Rachael had a caring, happy spirit and a genuine enthusiasm for life. It was a life, while short, that was memorable. It was a life that has left deep and indelible footprints in the hearts of many. In the words of her friends and family, Rachael was gorgeous, amazing, inspirational, beautiful, a superwoman. Loved, courageous, strong, compassionate and warm.
Those words captured Rachael, her nature, and her personality exactly. She was all of those things, yet she was much more.
Rachael was a beautiful young girl who grew up to be a beautiful, stylish young lady. From her earliest years she possessed a sense of fun and mischief that was one of her endearing traits. Always there was an element of mischief and fun about Rach, just as there were little streaks of stubbornness, rebelliousness and cheekiness. Perhaps that stubborn streak was sometimes just her determination. It was determination that would become legendary as she fought against her disease for eight years.
That determination was clearly evident any time she went on the sand for beach sprints at Surf Lifesaving competitions during her teenage years. Anybody who looked at the little dot from Sorrento and dismissed her as a competitor was completely misguided.
Once they had been beaten and seen the competitive fire, they never doubted Rachael again.
She was quick with a humorous remark and she had a way of pulling a face that left you in no doubt about her feelings on certain subjects.
But behind that grin and mischievous character was a person with a massive heart and a sense of compassion and kindness.
As she got older, Rachael became a woman of the world, literally and figuratively. Travelling overseas, becoming engaged, and refusing to let her illness dictate her life.
Perhaps the greatest joy in her life was the birth of her nephew Hudson, and the subsequent time she had to enjoy life, events and other experiences with him.
Rachael had a great capacity for social events. Weddings, birthdays, horse racing, the Sandover Medal, New Years Eve, and enjoyed them just as much as she would a cup of tea with her friends and family.
Over the final seven years of her life, Rachael was an inspiration to her family and friends. Even though she is gone, she still lives in the hearts and minds of everybody. It would be impossible for her not to.
Rachael's Medical Story
Rachael was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2004 and bravely fought the disease for eight years. Just 17 when diagnosed, Rachael was several months short of her 26th birthday when she finally succumbed to pneumonia caused by the effects of cancer. Unfortunately, Rachael’s story is all too typical for Australians – many of them young and vibrant like her – who are ravaged by a disease that knows no bounds.
Throughout 2003 Rachael constantly felt unwell. After not needing to see a doctor for seven years, it seemed she was at her GP’s clinic every fortnight. Finally, after 12 months of consultation and examination, an X-ray, which took just five minutes to administer, detected a 14.5cm tumor in Rachael’s chest. Shock quickly gave way to anger as the news of the illness was followed by the information that it would take three weeks to get an appointment with an oncologist in Perth.
Just hours after the X-ray confirmed the worst news, Rachael was admitted to Hollywood Private Hospital and staff drained one litre of fluid from her left lung. It proved to be prudent action as Rachael could have quickly died from the build-up of fluid in her lungs. Yet it turned out to be only the first of many actions, treatments and procedures in her long, arduous and courageous challenge.
First came the eight rounds of chemotherapy, which provided hope of a total recovery. But the chemotherapy had only reduced the size and the tumour and not eliminated it as everyone had hoped and prayed for. The next step was radiation treatment at Perth’s Sir Charles Gardiner Hospital and then, after a referral by a hematologist, came a stem cell transplant at Fremantle Hospital in early 2005.
While every possible solution was being sought and considered, a pattern was soon emerging: Rachael was moving to different hospitals all over Perth for treatment. Without one dedicated hospital to the treatment of cancer patients, the process could be frustrating, annoying, morale-sapping and counter-productive.
That was the case again when Rachael was referred to Royal Perth Hospital for a stem cell transplant using donor stem cells rather than her own. But the tumour was not considered small enough and the treatment was abandoned. In fact, not only was Rachael not considered a suitable candidate for the stem cell process, but her family was basically told there was nothing left to do. They were told to take her home and plan for palliative care. Rather than accept that, Rachael and her family decided to fight. It was hard at times for Rachael to continue her painful battle, but she one day reached a crossroads and knew living through any awful treatment was much better than the ultimate alternative.
One week before Christmas, 2005, Rachael and her mum Susi flew to Melbourne and turned up at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre without a referral or appointment. Once there, Susi asked to see the best hematologist and was pointed towards Professor David Ritchie, a man of compassion and knowledge who gave Rachael hope and a chance to live. Professor Ritchie agreed with Susi it was too early to give up the fight and within a day, he organised for Rachael to have all the tests needed to get a full and proper assessment of her condition.
With Peter Mac being Australia’s only public hospital dedicated to cancer treatment, it was the only place to be for Rachael as she was tested for lung function and given a pet scan. When there are queues at public hospitals all around Australia and specialist equipment goes unused because staff are untrained or unavailable, Peter Mac did everything to its maximum capacity and provided realistic hope and support for recovery.
Buoyed by this improvement in treatment and attention, Rachael went home for Christmas with a renewed outlook and, in the New Year, renewed hope when she was accepted into a drug trial program. The drug LBH gave Rachael about three years of normal life as it reduced and controlled her tumour until the cancer finally – in its own dreadful and deceitful way – found a way to start resisting the drug. The only downside to the LBH trial for Rachael was the need to constantly be in Melbourne for testing and administering. Rachael spent eight weeks in Melbourne at the start of the trial to ensure she and it reacted well and it could be tolerated. After that initial two months, Rachael had to visit Melbourne every two weeks for a new dose of LBH and to be monitored. That was every fortnight for three years.
Fortunately, Rachael was able to continue her normal life of full-time work and socialising and even travelling overseas, working with Peter Mac to program her treatment around a trip to Europe. Once it became noticeable the LBH started to lose its grip, Professor Ritchie came up with another plan of attack. He had observed that Rachael’s body responded to every treatment for a while, so he ordered more stem cell treatment followed by radiation. That double-hit meant moving to Melbourne for another 12 weeks, but Rachael and her family had total faith in Professor Ritchie, his care and advice.
The doctors in Perth had also suggested more radiation, but it was suggested the family go to Melbourne for it because Peter Mac had more sophisticated equipment than was available in Perth. That process in early 2010 provided a good response, but not enough to put Rachael in remission so the search for the next treatment started in earnest. The drug Brentuximab was the next option. It was not yet available in Australia, but Professor Ritchie somehow managed to get Rachael into a program and Peter Mac took it on as a trial.
It goes to show the level of support and care that Professor Ritchie, and Peter Mac, provided for Rachael that they were prepared to go the extra step and do whatever they could. Because of that Rachael received an extra year of life before finally passing away on July 30, 2011, from pneumonia complicated by the effects of cancer. The care of Professor Ritchie and the compassionate and professional Peter Mac staff highlighted the need for Perth – and other Australian cities – to have their own specialist cancer hospitals.
Perth did not have a hematologist to co-operate and integrate with Rachael and Peter Mac, nor were there facilities and processes connecting Perth’s medical facilities with each other let alone a hospital on the other side of the country. One of the frustrations during Rachael’s fight, especially early on, was the need to repeat the situation at every new facility rather than Rachael’s information and records being available on a central data bank for easy referral.
The lack of continuity in the care and communication through the Perth hospital system was completely eliminated when Rachael was under Peter Mac’s care, underlining the need for a cancer centre in Perth. Aside from the massive emotional and physical toll on Rachael and her family, it cost the Doherty family close to $1 million for travel, accommodation and hospital gaps over seven years. The cost is immaterial when fighting for the life of somebody you love, but there are many families not as financially fortunate. Going to a hospital in Melbourne every fortnight would be out of the question, but not if that hospital was in Perth.
Rachael was brave and gracious throughout her ordeal and never put herself ahead of anybody else. It would give her the greatest pleasure to know that, with a dedicated cancer facility in Perth, patients and their families might be spared a lot of what she and her family had to endure.