredible service they offer."
When Marty was diagnosed with lymphoma in October 2012, he was told the type he had was incurable but slow-growing. The symptoms could be treated and the disease managed for many years. But within just two years, the cancer changed to a rare and more aggressive form called double hit lymphoma.
Doctors recommended a gruelling course of treatment that would have involved numerous rounds of chemotherapy and a long stay in hospital, but chemo had already taken a terrible toll on Marty, so he decided against having any more. Following his decision to not have further treatment, his GP suggested he get in touch with Mercy Hospice.
"Even though he didn't need it at that stage, she wanted us to start forming a relationship with the hospice, and the timing turned out to be absolutely right," recalls Lorraine (54).
"To be honest, we didn't really understand what was involved in the beginning. We both thought hospice was a place you went to a week before you passed away. But it is so, so much more than that."
Marty stayed at Mercy, in the Auckland suburb of Ponsonby, on several occasions, including when his pain was severe and his medication needed sorting out. He was also admitted for a couple of days when Lorraine went to Melbourne to see her daughter Jasmine, a dancer based in Australia.
"As soon as we walked into Mercy for the first time, I could tell it was a special place," says Lorraine. "It had a very warm feeling. The staff were wearing their own clothes and it didn't feel like a hospital. There was so much love and kindness, and you felt very safe, very well cared for."
There was one occasion, however, when Marty was not exactly happy to be at the hospice. He'd been on high levels of a painkiller called oxycodone that affected his personality, "turning him dark", says Lorraine. He went to Mercy so they could sort out the medication, but it had changed his demeanour so much that he refused to stay, leaving Lorraine behind to talk to medical staff.
"I burst into tears – I was so embarrassed," she says.
"I said, 'Please tell me you've experienced this before.' They said, 'Lorraine, we see everything in here.' They do and they deal with it so well."
Other than that one aberrant occasion, Marty appreciated the care he got when he went into the hospice. But still, he was keen to stay at home as much as possible as the cancer progressed. He was able to do that, up until the day before he died, thanks to round-the-clock care he got from Lorraine and the support Mercy gave them both.
One particular godsend was a 24-hour phone line that Lorraine could call if she needed help. For example, if there was any change to his symptoms or a problem giving him pain relief, Lorraine could ring and get advice from a nurse at any hour of the day or night. "They would talk me through stuff so that I could cope," she says. "That made a world of difference to me."
But it was the three nurses who were assigned to visit Marty and Lorraine at their home who were particularly invaluable in giving her strength, confidence and practical assistance, allowing her to take on the huge job of being his caregiver.
"They are not just there for a patient – they are there for the family as well, and I cannot sing their praises highly enough. Katie, Susie and Anne were calm and gentle, and they had such a lovely way of teaching me all the things I needed to do. Nothing was ever too much trouble."
Lorraine had to learn to inject Marty with pain-relieving drugs when he needed them, and later to change the morphine pump he was put on. She admits to being fearful of the responsibility of doing that.
"I was very nervous and to start with I didn't have any confidence I could do it. But the nurses were very patient and understanding when it came to showing me what to do, even when I didn't always get it right straight away."
Whenever there was a problem, Anne, Susie and Katie would find ways of helping to solve it. Towards the end of Marty's life, as his health deteriorated, he had a particularly bad day. He didn't want to go into the hospice, so Anne, who was visiting at the time, stepped in, doing what she could so he could still be cared for at home.
"She said, 'Right then, he's staying here,' and she got on the phone and organised for a proper hospital bed to be delivered to our home, along with a La-Z-Boy chair, which was sometimes more comfortable than the bed," Lorraine recalls.
"When it arrived, he looked at it and said, 'Is that all for me?' He knew it meant he could stay at home and the look on his face was great."
Remaining at home is very important to many terminally ill patients because it's where they feel safe and comfortable. It also makes it easier for visitors, meaning Marty's daughter Emma, who lives with her mother Huhaana, could pop over most days to spend time with him. The pair would play backgammon, and having his little girl around meant the world to the devoted dad.
"It would have been so hard for her to see him in a hospital environment, surrounded by other sick people. She has much nicer memories of that time with him because they were at home," Lorraine tells.
At the beginning of March 2016, Marty took a turn for the worse, developing a pain in his side he hadn't experienced before.
"It was a considerable change, and we knew he had to go into the hospice to sort out the pain," says Lorraine. "When we arrived, he walked in saying hi to everyone, which was not something he usually did. He was calm and seemed happy to be there. I believe that was because he knew this was it."
Lorraine spent the day with Marty at Mercy and when his pain settled, she went home to get some sleep. But at 2.45am she got a phone call from the hospice, telling her Marty's condition had changed. Lorraine was able to be beside him in his last hours, along with family members and close friends.
"The staff were phenomenal, not just with the way they looked after Marty but with the way they treated us," Lorraine says. "They wanted to change his top but instead of telling me to go and stand outside the room, they let me be a part of the process. There's not only a high level of professionalism with the medical care, it goes to a deeper level."
Marty died peacefully at 11.40am on March 3, 2016, surrounded by his loved ones. Afterwards, they were able to stay in the room with him until that afternoon, which was a crucial part of dealing with their grief. "Even after he passed, the care they gave him and us was amazing, and so was the follow-up care. They were there for us every step of the way."
A few months later, Lorraine invited Anne, Susie and Katie over for afternoon tea.
"I wanted to tell them how truly grateful I was and how grateful Marty had been for everything they did," she tells. "When he passed, I felt their sense of loss too. They had got to know him very closely. They told me they could see the love and connection between me and Marty, and it had been a privilege to be a part of that. That was really special."
Lorraine offered straight away to help Mercy Hospice however she could, but admits she wasn't really in the right space to do anything until recently.
"I phoned Mercy's CEO Paul Couper about a month ago and told him, 'Paul, I'm ready.' And he said, 'This is good timing.'"
On September 2, Mercy Hospice is staging its own fashion show as part of New Zealand Fashion Week.
Models – including Lorraine, other well-known Kiwis and hospice staff – will wear clothes from Mercy's charity shops. Lorraine will be showing off a stunning white dress donated to Mercy by Kiwi designer Rochelle Goodrick, and she's looking forward to being back on the catwalk. "It couldn't be more appropriate because doing fashion shows was always my favourite part of modelling," explains Lorraine.
"But to be honest, I'll do whatever I can for them. Mercy Hospice gave me and Marty so much love, compassion and respect, along with wonderful medical care, and I can't thank them enough."
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