Former medical worker Sue Gunn now suffers from multiple myeloma, an incurable form of blood cancer. Photo / Dean Taylor
At 65, Sue Gunn didn’t plan to quit her job as a carer, but she did. She certainly did not think about the end of her life, but now she knows that she is dying.
Sue has worked in healthcare all her life, but when just over two months ago she felt some pain in her neck and shoulders at work, she initially ignored it as she thought it was just a symptom of too much work.
But the pain got worse, so Sue visited her therapist. Soon, a message came to her phone when she was at the cinema with her granddaughter – and this was alarming.
She needed to return home immediately as St. John’s ambulance was called to take her to the hospital.
Sue was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer.
The pain in my neck and shoulders moved down my arms and into my palms. Sue had multiple tumors in this part of her body, and they caused a T1 spinal fracture and sensory nerve damage—peripheral neuropathy—which means she couldn’t feel her hands.
Nine weeks later, as you read this, Sue is basically housebound, with limited mobility, and struggling to complete basic tasks with her hands.
She says that she forgets from time to time and has so far dropped and broken plates, mugs and glasses, as well as her iron, because she cannot hold them.
Her husband Steve works as a butcher at Greenlee, a job the couple now depends on as Sue spends nearly $2,000 a month on lenalidomide and vitamin C infusions to keep herself going. She is also on a cocktail of other funded drugs, but says she is over the threshold so she also has to pay for some drugs.
Thursday’s Pharmac budget announcements did not offer any financial assistance to Sue and Steve.
Her pain is still strong and she hates being on the other side of the medical system.
“It doesn’t feel right to me that I’m getting help, even though I’ve been helping all my working life,” says Sue.
But this is not a story about Sue’s plight—she contacted me because she felt humiliated and a little embarrassed that people were being generous, and she wanted to do justice to those people.
Her friends told her it was payback – so enjoy.
I told Sue that I thought she was incredibly brave. She admits that she feels like she went from being a healthy, happy and active person to an elderly housewife in just a few weeks.
But she hasn’t lost her sense of humor.
After the first interview last week, Sue emailed me over the weekend with so much information she forgot – memory loss is another outcome she has experienced.
We met for the first time last week, but at the end of the letter there was a little personal comment that was sweet, followed by: “I can say what I feel without embarrassment since I am dying. lol.
She’s also waiting for the sign for her new mobile scooter to be finished because she admits she’s sometimes been a bit judgmental about the healthy-looking people riding it. It says: “Don’t be lazy, fight cancer.”
The bounty began when she first received a text at the Regent Theatre.
Sue and her granddaughter have been dropped off and Steve will return for them at the end of the movie. But the phone rang before the movie even started, and she couldn’t get through to her husband, the so-called TA A2B Taxis.
Sue says the driver, owner Mike Lewis, could tell she was upset and didn’t charge the fare.
She didn’t have her key when they got to her house, so Mike helped her get comfortable on the patio and then came back about 30 minutes later to check on her.
She had all sorts of tests, so while she waited for the biopsy results, she and Steve decided to spend a few days.
Their cat went to Pirongia’s Brackendell Boarding Kennels and Cattery as usual, and when the owners heard Sue’s story, they didn’t charge.
Clark Devoy of Devoy Signs makes the aforementioned sign for Sue’s scooter – and he won’t charge you either.
The next kindness came when Sue contacted Eden Orchards about their natural juices.
Sue wanted to know if cherry juice and blackberry juice would help with nausea after chemotherapy. She knew she needed to drink water, but she felt sick.
The company wasn’t sure but sent a free box that arrived the next day. Sue says that not only does it help her nausea, but it also helps her sleep.
She credits a lot of her good care to the fact that she had a wonderful oncology nurse, Jo Ballard.
“Joe really cares about me and my needs,” says Sue.
“I’m lucky to have her – she’s the kind of person who knows how to get things off the ground.”
Sue says that Jo also makes sure other agencies are aware of Sue’s needs, and Sue says that even after a long career in healthcare, she’s amazed that help is coming from places she didn’t really think about.
A prime example is the Waikato/Bay of Plenty Cancer Society, a non-government funded agency that is doing a wonderful job.
“Leoni and Zoe brought 20 great frozen meals,” she says.
“They are wonderful and supportive nurses and they are full of the right information.”
The society also helps the driver get her to and from chemo.
“Doreen drives me in her car and takes nothing in return,” says Sue.
“She always asks if there’s anything else I need to do while we’re away, which means I can get a few small jobs done.
“She is great”.
Friends and family also get huge thanks – colleagues from Tarahill Holiday Home, especially Michelle Curran who was very helpful and caring, Ness and Scott Tarrant, Shelby Tarrant, Robin Wiber and Michelle and Rob Kingi – gadget specialist.
She is also grateful to Greenlee for giving Steve the time he needs to deal with this sudden change in our lives, and mostly to her “poor husband” who “has to do everything for me, as well as a hard day’s work.”
Sue didn’t say how long she could live or how long she would be given medication, and I didn’t ask.
“I stay positive, I still have a sense of humor and I have amazing support,” she says.
“I can’t play sports anymore, but I’ll ride my scooter, so look for my sign and say hi.”