While fate and ill-health brought journalist Grant Jones and nurse Keith Cox together, the result is a long-lasting friendship that has resulted in a book, A Caring Life. Here, Grant recalls how it all came about.
While he is a man of science, Keith is also a man of God. No doubt the first time we met was when he had handed me a communion wafer, as he is an acolyte at St Mark’s Catholic Church, Drummoyne. I had returned to the Catholic Church in 2008, after the baptism of our son Louis by Monsignor Vince Redden, who just happened to be my parish priest at St Cecilia’s, Balgowlah when my parents had arrived in Sydney from Melbourne in 1967. It was only later that I discovered that Monsignor Vince, or Mons Vins, had been of great spiritual guidance to Keith. I felt a commitment to start giving back to the community that I was becoming part of and, when Louis started primary school, as the then food editor of The Daily Telegraph, I thought it would be a good idea to offer cooking classes to the kids. Thanks to the permission of the Principal and help from kindy teachers, we made Gruffalo pizzas, cooked them in the school canteen and everyone had a great time. The co-ordinator then suggested I might want to volunteer for the St Mark’s crew that cooked meals for the less fortunate at St Canice’s Kitchen, Potts Point every few weeks. So I signed up for the roster. Keith Cox had been at the helm of that kitchen for more than a quarter of a century, feeding hundreds of homeless, mentally ill and drug-affected every few weeks at the Roslyn St centre.
During my first visit, I volunteered to do the dishes where I saw the first plates eaten clean of their contents of anemic reheated meat, boiled potatoes and overcooked frozen green beans. I bit my tongue. On the second occasion, I worked the floor, picking up plates and noticing our guests often returning two, three or four times for more food, each subsequent plate having the best bits picked off and more and more wasted food going into the bin. Needless to say, I was unhappy with the waste and thought the menu could do with a revamp. Keith and I had a coffee and he said he was happy to make some changes. Eventually, with a little guidance from me, we were able to offer roast beef and gravy, rosemary potatoes, minted peas and beans, fresh salads, cakes for morning tea and desserts. Keith appeared impressed enough to hand me the reins as St Canice coordinator a few years later, in 2015.
Later that same year, I had a heart attack and needed surgery at RPA to insert a stent, and Keith came to the rescue. He checked in on me and offered sage advice on medication and diet, plus taking back over the role of St Canice co-ordinator until I was well enough to return. Keith knew my cardiac surgeon, Raj Puranik, so I dropped Keith’s name during follow-up visits. Everyone at RPA seemed to know Keith or had heard of him. Back at work, in 2016, I fractured my wrist on an ice rink. The fracture healed but subsequent scans revealed a torn ligament, which needed surgery, this time at Prince of Wales. Needless to say, Keith visited as soon as I got home. With ill health, stress and continuing work pressures, I decided to leave the Telegraph later that year to create my own consultancy, focus on my family and continue my community work. I started to get to know Keith more and hear stories about his almost half-century in nursing, dropping names such as Anthony Warlow, Mike Willessee, Fred Hollows and Marc Hunter among the more famous. There is also Keith’s Six Degrees of Separation, which can sometimes be pared back to two degrees. In mid-2016, after a long battle with lung cancer, Rod Hollis, the husband of my partner’s cousin, passed away. His nurse? Keith Malcolm Cox. When no one else could, Keith was able to manage Rod’s temper and frustration at the difficult end of an independent, full and rewarding life. There’s a book in this, I thought.
In further research, Keith showed me a picture of a young man, missing an arm, and attached to a drip while sitting in a wheelchair. He was chatting to Prince Charles. Doug Yorath had been a favourite patient of Keith, not that he was supposed to have favourites. But the name was unusual, so I called one of my oldest friends to see if he was related. Doug and he were cousins. Again, another story told and several pages filled.
In early 2018, when Keith was on the cusp of handing over everything to retire, he suggested it might be a lovely idea if “someone” could write a story about his work at Lifehouse. He looked at me. I made contact with The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine, which commissioned me to write a column for The Two of Us section. It featured Keith and his friend, oncologist and head of Lifehouse Michael Boyer, who Keith had known since Michael was a med student. Michael was another of the driving forces behind the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse centre after the death of its namesake Chris O’Brien, the leading cancer surgeon and reluctant RPA reality series star whose life was claimed by the illness he was trained to treat. Keith was at Chris’s side over the months during which aggressive brain cancer claimed his life. That Two Of Us article also revealed that Keith had treated and cared for Michael Boyer’s brother, David, who was diagnosed with colon cancer. David had his last, successful treatment at Lifehouse just after it opened in 2013. It was a difficult task to fit Keith’s life into 550 words.
In 2019, I had MC’d on stage at the school fete for six hours straight while Keith was on barbecue duty. Later that night, I rushed myself off to RPA again, this time for appendicitis, and I underwent an emergency surgery – 23 hours later. Keith was there again as I recovered, telling the nurses what to do, organising my discharge papers, post-op medication and driving me home from the hospital. Over the next few days, he re-dressed my wounds and helped me yet again through the recovery process.
In June 2020, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, on a Friday night after dinner, I was in great pain, so took myself off to RPA where I was diagnosed with gallstones. Admitted in the early hours of Saturday morning, I later had my gallbladder removed the next day, in addition to I also had a supposedly minimally invasive procedure to pluck a rogue gallstone out of my bile duct. Two days later I was in agony, the procedure having irritated my pancreas. In a technicolour haze fuelled by Endone and morphine, Keith walked in like he owned the joint. He brought in essential supplies, fussed over bedding, showed concern about my care and asked about my pain relief. A week later, after being an inpatient for eight days, Keith was there again for my discharge, bringing in clean clothes, making sure I had fresh dressings, organising ward staff to sort out my meds and shortcutting the arduous processes for discharge letters. He checked in again on me at home, two days later and re-dressed my numerous puncture wounds. I thought if he has done this for men, how many thousands of others has he done it for. I made him a coffee, placed it in front of him and said “Keith. I have a proposal. I want to write your book.”
Cancer nurse practitioner Keith Cox OAM retired from practice at Lifehouse in 2018 after 47 years of caring for patients and families. In his “retirement” Keith is on six boards, including his own Keith Cox Scholarship which funds further education for cancer nurses, and he continues his community work. Writer Grant Jones is a former TV producer and newspaper section editor who now runs his own content agency and communications company. The pair work out at the local gym three times a week, when they have the time.
A Caring Life: What fifty years in nursing has taught me about humanity, compassion and community, by Keith Cox with Grant Jones. PanMacMillan $34.99. You can purchase it here: https://www.panmacmillan.com.au/9781760987251/a-caring-life/