This is Gail is deeply moving and brutally honest. It’s a beautiful story about life, death, grief and survival through the worst that life sometimes throws at us.
Many will remember the heartbreaking story of Sydney surgeon Chris O’Brien, diagnosed with a fatal brain tumour at the age of just 54. Underdoing treatment to defy his odds of living for less than a year, Chris sought various healings, some conventional, some not. Encouraged by his beloved wife Gail and three children, Chris was inspired to find ways cancer patients could find more holistic treatment methods and wrote a memoir, Never Say Die
Following Chris’s death, as Gail O’Brien and his children tried to navigate their way through grief, Chris and Gail’s son Adam died suddenly, less than two years later. In This is Gail, Chris and Gail’s daughter, Juliette, tells her mother’s story. With compassion and insight, Juliette details her mother’s struggle to overcome the double blow of losing her husband and first-born son in quick succession and how she bravely steered Chris’s vision for an integrated cancer centre to fruition.
Chris had become something of a celebrity surgeon after the reality television show RPA, filmed at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred hospital. As a surgeon treating cancer patients who then became a cancer patient himself, Chris was in a position to understand what could help cancer sufferers when he passionately sought to establish a comprehensive, patient-focused cancer centre (that later became known as The Chris O’Brien Lifehouse at RPA) and he had the connections and drive to get it built.
After initially shying away from becoming involved with Lifehouse following Chris’s death, Gail O’Brien felt compelled to rise up to the challenge when she feared that Chris’s hopes were not being fully realised. She worked with the Lifehouse Board – featuring some of Sydney’s most powerful and influential businesspeople – and sometimes clashed with them in her determination to stay true to Chris’s vision. She became a powerful public speaker after never having wanted to speak in public before. She returned to her original work as a physiotherapist, which she hadn’t practiced in years, having previously worked as manager of Chris’s busy practice.
Juliette also details her mother’s quest for meaning through the church and more alternative sources in her attempt to find healing and peace. Interspersed with letters between the two women, This is Gail is a reflection of a beautiful mother daughter relationship. It details how grief can be terrible but also a source of transformation – “But already, from the ashes, something new in my mother was rising,” says Juliette.
Juliette’s narrative is straightforwardly told, without being over sentimental. It deals with the reality of facing illness and death – even the practical realities such as how the mortgage can be paid when the primary breadwinner can no longer work and the mundane tasks of dealing with the belongings of a son, father, a brother. And as Juliette has her own brush with a serious health scare, it shows us how truly fragile life can be. While the hardest heart will be moved to tears by This is Gail, it’s never depressing; it’s uplifting, enlightening, truly inspirational and a must-read for anyone whose life has been touched by cancer or serious illness, and that’s probably most of us.