in , , , ,

MELISSA NIELSEN – A LIFE’S LEGACY

WORDS: Naomi De Costa

A few months ago, my dear friend Melissa came over for a wine in the pool. What started as a pretty sedate affair turned in to a full-blown dance party in the kitchen with five kids, while I made spaghetti in my swimmers. This ordinary day is now a memory I will always cherish …

Just a few weeks later, Melissa was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour.

She was gracious, and funny, and so, so brave. But none of that stopped her from dying a few weeks later, on 10 June 2020.

She was only 38 years old.

Her death has been an incredible tragedy, most acutely for her wonderful husband Rudy, their three children, her parents and sisters.

Melissa was also an extraordinarily loving friend and colleague, and so she was loved enormously in return, by a huge number of people.

When someone dies so young, and so unexpectedly it must be hard to leave any kind of lasting legacy. Melissa though was different, and while she was a loving mother, and a widely respected and sought-after lawyer, she also contributed to many community endeavours.

I first met her when we were on the management committee of the Cairns Community Legal Centre, but Melissa went on to numerous voluntary positions – from the St Joseph’s P&C to Advance Cairns (and many others in between). She would also bake for any cause, including for friends if they were having a bad day. She epitomised the expression ‘if you need something done, give it to a busy person.’

Other than her children, who look like Botticelli’s angels (but have her fierce personality), her greatest legacy is in the work she did in this town for the charity Send Hope Not Flowers. Melissa became synonymous with this charity, and I hope that the annual lunch will become a fixture on the Cairns calendar, if it isn’t already. That event has now raised more than $150,000, and has brought awareness to the hundreds that have attended of the plight of women who die in childbirth, in PNG and other areas of our region.

There is no doubt that Melissa’s work has saved countless lives of those mothers, and their children and what greater legacy can there be? More than any kind of accolade, I know that Melissa was incredibly proud of what she had achieved.

Send Hope Not Flowers, if you’re not familiar with it, is a charity that started in Canberra almost ten years ago. It was the brainchild of Professor Steve Robson, a Canberra obstetrician, who on ward rounds regularly visited mothers in the hospital who were surrounded by bunches of flowers.

Melissa and her familyMelissa with her sisters and parents

Reading an article in Time magazine about mothers dying in childbirth due to lack of the most basic medical interventions, he was struck by the idea that if the money used for those flowers went into maternal care elsewhere, so many lives could be saved. It is a simple, but compelling idea.

After all, anyone who has had a child knows both that while flowers are lovely, they also die right at the point all the post-baby blues kick in, and that in those critical moments when you’re having a baby, medical care is worth more than all the money in the world.

My mum is a friend of Steve Robson’s, and attended the launch in Canberra in 2012. At the time, I had recently joined Miller Harris Lawyers, and struck up a firm friendship with Melissa. Melissa was always looking for things to add some kind of ‘human value’ to her practice.

While she was an exceptional commercial lawyer, Melissa had studied law because she wanted to make a difference, and never felt by drafting leases she was quite achieving that (her words, not mine).

She had studied law because she wanted to make a difference, and never felt by drafting leases she was quite achieving that.

My mum had suggested to me that we could host some kind of event to raise money for Send Hope Not Flowers, and while I hadn’t flat out refused, I was sceptical.

While I was very much moved by the idea and had recently had a baby myself (and received, I think, 18 bunches of flowers), I just didn’t think that the Cairns business community was ready to take on a charity that was so new, and that largely supported black women’s gynaecological and obstetric needs. It turns out I was wrong.

I just didn’t think that the Cairns business community was ready to take on a charity that was so new, and that largely supported black women’s gynaecological and obstetric needs. It turns out I was wrong.

When I spoke to Melissa about it, she was keen from the beginning. She read the TIME magazine article and was appalled. Both Melissa and I had our babies under the wonderful care of Dr Tom Wright and felt enormous gratitude for the care we received. She said she would talk to the partners at Miller Harris about it, and I thought it would end there.

Send Hope provided the report and statistics of Dr Barry Kirby’s recent pilot to trial baby bundles in the health centres of the Milne Bay province in PNG, which Send Hope had supported. In black and white, the numbers about the lives saved were there. The partners agreed, and it was born.

   

The first lunch in 2013 was a sell-out success. Dr Barry Kirby is one of the best speakers you will ever see – he is charming, rough around the edges, and radiates a beautiful, irresistible kind of humanity.

What made the event a critical success from the start was other corporate sponsors and supporters – mostly our clients, friends and colleagues that we asked to come on board. When you are putting a new concept out to the world, having the financial and public support of sponsors like Grant Thornton, AirFirst and Cairns Orthopaedic Group is an enormous relief. That they have continued to back the event consistently, together with so many other great sponsors who have come on board, helped enormously. The staff and Miller Harris, particularly Lauren Turner and Marnie Gabbert, also made a huge difference.

It was not always easy though. There are moments over the years that I remember with combined panic and hilarity – like desperately trying to convince Professor Glen Mola not to show photos of the products of a molar pregnancy (which would have been far too much blood at lunchtime!), and when we found out that Send Hope Not Flowers wasn’t a registered charity in Queensland, and we rapidly had to obtain emergency permission the day before the event to proceed with the fundraiser.

While these events were incredibly rewarding, they were also enormously stressful to put on behind the scenes. Every year, Melissa said she wasn’t sure she would do it again next year.

And yet every year, she did. And 2020 was going to be no exception, although she had plans to do things a little bit differently this year.

With COVID and everything else, there is no doubt that will be the case. In her own way though, Melissa has continued to support Send Hope Not Flowers – since she died, those many people who she touched have made donations to Send Hope in her honour, now over $20,000.

Send Hope are planning to honour Melissa, at one of the birth houses they want to build with the money she raised.

I look forward to one day being able to visit and to hold one of those precious babies, and the hand of a proud new Mum, and know that Melissa’s spirit lives on.

YOU CAN MAKE A DONATION TO SEND HOPE NOT FLOWERS IN MELISSA’S NAME AT SENDHOPE.ORG

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

SEND HOPE NOT FLOWERS | OCTOBER 2019

What do you think?

Written by #TeamOasis

HOW RUGBY LEAGUE DEFINES QUEENSLANDERS

FIT YOUR OWN MASKS FIRST LADIES