When Dr Chris O’Brien, the much-loved surgeon from TV docu-series RPA, was diagnosed with brain cancer, it was both a public and private battle. But behind the great man was his wife Gail – his unwavering supporter. It wasn’t until her husband’s death in 2009, while grieving both her soulmate and her son Adam, who died two years later, that her true resilience began to shine through. By continuing her husband’s legacy after terrible tragedy, Gail O’Brien was able to find her place in the world. This is an extract from This Is Gail, written by Gail and Chris’ daughter Juliette.
Back in Sydney, Gail drove Chris to an increasing number of speaking engagements, from community events to large soirees. Rather than seeing his illness as a reason to retreat from the world, it pushed him further into it. His illness brought him closer to people and gave him a bigger platform. ‘I feel like I’m the owner of a celebrity brain tumour,’ he used to jest. ‘I feel like saying to this thing, this is all your fault, why don’t you go and talk to these people, how come I’ve gotta do the talking?’
Gail watched how people approached Chris — strangers who had watched him on RPA and were now following his story in the newspapers and on television. They would tell him about their own journeys and hug him like a brother. It was obvious that while my father had always been driven by an altruistic calling, his experiences were revealing a new level of compassion and empathy.
He attended mass more regularly, giving generously to the collection plates. He could not walk through the city without stopping for each homeless man or woman who sat in our path, often giving a ten- or twenty-dollar note or offering to buy them lunch. On one occasion, I stood back as he crouched down to a man sitting with his dog in a busy shopping area. The two chatted for a minute, before Dad stood up and walked back to me, smiling. ‘He’s vegetarian.’ He eyed a Japanese restaurant behind us. ‘Wait here, I’ll get him some sushi.
He confessed that his own diagnosis and treatment had changed him as a doctor, giving him a more holistic understanding of the patient experience.
He was asked to speak at his old high school, Parramatta Marist Brothers, where he told the boys that men of steel have compassion in their hearts. He urged the Australian Medical Students’ Association meeting in Melbourne to treat patients as though they were members of their own families. He confessed that his own diagnosis and treatment had changed him as a doctor, giving him a more holistic understanding of the patient experience.
Gail had told her obstetrician years before that she wasn’t the woman she had been. ‘Better,’ he had responded. So it was with my mother and father now. They weren’t the woman and man they had been when my father’s illness began; they were better. By the year’s end, stopped at traffic lights, Gail turned to her husband. ‘You know, it’s been such a terrible year,’ she said. ‘But I wouldn’t have been without it.’
After a few seconds of silence, he responded, ‘Neither would I.’
This is an extract from This Is Gail: Life with and after Chris O'Brien by Juliette O'Brien (Harper Collins, $32.99)