30 November 2022
When Mickey Smith’s husband went into Harbour Hospice care the couple could not have felt more supported. She assumed her friends in America would have the same reassuring experience and was shocked to learn how lucky we are in NZ to have quality hospice services, free of charge. Mickey Smith shares her story with Karyn Henger.
My husband Aaron was the most amazing man - a gorgeous, creative Kiwi who always made those around him laugh.
We first met at a friend’s dinner party in Minnesota, 1999. We fell for each other’s smiles, laughing and talking in the kitchen chopping vegetables, until I accidentally sliced the tip off my finger and had to leave the party early. It was another two years before we’d meet again because I moved to New York City and Aaron, to Minneapolis.
But when we did – at a friend’s Christmas party in a dive bar in Minnesota, 2001 – this time we made sure that neither of us ‘got away’.
Aaron and I built an amazing life together. Creativity was at the centre of our world and we supported each other in every way, often marveling over how lucky we were to have ever met. We married and started our own design company. Aaron became one of the best art directors and designers in the US, winning awards and working with rock stars. I began working full time as an artist and Aaron pursued his love of music, drumming for his band, touring through the US and New Zealand.
In 2006 we moved to New York City where we had our beautiful son Max. Then in 2012 we moved to New Zealand and settled on the North Shore to raise Max among clean, green spaces and be closer to Aaron’s family. We built our dream home near the beach.
Everything was perfect until one night in February 2016 when Aaron, then age 45, announced he was feeling off.
He was taken to hospital in an ambulance and a few days later diagnosed with a brain tumour. We were devastated. I’d always considered Aaron – us, our family – to be invincible. His disease progressed quickly. Aaron received surgery the next month then radiotherapy followed by chemotherapy. In December we were told he was in the clear and for the first time in months we started to allow ourselves to make plans again.
But only four months after being cleared Aaron was told his cancer was back. Soon after we were referred to Harbour Hospice. We knew very little about hospice back then, but it didn’t take us long to learn it was a very special place. Harbour Hospice became our light in a world that felt dark. I do not know what we would have done without it.
Our very first encounter, a community nurse came to our home and said, ‘I can see you need more help. We are here for you. We are not going anywhere.’ I crumbled with relief. She wasn’t kidding. And she explained exactly how they were going to help us, and that the services they offered wouldn’t cost anything.
After that a flood of specialists came to our door. Nicky the physiotherapist to help Aaron with his mobility, the community nurses who checked in with us regularly. Marita, to give weekly Reiki sessions. Wayne, a gentle rock of a man, was Aaron’s counsellor. Every person who walked through our door was totally informed. We loved them all and we looked forward to seeing their bright faces.
When it became too difficult to care for Aaron at home we moved him to hospice’s Inpatient Unit in Takapuna. Only weeks before Christmas, this was a difficult time but we arrived to see a picture of Animal on his room door – Aaron’s favourite character from The Muppets. The nurses asked me to bring in photos so that we could make up a photo board reflecting his life, and so they could get to know him. He loved that board, it was one of the many personal touches the staff graciously added to warm those days.
Aaron’s time there was painful but beautiful - he was able to enjoy a Corona in the sun with his brother on the balcony, pizza and ice cream in the courtyard with me and Max, takeaways at lunch with his sister. He loved making the nurses laugh, he was still funny, he was still Aaron. And while hospice quietly took care of him that allowed us to be with him, to enjoy our final days together.
Aaron spent 22 days in the Inpatient Unit before dying peacefully on 16 December 2017, his brother by his side.
Unbelievably, less than two years after Aaron’s death I got a call from my best friend in Minnesota to tell me that her husband, also 47, was also dying of a brain tumour. I flew home to help, promising ‘Trust me. As soon as we get him into hospice, it’s going to be so much better.’
I took charge of finding a hospice facility only to learn I’d made a false promise. The healthcare system in the US is broken, extending all the way to hospice. Every facility I called was private and wanted to know how much credit my friends had on their card before we even spoke of care.
The service hospice provides us as New Zealanders is extraordinary. Because of you, hospice can support our husbands and wives, our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbours as they near the end of life. But it can only continue to do that with your continued generosity. Please join me today in pledging your loyal support for a charity that is so critical to families in our community.