Palliative Care Week: A wedding organised in a day

Jackie Earl and her fiancé Mat Parker were planning their Sydney wedding for May 1 when a phone call from her mum Cheryl changed everything. Her dad was dying and only had days to live.

To celebrate the tireless efforts of our palliative care team in National Palliative Care Week, we will share some key stories showing their commitment to helping people live life to the fullest when facing life-limiting illness.

Jackie Earl and her fiancé Mat Parker were planning their Sydney wedding for May 1 when a phone call from her mum Cheryl changed everything. Her dad was dying and only had days to live.

Jackie Mat Portrait 580Cheryl explained that dad Peter had been moved to HammondCare’s Neringah Hospital in Sydney’s north to receive specialist palliative care for his final days. Now was the time to come to be with him.

With Covid-19 restrictions beginning to impact travel, Jackie, Mat and the dog, who live in Brisbane, jumped in the car, picked up their wedding dress and suit, then drove through to the family farm in the Hunter Valley, getting a flat tyre along the way, before arriving at the hospital the next day, March 23.

Jackie was shocked to see how much her father had deteriorated since she had seen him just weeks before, but was touched when her dad opened his eyes and recognised she was there with him.

“Dad had been fighting various cancers for some years and had also had a serious stroke. Despite this I always called him the ‘Terminator’ because he was so determined, he would never give up,” Jackie said.

“When I saw him it was clear he was nearing the end of his battle and I knew that I had to be married with my dad with me. There’s no distance between a father and his daughter so I knew I had to be married while he was alive.”

She spoke with Mat, her mum and staff at Neringah and everyone agreed they would work together to pull off a wedding, in the grounds of Neringah, the very next day!

“We are so thankful to everyone at Neringah, I know there was so much that occurred behind the scenes to make this possible, not the least the care and support provided to dad to help him be a part of the wedding,” Jackie said.

But the timing was a challenge – hospitals were beginning to lock down due to Covid-19 restrictions and the team at Neringah had to seek special permission from the Department of Health for the wedding to occur.

“I knew it was a challenge but I said I was happy to be married at his bedside or in the carpark or the park across the road,” Jackie said. She received a text and phone call from Nurse Unit Manager, Karla Tudio, just hours before the wedding – permission had been granted.

Meanwhile Mat had called their celebrant and asked him to be available, they picked up the wedding rings from the CBD and rushed to the courthouse to organise their pre-marriage paperwork, again hitting some hurdles, before approval was given the day of the wedding.

Mum Cheryl visited the local florist to hurriedly arrange flowers, which Jackie said ended up being just what she wanted, and Jackie’s brother Bryan and his wife Jo were hurriedly called on to be witnesses while their children became impromptu flower girl and ring bearer.

Miraculous wedding

Dad Peter and Jackie 580From Jackie’s perspective it was a miracle – as if it was meant to be – that everything came together and on March 24, with staff and patients watching from the windows of Neringah, Jackie married Mat in the beautiful Neringah gardens near the historic kiosk.

“It was a stressful day or so leading up to that moment – we even had to get new tyres for Mat’s car after the damage on the trip down – but the staff had got dad comfortable in a special chair, they helped him into his suit, and then he opened his eyes during the ceremony, he was aware that he was with us,” Jackie said.

“I know he would move heaven and earth to help me, so this was our chance to do the same for him.” (Also due to the start of Covid-19 State border closures, Mat had to drive back over the Queensland border before midnight the day after the wedding adding to the stress. Mat and Jackie didn’t see each other for a number of weeks after the wedding.)

Peter Earl, aged 74, died two days later, on March 26, and is remembered as a friendly, generous man, who would do anything for anyone, never gave up, and would find a solution to any problem – a quality that clearly runs in the family!

Caring and respectful

Jackie said she was so glad her dad had been admitted to Neringah Hospital – it was the best care experience he had ever had in his long journey of illness.

“All the staff were so fantastic and thoughtful. Dad was very vulnerable but they were so caring and respectful of his needs. It was humbling for all of us to receive this support, and to see dad valued in this way, despite his frailty.

“After he passed away, the nurse who was there gave his hand a gentle squeeze – it was clear she really cared about him. Families really need that kind of thoughtfulness.”

Since those days, both Jackie (now Jackie Parker) and her mum received calls from Neringah, checking to see they were okay. And the local florist sent a bouquet to the room after Jackie’s dad died.

“It seemed our wedding faced every hurdle – so little time, Covid-19, even flat tyres. But it was a beautiful time together with immediate family, with dad there with us.”

For more information about the multi-disciplined palliative care and support provided by Neringah Hospital and HammondCare, visit the new Palliative Centre.