Looking back on 2020: Grieving Ilona pays tribute to the 'silent angels' on World Kindness Day

Ilona Grigg wants to publicly thank the Volunteers for Palliative Care and Maitland Police for being there when she needed them most. Photo: Marina Neil
Ilona Grigg wants to publicly thank the Volunteers for Palliative Care and Maitland Police for being there when she needed them most. Photo: Marina Neil

Ilona Grigg is fragile, and it's not the broken wrist she's carrying.

The 73-year-old who lives in the Hunter region of NSW is still coming to terms with the loss of her husband of 52 years, Dan from a brain tumour in July.

"It started on my birthday, May 17," she said. "Dan was out in the garden and came back and didn't look well at all. I said I'm calling an ambulance."

A couple of hours later a doctor at Maitland Hospital told her she'd saved Dan's life that day. They were sending him by ambulance to John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle for further tests, but they suspected a brain tumour.

They were right - Dan was given between two and 10 months to live.

The next couple of months were a blur for the couple - he was operated on at Lingard Private Hospital in Merewether, then spent stints at John Hunter and East Maitland Private hospitals, had daily trips to the Mater Hospital in Newcastle for radiation treatment and for a short while, was back at home with Ilona who would give him his chemotherapy treatment and "make some of his favourite soup".

It was at home on a Saturday morning, with Dan sitting in the sun as Ilona hung out the washing, when she heard him scream and fall.

Ilona called an ambulance, managed to give him CPR and keep him breathing, but the slide was inevitable.

He died on July 26.

The reason Ilona tells her story is for one reason alone, to send a message out she wants people to hear.

"I can't drive, and for about the last five weeks I was making daily trips to the Mater which was difficult," she explained.

"But East Maitland Private put me in contact with - wait, let me get the name right - the Volunteers of Palliative Care Maitland, and they were absolutely wonderful," she said.

"So what I really want to do is to thank them publicly, and to raise awareness of them, because I didn't know they existed, and I've lived in Maitland for more than 40 years

"But looking back, I don't know how I would have managed without them. They're silent angels.

"It was usually a different driver each day, and they would put Dan in the car, help him with the seatbelt and drive us down. They would help him get out and escort him to the doctor. Then they would sit until it was all done and take us home. Every day.

"It was all COVID-safe too, they would wipe the car down and the door handles as we got in and out.

"A lot of times Dan would have to see a doctor after his radiation treatment. Sometimes that meant sitting around until the doctor could see us, but they were always there with us, never complained.

"There was one time he started collapsing as we were going in to see the doctor. I could feel him falling and knew I couldn't hold him up, but they managed to keep him on his feet and get him to a wheelchair and take him inside.

"The people of Maitland need to know this service is there. And they function on donations. I can't be the only one who didn't know of them. So while it still hurts to think about it all, this is a very public thank you to them."

But Ilona will tell you she also has a soft spot for Maitland police.

"I was at home and the phone rang - it was the hospital telling me to get down there quickly, that Dan may have as little as 30 minutes left," she said.

Photo by Marina Neil.

Photo by Marina Neil.

"I knew Volunteers for Palliative Care couldn't get to me in time on such short notice, so I thought I'd ring Maitland police to ask for their help.

"In no time there was a paddy wagon turn up at my house and we sped off to Newcastle. I made it there in time to be with Dan ... cars in front of us were pulling over so I assume we had the lights flashing."

How fast?

"Put it this way, a couple of times I didn't think we'd make it through the corners.

"Then when we got to the hospital there was staff waiting for us outside, but the police came with me to the bedside. I can't tell you what that meant to me. So this is a big thank you to them, too. They were wonderful.

"Jenny Aitchison actually mentioned this is parliament and commended the Maitland police."

Dan hung on overnight and died while Ilona was at home. The Volunteers of Palliative Care came around next morning and drove her to the hospital to see Dan one last time.

And if you're wondering about the broken wrist ... food poisoning.

"I started feeling very unwell and went to the bathroom to be sick," she explained. "It's funny, I remember calling out for Dan as I was falling ... he'd been gone for a couple of months by then.

"Next thing I wake up a couple of hours later on the floor with the dog licking my face, and a broken wrist. But I'm on the mend now.

"Just make sure you give the volunteers and police a good mention."

Rick Allen

Rick Allen

Rick Allen has been a journalist all his life, hates technology, but loves to tell a story.

This story Ilona pays tribute to her 'silent angels' first appeared on The Maitland Mercury.