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Real Life

REAL LIFE: I was born to be a carer

''I'd always cared for others but it was time I found a way to care for myself too.''

By Laura Masia

Vonnie Walsh, 53, from Sydney, NSW, shares her story;

I raced to the telephone the second it rang.
For the last few months my mum, Glenys, 55, had been struggling with swelling in her left arm.
She'd also get chest pain that felt like a bee sting, so the doctor sent her for tests.
As soon as I heard her trembling voice on the line, I knew something was wrong.
"Love, there's cancer all through me," she said softly. "It's terminal."
I jumped in the car, desperate to be with her.
There, the doc explained that although Mum had 25 years of mammograms and no lumps whatsoever, the cancer type was incredibly rare, originating in her breast and slowly spreading.
I knew instinctively that I wanted to be her carer.
As I was her only child, we were extremely close.
Although I was five weeks' pregnant and busy raising my two boys, David, six, and Peter, four, with my husband, Fergus, I'd never give up on my mother.
So I quit my job working as a counsellor and stepped up to be there for Mum.
I did my best to keep her comfortable, learning lymphatic draining massages to help with the swelling and cellulitis she developed.Despite the circumstances, we enjoyed our time together.
Months later, I had a little girl, Angela. It was a difficult birth and Angela was born blue, but the moment I held her, my heart swelled with love.As I looked down at her gorgeous face, I realised she had Down syndrome.
Fergus and Me with Angela and Peter. (Image: Supplied)
Throughout my pregnancy, I'd had ultrasounds and was assured everything was okay.
Later, doctors realised Angela had no hearing and needed surgery on her ears and a multitude of tests.
At the same time, Mum was being treated in the cancer unit of the same hospital.
I was torn between Angela and Mum, but the stress was worth it when they both came good enough to return home.
Fergus stayed at home with the kids until I was well enough to come home.
"We'll get through this," he soothed. Sure enough, I found my rhythm.
We had challenges, but I did my best to make sure everyone was happy.
Whenever we had a good day, I'd pack the whole family in the car for a trip to the zoo.
"Look Mum!" the boys cried, pointing at the animals.
It always made me smile.
After four years of caring for Mum, her cancer worsened. I laid down next to her as she closed her eyes for the final time.
She passed away, age 59, surrounded by family and friends.
A tear rolled down my cheek as I kissed Mum gently.
"I love you," I whispered in her ear.
It was so peaceful and I knew it was how she would've wanted to go.
I'm so proud to be a carer. (Image: Supplied)
In that moment, I was so thankful I'd made her feel comfortable right up to her last breath.
Despite the grief, I stayed strong for my kids, pushing my pain aside to be a good mum, like mine was.
But two years later, I suffered a terrible fall while we were moving house.
I didn't see a broom in my path and fell hard onto concrete, feeling a painful pop in my knee.
I laid down for 15 minutes but with the pressure of the day, I had to keep going.
Two weeks later, I found I'd fractured my collarbone and caused a lot of damage in my knee.
As a result, I developed chronic pain.
Each time I bent down to move Angela, my whole body screamed in pain.
To make matters worse, at 10 years old, Angela's behaviour became our biggest struggle.
Often when she got upset or confused, she'd lash out in a violent rage towards me. It broke my heart.
Although to us she was this beautiful angel, she hid that side of her from the rest of the world.
Angela needed a high level of care, and one day, I had a breakdown from the stress.
"I just can't do this anymore," I cried to Fergus. "I'm at breaking point."
"We need to ask for help," he said, hugging me.
I'm so proud of the young woman Angela has become.(Image: Supplied)
Online, I found the Carer Gateway and I received support and services through my local agency, Your Side.
It took some of the pressure off us, even if it was just enough time to sit down with a cuppa.
Now 20, Angela has come a long way.
Since leaving school, she's joined a local day program with people who love and respect her, letting her true self shine.
Angela's learning new things every day and it brings us so much joy.
With all the support, I feel so blessed to watch my daughter show the world the wonderful person she is.
I still have problems as a result of my fall, but I'm slowly getting better.
As a carer, I know it's easy to forget to look after yourself. I'm so grateful for the help we've received, so I can keep caring for my loved ones.
*To find out more about the Carer Gateway, visit the website here

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