Jo Hathaway’s first encounter with death was at around seven years old, when her nana suffered a cardiac arrest and was resuscitated. This was the same nana who used to chat to her deceased husband while gardening, whom she had lost suddenly at a young age.
“Nana told me her near death experience wasn’t scary at all, but quite lovely. So I grew up not seeing death as something to be feared, or as the end of a relationship.”
Jo had dreamed of becoming a nurse or a vet as a young girl, so it’s no surprise she ended up in a career caring for people with life-limiting illnesses. Born in Timaru and raised in Christchurch, she graduated as a registered nurse in Auckland and left the country for her OE in the mid-90s. She ended up in London working for a nursing agency, where one of her roles was nursing at a hospice.
Upon her return home four years later, Jo decided palliative care was “her thing”. Twelve years later, she was looking after the terminally ill Abbot of a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in Nepal. Specialising in palliative care throughout her career, Jo says she appreciates the opportunity to develop meaningful relationships with patients and their families. “It’s an area I felt I could help people make something potentially quite stressful, a little bit easier.”
Over the years, Jo has worked in various nursing roles at Mercy Hospice Auckland, most recently as a palliative care nurse specialist leading a team of four nurses looking after a case load of 70 palliative patients. She also worked at Hospice North Shore, both nursing and developing their education and training programme; and helped implement palliative care services at an aged residential care facility in the Bay of Islands. She also completed a research thesis for her master’s degree on the experiences of Chinese immigrant families who had used hospice services in New Zealand, finding large gaps in care for this population.
Somewhere in between her roles, a spiritual journey and a trip to Nepal culminated in Jo nursing the Abbot. “I studied Buddhism for quite some time as I wanted to learn how to be a good person, and I found it a useful tool. I completed a course on Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal in 2001 and the Abbot became my teacher. So I knew him for 10 years before he became sick.”
Jo says the experience of caring for the Abbot during his illness was both amazing and incredibly challenging. “I learnt so much from him. I had spent years working in a Western medical model, and I had to unlearn so much of that in order to approach illness from a more Eastern spiritual model, where spiritual health is much more important than what is or isn’t happening to the body. So, all my fancy symptom assessment training wasn’t as important as making sure he had the time and space to meditate and pray.”
Living in a spiritual community of 400 monks and 300 nuns while learning to become one piece in a very large puzzle wasn’t easy, she says. “In this large, collective community, the Abbot’s illness was everyone’s responsibility, so everything had to be done by consultation and consensus. I had learned this during my master’s research, but living it was something entirely different. They also make sure that no one is ever left alone, so I had to learn how to do even small things using a much more collaborative and group approach.”
Jo soon realised the Abbot didn’t really need her. He wasn’t interested in Western medical treatment – including drugs to relieve the pain. His advanced complex symptoms did not worry him in the slightest, but because he was such a respected figure in the wider international community, many people worried about him. Jo ended up becoming sort of a ‘safety net’ for the monastery. “When people realised the Abbot had a Western palliative care nurse specialist on site 24/7, they felt reassured that the Monastery was able to give him the best care possible, which left the Abbot and his monks and nuns to get on with doing things their way.”
Jo stayed at the monastery throughout the Abbot’s illness, as well as the traditional bereavement period of 49 days after he died. She also returned to Nepal for his memorial a year later. “The Abbot taught me the merit of living a simple life and choosing kindness, no matter what. Living with a spiritual master, you see how he puts that into action with normal, day-to-day challenges. Because I was with him all day, I observed how he dealt with everything.”
Jo’s experience in Nepal also strengthened her interest in diversity. After returning to Mercy Hospice Auckland, working with refugees and immigrant populations became her specialty. “How do we provide palliative care to people with different cultures, traditions, lifestyles and beliefs? Working in a different culture helped me to see things from different perspectives. It’s about finding out what’s most important for patients and their families and then navigating them through the services available.”
With most of her family in Canterbury, Jo returned home with her now three-year-old son over a year ago. So when she applied for the position of Regional Programme Facilitator for Palliative Care, the South Island Alliance snapped her up. “When you work as a clinician, you start recognising the problems within the system, on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “Clinicians know what needs to change, but don’t necessarily have the access, time or resources to make it happen, which can become disheartening over time. By getting involved in the South Island Palliative Care Workstream you can see all the great initiatives that people are working hard at implementing across the region. Joining the team and helping to ‘be the change’ is a positive way of channelling my passion for palliative care and finding solutions that work for clinicians, patients and families.”
Jo says she is happy to have inherited the dynamic and enthusiastic Palliative Care Workstream group. “It’s full of amazing, experienced and passionate clinicians. We have just finished the Palliative Care Roadshow events around the South Island, followed by our regional Planning Day, where we took all the concerns and ideas raised by a wide range of clinicians and turned them into goals and action plans for the future. We know our population is aging and many people are living longer with complex illnesses, so planning for greater demands for palliative care is challenging on many fronts – but we have a great team of people working hard to address these issues and it’s an exciting challenge.”