For the dedicated who gather each year at the Anzac Day dawn service, Ray Buckley had always been a familiar presence, enacting ceremonial roles in full military uniform.
At the 2021 service, Ray was dressed as General Monash and his role was to light the cauldron and hand the torch to the elder soldier. In 2022, Ray was to play the same role but sadly, he was not well enough to do so … yet through the dedication of a special medical team, he was able to attend the service.
It would be the last time Ray was to see the sunrise.
Just eight weeks earlier, Ray came home from his family automotive business, managed with his wife Joan and son Nathan, complaining of backpain. The pain had been annoying him for a few months but early in March, it escalated.
After he was admitted to St John of God Hospital in Ballarat, doctors learned there that Ray’s pain was caused by an aggressive cancer growth on his spine. It was growing rapidly and pushing on his kidney.
This was not the first time that Ray had fought cancer. In 2011 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had his prostate removed. The following year he had radiation treatment and hormone replacement and was eventually given the all clear.
This time there would be no fix.
Joan said Ray was given radiation treatment in an attempt to shrink the cancer but it had no effect.
“On April Fool’s Day they told us he had six weeks to live,” Joan said.
Ray spent his final days in palliative care at Wimmera Base Hospital but his dying wish was to attend one final dawn service on Monday, April 25. That wish would be granted through Flying Doctor Memory Lane, a service created by Royal Flying Doctor Service Victoria that enables people in end-of-life care the opportunity to safely revisit a place of personal significance.
Memory Lane is staffed by a dedicated team of qualified volunteers who utilize custom-built vehicles made to feel less clinical than a standard ambulance. Grampians Health palliative nurse Nicole Miller emailed a request to the Memory Lane team and five minutes later Memory Lane coordinator Beth Mcilwain from Bendigo called to say she would be there.
The days were getting more and more difficult for Ray and the Grampians Health palliative team were doing all they could to make sure he was comfortable as the weekend drew near.
Joan said Friday was a good day for Ray. He was sitting up and having lunch when she called in.
“He wasn’t capable of holding a cup the day before that.”
But there were no more good days. The family plan for Ray had been to dress him for the Anzac Day dawn service.
Nathan knew his dad was holding on to life long enough to make the service. An assessment from doctors early the previous week was that Ray likely would pass away in a couple of days but he confounded all by making it to the service.
“We made the call knowing how much it meant to dad to be there and knowing how heart-broken he would be to miss it. He used up every last bit of strength to get there.”
On Anzac morning, Joan arrived at Wimmera Base Hospital at 5am and the staff were already helping the Memory Lane team prepare Ray for the day.
Nathan said the Grampians Health palliative nurses and the Memory Lane team could not have done better to ensure Ray was at the service.
“They had him there early enough that he could watch the veterans march in and to watch me light the torch. They tilted his gurney so the foot of it was out the door to give Dad the best view,” he said.
“I have to commend Amos Amolo from Memory Lane because for the entire time, he had his arm under the gurney to hold it up enough so Dad could see everything that was going on.”
After watching Nathan play his role, Ray told him he was very proud of him.
Joan and Nathan were with Ray when he passed away at 8am the next morning.
Nathan said his father was sound to the end and able to maintain communication.
“To the day he died he was still playing out his Anzac Day reenactments. It just meant that much.”
Both Nathan and Joan were full of praise for the Grampians Health team that cared for Ray in his final days. He was able to go home for Easter and spend time with his extended family before returning to hospital.
“Ray loved the team caring for him and had given a few of them nicknames,” Joan smiled.
“The whole team were just amazing with him. They gave him plenty of attention and ensured he was as comfortable as possible the entire time.”
Nathan was in awe of the role of palliative nurses.
“It was such a short time Dad was there but they form a genuine bond,” he said.
“It must take a special type of person to do that job.”