Family life, death and les femmes de nuit

C’est la vie en France:

French cinema always offers that element of surprise and this year’s offering at the French Film Festival was no exception.

As always, there was sex aplenty whatever the storyline… whether titillating erotica or subtle innuendo as used in Et Si On Vivait Tous Ensemble (And If we All Lived Together) a fuzzy rhythmic background movement to alert the viewer that sex was happening between ageing baby boomers.

However, in the three films that I chose to see, there was an unlikely marriage of Sex and that other social taboo, Death, which made for  emotionally satisfying viewing.

Un Baiser Papillon (Butterfly Kiss), the first movie by Karine Silla-Perez, captures how terminal illness and the dying process strains family life and friendship when main character Billie dies of cancer.  In Et Si On Vivait Tous Ensemble (And If we All Lived Together), evergreen actress Jane Fonda also has cancer and even plans her own funeral. However, in La Delicatesse (Delicacy),  all had vastly different story lines, but the three films I saw in the French Film Festival reveal certain script qualities for success.

Sex, for instance, is the pepper and salt of French cinema whatever the life issues, family conflict, friendship, affairs and/or humorous happenings played out by the films’ main characters.

There was one other popular sub-plot adding an element of erotica. Un Baiser Papillon (Butterfly Kiss),  Et Si On Vivait Tous Ensemble (And If we All Lived Together) and La Delicatesse (Delicacy), all included an element of erotica and a bit-part for a prostitute. In  Butterfly Kiss, for instance, the prostitute formed a minor story-line alluding to trafficking of Eastern European women as sex workers and in If We All Lived Together, senior single, Claude had always been sexual voracious and in his twilight years reached for Viagra,  happily paying for sex.

In this story of five ageing baby boomers, who through failing health and life circumstance, decide to live together, sex is filtered through the story line as strongly as percolated coffee. Jane Fonda’s character Jeanne, for instance,  talks a tad too intimately about sexual matters to the young anthropologist “Dirk’’ who is studying their twilight lifestyles for his thesis.

The French are a highly sexualised society anyway and these titillating side-lines not only reflect Gallic culture, they add to the emotional depth of each story.

Then there is that other societal taboo – death and in these three films, French film-makers have embraced the “D” word  with the same passion as sex, with the impact of dying and death on family members forming the major story-line or catalyst for change. Which probably explains why I left the cinema each time, not only fulfilled as a viewer, but with damp eyes for the emotional outlet the movie allowed.





Home-based Palliative Care a Team Effort

Once more beloved husband Olivier arrives home from hospital, but this time by ambulance.   This is a special home-coming, though, because the other option was to send him to a hospice. Even though his two doctors thought he was too ill for home care, I am delighted that he is back home here with me where he belongs in our created world and our beautiful evolving garden.

These are the latter days of his life and we are determined he will enjoy every minute as much as he can within his pain management routine.  He is now palliative and his terminal condition heralds a whole new regime for living fearlessly.  A full hospital bed arrives with massage mattress and we rearrange the dining room in an instant. Luckily the bed fits neatly between the antique German dresser in the alcove and Oli’s built-in bar fridge.

We make many decisions because palliative care godfather Professor Ian Maddocks says Oli must not sleep in the room alone  anymore.  So, the therapeutic recliner chair which Olivier had made for his late wife Colette  is brought down the hallway from the main bedroom and we place it alongside the bed.  I begin thinking up a mental roster of all the healthy strong adult sons in our family who can stay overnight to give me a good night’s sleep. This will be crucial for me to cope all day as Oli’s carer.  The beautiful French dining room suite, the setting for fabulous dinner parties and family events, now shrinks to a mere metre diameter and is shoved alongside the curtain by the kitchen’s specimen shelving.

Thus, our versatile home becomes a comfortable living environment for Olivier and from his vantage point he can watch me happily cook and clean and prepare our meals.  This is the theory, but the reality soon unfolds to be quite a different scenario.

However, for the first night we sleep together and cuddle into each other in a sweet moment, which softens the shock of what happens next.

He accidentally rips out his sub-cut line which carries morphine into his body 24/7. I call the ambulance to come and re-insert it at 1am and there I sit for an hour in the chair waiting.  They come, and I fall asleep once more by 3am, but at 5.55am, his pain management machine buzzes and sitting as it is in its leather pouch, I don’t know what to do.  “Take it out and switch it off,’’ says Oli, frustrated, too, that the constant noise like a hive of bees is keeping him awake.

Not surprisingly when the RDN S nurse, Donna arrives at around 8.30am, I book an overnight nurse for tonight. It will be one of two nights provided free by the government.

An agency nurse named Julie arrives at 11pm and I am in awe of her attendance when I learn in the morning that she has sat at the end of our marital bed watching Olivier. I return to sleep in our main bedroom, which we vacated six weeks ago because the low height of the bed was impossible for Olivier.

We have slept in bedroom No 2 for six or eight weeks because that poster bed can be lifted with blocks. Julie is a gem and I hire her for the second night in a row.

None of the above would be possible without the amazing RDNS nurses, who arrive morning and night to prepare my husband for his day. They come again in the evening to prepare him for bed and this army of nurses, who embody the qualities of Florence Nightingale, have been the key to my ability to cope with the constant demands of being carer.

Professor  Maddocks (see separate story on this “living angel’’, calls in from time to time and a string of others form a caring brigade.  A physiotherapist from Domicillary Care checks out the house and soon an array of aids arrive. This time there will be no returns because back in December we took delivery of these things, but Olivier responded so well to the second type of chemotherapy , that we returned them all.

Senior palliative care nurse is English-born Donna, and there is Fran, an elegant mother of five, who arrives at 8am each time, and almost every evening,  there is Erica at the doorstep sometime after 9pm.  This morning Andrew, a senior palliative care nurse of 30 years’ experience is a surprise arrival and tends to Olivier with the professionalism and gentleness of the women. Overnight, we have sons and friends who sleep alongside him to help him move in and out of bed as he needs.

Olivier and I am so thankful to them because they all make it possible for Olivier to remain at home with me.

French Politics on the Cusp of Change

We are glued to coverage of the French presidential elections and each morning French-Australian husband Olivier takes himself into the lounge to watch the French news on SBS at 10:20am.

He is a Sarkozy man and cannot fathom why the French people would want to change such an outstanding president.  He believes France is in better shape because ofNicvolas Sarkozy’s right-wing  policies which, over the past five years, triggered rounds of strikes by French workers furious at industrial reforms. They were incensed, particularly, at raising the retirement age to 62. Many unrealistic social benefits  have been wound back in Sarkozy’s bid to drag France into the 21st century.

On the eve of the crucial second round of the elections, forecasters believe a French Revolution is under way and it looks likely that France will swing to the Left, reject their dynamic president of the past five years and elect a socialist president, Francois Hollande.

The masses in France did not appreciate how Sarkozy initially wallowed in his public image of a wealthy president – despite his aristocratic Hungarian immigrant parentage.  And despite French culture’s love affair with luxury labels, Mr Sarkozy did not endear himself to the people with his Rolex watch, Aviator sunglasses  and affluent jet-setting lifestyle. Then he married a former supermodel  turned singer, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, after a whirlpool romance, but she is still not liked by the French people despite having produced a daughter, Guilia, into the Elysses Palace. Poor Carla has been an exceptional First Lady, not having put a foot wrong, but has failed to win the French people’s hearts.

However, if the pundits are correct this weekend, the people want and will vote for  socialist Hollande, who wears rimless glasses and presents himself as “Monsieur Normal,’’ a quiet unassuming fellow, who has never held a portfolio.

This is unfolding against the backdrop of a worsening European situation and a France where the Islamic population numbers about 15 per cent.  The big unknown is how the French Muslims will vote, given that voting is not compulsory.  The anti-immigration, anti-Islam policy of candidate Marine Le Pen gained her 18 per cent of the first round of elections, as French people feel threatened by the impact of Islamic culture on the French way of life.  Commentators and political analysts reckon Sarkozy will need to garner the vast majority of Le Pen’s voters in the second round to retain office.

Much is at stake because Hollande wants to lower the retirement age and create thousands of public sector jobs for French people and for his part Sarkozy is pointing to the Greek tragedy as the result of such drastic moves in these times.

So, here in Australia, tomorrow Olivier will travel to Alliance Francaise (health permitting) along with other South Australian French citizens to vote for the candidate they think France needs to continue the groundwork Sarkozy. Whatever ctiticism is levelled at him, Sarkozy  has forged strong ties with Germany and the UK and presented France as a senior player in keeping Europe’s economy from collapse.



A Living Angel


Australia’s first professor of palliative
care originally set out in the world to become a medical missionary. But life and
fate had other ideas, as SAMELA HARRIS
reports on the man some people call…

* * *

IT’S as if an aura of serenity surrounds him. When Professor Ian
Maddocks steps into a room, a sense of calm descends.

It’s not just that he relieves suffering. He gives also a gentle
spirituality which has led some, whose lives he has touched, to
describe him as a “living saint”.

Professor Maddocks, the just-retired chief of Daw House Hospice, at
Daw Park, is Australia’s first and pre-eminent professor of palliative

He lives among the dying and the grieving. It is a world which has
chosen him, as much as he has chosen it. Life takes circuitous paths
and Professor Maddocks did not set out to become an urban death

He set out to become a Third World Presbyterian medical missionary.

With youthful bravado, he studied medicine and theology
simultaneously, forsaking the intellectual stimuli of the former only
when the time demands of clinical medicine became overwhelming.

Completing medicine, the next crunch came with the revelation that
medical missionary postings were hard to come by. The hospital in
Korea closed after the Korean War and the New Hebrides hospital was
fully staffed.

So Professor Maddocks headed for Papua New Guinea and the medical
school in Port Moresby. Fourteen years later, he left PNG a changed

Working with the local people had not been enough for Maddocks and his
family. They left the Port Moresby expatriate dwellings and moved into
a Papuan village, to live in a house on stilts over the water where
mother, father and three children bunked down in one room, where a
bucket served as a shower and where the toilet flushed into the sea.

Professor Maddocks was delivering sermons as well as teaching and
practising medicine, but his feelings towards the Church and its
concept of doing good were undermined by the influences of the ancient
indigenous beliefs.

He learnt about ancestor spirits, the power of sorcery, using
dreaming, the attribution of mortal blame for sickness and the way in
which the Papuan families worked things through as a group.

These ancient systems were health-promoting and made him “more
accepting of different views of things and less sure of what I was
doing there myself”.

These influences have flowed on through the professor’s life. His is
an approach of gentle tolerance. He makes no judgments on people and
their beliefs. He believes in listening to what other people know.
When PNG was about to become independent, in 1974, the Maddocks family
returned to Australia with a group of fellow expats and, with another
family, set up in North Adelaide as an experimental family commune.

For 31/2 years, the group, with six children between them, thrived,
living, working and endlessly discussing things together. They had no
television and no car. “We’d go out to visit and there would be 12
bicycles heading up Glen Osmond Rd quite a caravanserai,” recalls
Professor Maddocks.

He perceives the experiment as “a useful experience”. “We were
reminded quite often about how much time you have to give to
interaction,” he says. “You can’t be crisp and quick if you are
trying to manage a community of people. There was a lot of talk,
resolutions and different ideas.” He then was working a private
practice with his counsellor wife, Diana, and teaching fifth-year
medicine at Flinders.

Then he read an article in the Guardian Weekly which was to throw new
purpose into his life. It was an account by Victor Salsa of his
daughter’s dying in a hospice near Oxford, in the United Kingdom.

“The thing which compelled me was that the young woman dying of
cancer had been able to look after her parents as they went through
the awful prospect of losing her,” he reflects.

He concluded that it was the good hospice environment, the medical and
emotional support, which had made the difference. He took the idea to
the Flinders Medical Centre’s administration, suggesting that they set
up some sort of a hospice in the grounds.

A committee was formed. The Anti-Cancer Foundation, loss and grief
counsellors, District Nursing and GPs came together and the Southern
Hospice Program emerged. It started slowly assigning cancer-ward
nurses to work on palliative care, and the Health Commission allocated
sessions from an anaesthetist.

“Gradually we got more and more,” says Professor Maddocks. “We did
a study on the gaps in care and from that we wrote a submission for
the establishment of a hospice here. The old TB hospital, Killara, was
contemplating a hospice, too, so we liaised. By the middle of the
1980s, we were a team of about five people. In 1987 came the
opportunity to create a chair in palliative care.

“Half-joking, I said I would not mind the job if it gave me a
secretary. At the time, I was not in a salaried position.

“I was only paid when I was working and I was involved in Physicians
Against Nuclear War, going to conferences and executive meetings and
always without income when I was away. So I applied for the chair.
There was not much competition, none. All I could show was that I was
a fairly wide-ranging physician and I had an interest in this area.”

That was 10 years ago. Daw House, a handsome old building with modern
additions, set in a bird heaven of park-like grounds, now is a
respected institution of compassionate caring, albeit engaged in an
emergency appeal for funding. Fragrant oils subtly scent the air, the
sun streams into a lush little enclosed courtyard affectionately known
as “Hayman Island”.

Kind staff tend to a steady turnover of dying in the 15 beds, while
outreach staff visit patients in their homes, managing their pain and
monitoring their wellbeing. The hospice’s protective wings spread out
over such an expanse of the southern suburbs that Professor Maddocks
hopes that expansion will lead to a unit at Noarlunga Hospital.

Throughout the hospice, which abuts the sprawling Repat Hospital, he
is known simply and in quite quiet reverence as “The Professor”. He
is never far from his people’s needs this tall, gentle, wise man with
his serene touch.

Professor Maddocks was 56 when he was appointed to the chair of
palliative care. He realises that few people have such chances at that
time of life.

He says it has been “fun”, then changes his choice of word to

“It is an area which is really serious and filled with sadness and
loss,” he says. “But the staff make a lot of support.” Special
people are attracted to palliative-care work people who can reach out
into the discomforts of others. “They are a very nice group of people
and they look after each other, too,” he says. “If I am having a
hard time, someone is likely to hug me or ask me if I am okay. People
working in this area feel useful; their attention and intuitions are
able to operate fairly freely.

“They are not trying to apply clever recipes and do clever procedures
that people just have to accept. It is much more interactive. People
therefore respond very warmly; they are grateful for the interest,
skills and attitude staff bring to this kind of work, so they feed
back very nice things to them.”

Professor Maddocks travels widely, sharing learnings on palliative
care, running workshops, lecturing in such places as Korea, Mongolia,
China, Japan, Burma, Malaysia and the Philippines.

He no longer actively practises any form of religion. “Spirituality
is a part of what you do when trying to help people to find meaning in
an experience, a crisis. Sometimes you are not using a spiritual
vocabulary but are touching on things which are very important to
people and ought to be more spiritual,” he says.

Professor Maddocks sees death not with a bright light at the end of a
tunnel but as “a physical and intellectual closure”. But the dead
remain connected to the living in thoughts and genes.

“When patients are dying and their families talk about meeting them
at the other end, I have sympathy for that,” he says. “What is so
absolutely marvellous is that you don’t know. There is an excitement
about it. It preserves a sense of wonder and awe. I am in awe of

“It’s an extraordinary experience to watch someone quietly stop. You
wonder what will be one’s death and hope you do it well and have
courage. I hope I am programmed to accept it.

(Samela’s article has been reproduced courtesy of The Advertiser.)