I met Noelle 18 months ago, after her first liver transplant, at Transplant House, where she was staying with her brother, John and we immediately got on well, sharing, as we did, a common interest in our work with children and young adults with intellectual difficulties. Over the following weeks, I enjoyed meeting different members of her family as they came to be with her during her recovery period, and together we took trips to the West Coast, Devonport, Victoria Park Market and other places of interest as well as more mundane, but essential shopping expeditions.

Noelle strove hard to become fit and well as quickly as possible and, at one time, when I had a slight foot injury, it was she who was concerned about me and the speed of our walking, over a rocky beach, instead of the other way round! Such was her concern for others.

She especially loved the coast and walking on the sand and we often spent early evenings sitting looking at the sunset at St Heliers or Bastion Point. Inevitably, we discussed our different lives and as she talked modestly of her work, I learnt of some of her early experiences and her great pride in her children & their various achievements. She was able to return to Christchurch before Christmas 2000 and I met up with her there, when some of my family and I were travelling through, as part of a South Island holiday over the New Year 2001.

Noelle’s illness had been with her for nearly twelve years, yet she’d maintained her position at her school, indeed, working right up until the day of her first operation. After the first transplant, she made good progress in fitness, but, unfortunately, the liver quickly became infected. Noelle battled on bravely, having to return to Auckland in March, to have a second transplant. This was delayed; she returned home, then was rushed back to Auckland in July, when her liver failed. The second transplant operation was more successful, but her health deteriorated and she developed numerous complications post-operatively, having to spend the next three months in Intensive Care (DCCM).

It was during this time that everyone’s admiration and tremendous respect for Noelle grew, alongside her own determination to get better. All the odds seemed to be against her, but she defied all predictions and circumstances and fought amazingly to get up and about again. Despite our appalling attempts to lip-read, (she had a tracheostomy for most of her time there) Noelle managed to make her wishes known and put up with our one-sided conversations, valiantly. On one occasion, even whilst in DCCM, she was adamant to have her hair cut. We all took that as a very positive sign of her strength of will, and her sister, Lesley and I had a very interesting time cutting Noelle’s hair, whilst she lay in bed!

Maintaining Noelle’s good spirits became of the utmost importance. When she finally moved back to the Ward, she was, obviously very weak, but she persevered with her physiotherapy, pushing herself to do more to increase her strength daily. She was justly proud of her increased walking ability and demonstrated it to us. She and I also went for short outings into the Domain, where, for the first time in months, she could breathe fresh air.

The next milestone was to return to Christchurch to be with her family. We were all delighted that she was able to get back there, for her 50th Birthday at the end of October, and also to attend one of her daughters’ wedding. Unfortunately, her appetite never improved enough to give the essential strength her body needed and she stayed very weak.

The next I heard was that she had again been rushed to Auckland, for a course of Interferon, as her liver had again become infected. Despite the gravity of the situation, Noelle’s braveness and strength of spirit, shone through and she and I shared some happy moments, even being able to drive out along the coast to sit looking over the sea.

I was privileged to be with her family members as we spent her last few days at her bedside. They’d brought with them a video of the family wedding and, although she herself never saw it, she was with us as we watched it and all appreciated her radiance and tremendous joy at seeing her daughter married.

Being with the family in Christchurch, for Noelle’s funeral was one of the most moving times of my life. It gave me the chance to visit some of the places so important to her and I can still feel that we share some things together. The tremendous regard and love from her family and friends was overwhelming. Memories of her great spirit and strength and her dedication to her work came over in so many people’s accounts of how she had influenced their lives. Her son and daughter spoke movingly and so eloquently. She leaves behind family of whom she can be justly proud.

I am privileged to have been a small part of Noelle’s life; to meet her family and friends; to share some of her thoughts. Her fight for life was never-ending and my own memories of her will always be held in a special place in my heart.

Mel Wilson

March 2002