As I walked along the aisle of books at the shop my eye caught the picture of a young girl on the cover. ‘Sarah’s Last Wish’ was the title. I knew instantly that this would be a sad story. I read the back cover and turned it back to once again see Sarah’s face, so innocent and so graceful. There was something about her face that I knew I could not put the book back. This was a story I had to read even though I knew that it was going to be sad. In that moment however I could not have imagined or been prepared for the true depth of sadness that would come from the pages of this story.
Sarah’s Last Wish centres on 11 year old Sarah Westley. She was young, vibrant and happily living her life with her five siblings and parents on their rural property in NSW. When Sarah became ill and her stomach swollen her parents Mark and Dianne took her to the local hospital. Being a Sunday and no testing equipment being used the doctor made the diagnosis that Sarah was pregnant. She was 11 years old and had not even reached puberty. With no formal testing this assumption seemed over the top and inappropriate. That error of judgement and the action that followed by the doctor began a chain of events that would go beyond anyone’s imagination and belief. This book is about the horror of what happened to Sarah and her family over the next two years after that fateful day.
The following day Sarah was taken to a larger teaching hospital. It was discovered that Sarah in fact was not pregnant. Sarah had a rare and aggressive form of ovarian cancer. She had emergency surgery and a large tumour was removed. Her parents were told that there was a good chance of survival if she was given aggressive chemotherapy. As any normal parent would, Sarah’s questioned the effects of the chemotherapy and if there were any other options. They wanted to know that if given chemotherapy would their daughter survive. They wanted to know how the chemotherapy would affect their daughter. They wanted to be well informed before making any decisions. They were doing what any person in their position would do and that was to ask questions. This line of questioning however was not welcomed by anyone. It was seen as resistant and negative, against the best interests of their daughter. Two of the doctors decided to take matters into their own hands.
Before the Westley’s had time to consider their options DOCS had been called and so began their nightmare. DOCS entered and brought with them lies, betrayal, conspiracies and ultimately the loss of power of Sarah’s parents. Sarah’s parents were accused of being in some sort of religious sect that refused treatment and each time they tried to explain their desire for information about the disease they were treated like the enemy. DOCS saw them as a threat and after putting together a file on the family it was decided that Sarah would become a ward of the state.
DOCS and medical staff were now making all the decisions. Despite knowing that Sarah had no chance of survival they forced treatment on her against her and her family’s will. Sarah was forced to endure an operation to remove her spleen when it was not necessary. She was forced to have treatment that made her sick. She was forced to endure painful chemotherapy that did not work. She was forced to continue to go to school, unable to stay awake, unable to stand. By far the most horrific was that Sarah was forced to be separated from her family. From their love, their support, their comfort, their embraces, their healing words. Every ounce of security was taken from this young girl. She now had to not only deal with a life ending disease, she had to deal with it alone. She was just 11 years old. All Sarah wanted was to go home. She knew she was sick, she knew she was dying and yet no one other than her parents listened to her. For Sarah and her family it was about quality of life for whatever time she had left.
Sarah’s Last Wish is one of the most gut wrenching, heartbreaking and most of the time painfully difficult books I have ever read. The cruelty and injustice that this family was shown by the people who should have helped them was inconceivable. This book for me brought out emotions of anger, disbelief, disgust and distress to name a few. I can’t seem to understand how any of this happened or why. It is beyond anything I have ever known to try and understand how horrific this ordeal was for the Westley family. How all the people involved fed off each other in destroying what time Sarah had left and the pain and suffering she went through. With each page I begged and pleaded that it would all end but it just didn’t. The destruction kept going and going and just when I thought nothing else could possibly destroy these people, there it was - another blow.
Sarah’s parents fought for their daughter. They went to court time and time again. They fought to get her treatment overseas. They fought for other options.They fought for her to have proper meals. They fought for her to be taken home. They fought for information. They did everything that was humanly possible in their fight for Sarah. Unfortunately the doctors, nurses, lawyers, judges and every other department that was involved were far too powerful.
In the end when the authorities and doctors had finished experimenting with Sarah, had finished with their power play and realised that she would not survive, they gave Sarah back. No apologies, no remorse. She returned to her family a shadow of the young, vibrant and energetic girl she once was. She returned with a body that had endured horrific treatment, none of which did anything except bring her closer to the end. Sarah finally got to go home. Although it was only for a short time she went back to her animals, her favourite hill and her loving family. The physical events of the previous two years had broken Sarah, however if there was one comfort in all of this it was that no matter what they could not break her spirit.
Nearing the end Sarah was taken to a Melbourne hospital where she was treated with the dignity and respect that she and her family deserved from the very start. Sarah passed away on October 25, 2004 surrounded by her family and is buried on her favourite hill on her family’s farm.
I did not pick up another book for months after reading this one. I cried for days and weeks later. It is an extremely emotional story and no matter how many times I wished it wasn’t true, it was. Sarah’s last wish was that no other child ever suffered the way she did. In her final days she made her father promise that he would tell everyone what happened to her, what those people did to her. I encourage everyone to buy this book, read it and then pass it on to a friend. Grant Sarah’s last wish by reading her story, it will change you forever and you will never forget Sarah Westley.