20 March 2013

The O’Brien’s story

Written by  James Published in Insurance
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An outwardly happy family smiles for the camera at Christmas in 2006. This is the family of Chris and Gail O’Brien and their three teenage children. It’s the perfect family shot, but on the inside, this was a family in crisis.

Just one month earlier, Professor Chris O’Brien, the respected head and neck surgeon and cancer specialist, and much loved doctor from the popular television series RPA, had been diagnosed with one of the deadliest forms of brain cancer – a glioblastoma multiforme.

At the time, Chris was running a busy and successful medical practice. As well as operating and treating patients with cancers of the head and neck, he was also Director of the Sydney Cancer Centre based at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. It was almost unthinkable that someone who had devoted their life to treating and saving cancer patients would be struck by the very illness he had spent his career fighting.

Chris was unwell for around a month prior to his diagnosis, experiencing fatigue and general lethargy. The fatigue eventually became overwhelming and he was plagued by headache and nausea. By the time wife Gail took him to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in late November 2006, he was extremely unwell. The diagnosis was made following a CT scan on admission to the emergency department. It was a brain tumour with a most terrifying reputation, astrocytoma grade 4, also known as glioblastoma multiforme, from which there is only a 1 per cent survival rate and life expectancy of just six months. The diagnosis could not have been much worse.

The O’Brien family was grief stricken. Friends and colleagues were floored. There was an outpouring of concern from the public who had watched Chris on RPA over the previous twelve years. The irony was not lost on anyone: that a dedicated doctor who had spent his life saving the lives of others should himself be diagnosed with the same disease.

Five years before Chris’s diagnosis, the O’Brien’s recognised that they needed to review their finances and update their life insurance. After discussing this with their accountant, they were referred to a financial adviser.

Chris and Gail wanted a financial adviser with whom they could develop a relationship built on trust and confidence. “We found the world of risk insurance foreign, confusing and expensive. We certainly understood the importance of having it but we didn’t believe we would ever really need it. Sound advice on the best approach to take was what was required” said Gail.

Like many of us, Chris O’Brien had an attitude typical of many Australians, thinking ‘it won’t happen to me’ but their adviser insisted personal risk insurance was a critical part of any financial plan. “Our adviser had such confidence in her ability to work out a structure that was right for us, yet was also sensitive to Chris’s aversion to paying high premiums” said Gail.

Their financial adviser worked with them to create a long term plan for wealth and retirement. Importantly a full review of their risk protection needs was conducted and appropriate personal risk insurance was put in place. Not only life insurance, but also insurance to protect in the event of disability or serious illness and take care of business expenses.

According to Gail, “rather than make recommendations and leave it up to us to decide, our adviser was emphatic and positive about what was needed, giving real life scenarios of what had happened to some of her other clients. She displayed enormous common sense and obviously had our interests at heart”.

In late 2006 the family were at a cross roads; overnight Chris’s income had stopped, but they still had endless costs with a mortgage, school fees, car and business equipment leases and so on. Chris’s illness would severely impact the family’s ability to continue living as it always had. “A busy medical practice does not shut down overnight just because the doctor is not there. It really is a huge machine which needed to be fed while other arrangements were being made” said Gail.Although they lived in a lovely home, selling it was simply not an option. “Our family had been thrown into panic by Chris’s illness, and selling the only semblance of stability at that time would have made the situation even worse” recalls Gail.

Immediately following Chris’s shock diagnosis, Gail contacted their financial adviser, who provided the necessary assistance to lodge claims and support the family through the process, and ensuring that benefits were paid promptly. “Our adviser offered support and guidance during every step of the claims process. We were never alone to fend for ourselves during this chaotic time”, said Gail.

Following diagnosis, it took several months for the initial shock to subside and for Chris to develop a positive mindset to fight the cancer. But, sadly, Chris died on June 4, 2009 at the age of 57, after a valiant two and a half year battle. He was honoured by a State funeral at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney attended by over 2000 mourners including the Prime Minister, Governor General, dignitaries and many former patients. He was a doctor who had the common touch, a humble man who touched many lives.

Gail and Chris O’Brien’s story is one that is all too common, but thankfully they had the financial support to maintain some normality in their lives during Chris’s illness and prepare themselves for his inevitable death. Many Australians who experience illness or injury are not so lucky, and without the appropriate cover in place, they and their families face a much more uncertain future.

Gail has reflected on how they family would have got by without the insurance cover and support of their trusted financial adviser. “We were in a state of panic and paralysed by grief. We simply would not have coped if we were not protected financially, and the value of having our adviser there to help was immeasurable”.

Chris O’Brien said many times that he regarded his illness as a gift because he was able to leverage off his illness to do good. Chris pioneered a revolution in cancer care in Australia with the establishment of a fully integrated and holistic cancer centre where the treatment of patients is driven by research, uncompromising care is delivered with kindness, and hope is never taken away. The Chris O’Brien Lifehouse at RPA will open its doors to the public in 2013.

Special thanks to Gail O’Brien for her generous contribution to this article.

Source: Charter Financial Planning Limited

The articles appearing on this website provide general information only. You need to consider with your financial planner your investment objectives, financial situation and your particular needs prior to making an investment decision.

Read 103680 times Last modified on Thursday, 21 March 2013 07:13

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