Story transcripts

The long goodbye

Sunday, April 9, 2006
Reporter: Tara Brown
Producer: Stephen Taylor

This is a very personal story, a story about very dear friends of mine — David and Shevaune Conry. And I have to say, it is a difficult story for me to tell. You see, Shevaune has MS — multiple sclerosis.

She's only 33, but she's reached a stage where David can no longer look after her. She now needs 24-hour care. To his utter distress, David has found there is nowhere, nowhere at all for his wife except a nursing home for old people.

But David refuses to give up, to abandon Shevaune. As you'll see, David has high hopes to help his wife and others like her.


TARA BROWN: I haven't seen Shevaune Conry since Christmas. She was at home then and, as always, was the bright funny girl I've known for more than a decade. In January she moved, and this is my first visit to her new place, A nursing home for old people. How are you gorgeous woman?

SHEVAUNE CONRY: Good, how are you?

TARA BROWN: Good. The unit's just been done up for Shevaune, and it is lovely, but the idea of my brave 33-year-old friend living here breaks my heart.

SHEVAUNE CONRY: The staff are brilliant.

DAVID CONRY: Hello. How are you going?

TARA BROWN: This is David Conry, Shevaune's husband. Shevaune has moved here because she has multiple sclerosis, and now needs full-time care. It took four years of misdiagnosis before Shevaune was finally told in 1998 she had MS. I remember that one time when a barman wouldn't serve you because he thought you'd had too much to drink.


TARA BROWN: He WAS an idiot. Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the nervous system. Doctors don't know what causes it, and there is no cure.

SHEVAUNE CONRY: It's affected every part of my life.

TARA BROWN: It hasn't affected your brain though, has it?

SHEVAUNE CONRY: A little bit.

TARA BROWN: In what way?

SHEVAUNE CONRY: Memory. But it hasn't made me completely insane.

TARA BROWN: You were completely insane before!


TARA BROWN: In those early days, though they both accepted Shevaune was seriously ill, life was to be lived. MS wasn't going to dominate. Did you ever think twice about getting married after the diagnosis?

DAVID CONRY: No. No, I mean, our plan was always to get married. I think I proposed two weeks after she was diagnosed.

TARA BROWN: Some people would walk away.


TARA BROWN: Not you.


TARA BROWN: For the past eight years, David has cared for his wife. But the MS has so ravaged Shevaune she now needs full-time care, care she can't get at home. When you started to look for the alternatives, what did you find?

DAVID CONRY: Nothing. You know, I just thought you'd pick up the phone and there'd be somewhere for her to go, somewhere nice and somewhere where she could get the right care, and there wasn't.

TARA BROWN: It's remarkable that in 2006, in Australia, there is nowhere for young people who need nursing care, apart from old people's homes. After much searching, David finally found Wesley Mission's Sinnamon Village. In January, Shevaune moved out of her home to here. The weekend when you left your home with David, that must have been a tough day.

SHEVAUNE CONRY: It was the hardest day of my life. It's full of very old people.

TARA BROWN: Sinnamon Village is a great nursing home, but it's designed for the elderly, not 33-year-olds. You were saying you are sure they are lovely, you haven't really met any of these people before?

SHEVAUNE CONRY: No, I'm in a different generation.

TARA BROWN: With respect to these lovely grandmothers, the Shevaune I know has no interest in paper mache. Swimming has always been one of her passions, and thankfully Sinnamon Village provides physiotherapy. There just aren't any young faces. But much of the time Shevaune fills her day watching TV.

DAVID CONRY: Just by her going out this front door — I mean, it was awful. But I tell you what, it wasn't as bad as when I left her nursing home room for the first time. I'll never forget the look of fear in her eyes.

TARA BROWN: And it was fear?

DAVID CONRY: Mmm. Yep. Absolutely. I mean, yes, she was just scared. She was alone.

TARA BROWN: What are you most scared of?


TARA BROWN: So how do you live being scared all the time? How do you cope with that?

SHEVAUNE CONRY: Just got to.

TARA BROWN: I thought we had a deal — I wouldn't make you cry if you didn't make me cry. Shevaune, you'll be alright.

TARA BROWN: David has always been a roll-up-your-sleeves type of bloke, as are his mates, so when they learned there was nowhere appropriate for Shevaune, they formed Young Care, a foundation with one objective — to build nursing homes specifically for young people. Already it's raised its first million, and found its first block of land, donated by Wesley Mission. Plans have been drawn up for an 18-bed home for young people, and building starts in June, but still waiting on any Government funding — the bureaucratic buck passing has been breathtaking.

DAVID CONRY: The Federal Government will go, "It's a State responsibility," and you speak to the State and they go, "It's the Health Department's responsibility," the Health Department go, "It's a Disability Department responsibility." No-one wants to own it. And to desert people when they need it most is appalling.

TARA BROWN: Why don't we care?

DAVID CONRY: I don't know, but they don't make it easy, governments. I remember when I was looking to get extra help for Shevaune, they said to me, "You have to write a letter basically saying that I, David Conry, as husband of Shevaune, am abandoning Shevaune," and that was the terminology they made me say — as if the situation isn't difficult enough without having to make me say, "I abandon my wife." Can you believe that?

TARA BROWN: There are 6,500 young people in aged care in Australia. Some, like 37-year-old Vicky Smith, from Ballarat, injured in a car accident as a teenager, have been here more than half their short lives, their only companions the old and the infirm. And 40-year-old Kerry O'Brian, who, like Shevaune, has multiple sclerosis, will most likely outlive the friends she makes here in her Melbourne nursing home.

MAL BROUGH: Would you like to have your loved one at 30, 35, put into an aged care facility — totally inappropriate care. I wouldn't want to see that happen to my family.

TARA BROWN: Mal Brough is the newly appointed Federal Minister for Families, and in David's view, a politician who is finally listening.

MAL BROUGH: I guess the reality is that some of us have said in the past, "Well, not my responsibility, I can hide from it."

TARA BROWN: No votes in it?

MAL BROUGH: I guess that's true. I mean, people like David and Shevaune are not new. This has happened for decades and governments haven't done anything.

TARA BROWN: David Conry won't be crippled by government inaction. He's ploughing on with the support of the community and friends like Bernard Fanning, from rock group Powder Finger. These two have known each other since primary school.

ELLEN FANNING: When David isn't busy, when he's at home by himself, how is he coping, do you think?

BERNARD FANNING: He's both really brave, when he's by himself, but also a mess, like anyone. I think the couple of weeks after Shev went into care, probably the hardest of his life. He's afraid, and so is Shevaune, and anyone in that situation would be.

TARA BROWN: To help Young Care, Bernard Fanning has dedicated 'Watch Over Me', from his latest album, and has recruited other Australian artists to perform with him at a charity concert later this year. Can you imagine them apart?

BERNARD FANNING: Not really. They have a bond that is unbroken, and I think that's the kind of thing that is the same with your family. If you are apart from them, you don't stop loving them. That bond, it's there permanently.

TARA BROWN: And now that you guys are living apart, how are you coping with that?

SHEVAUNE CONRY: I hate it. It's very different, not having someone beside you in bed.

TARA BROWN: David, you were telling me the other day you haven't actually slept in your bed since Shevaune left.

DAVID CONRY: No, I haven't. Well, the couch is pretty comfy, it's new.

SHEVAUNE CONRY: You're kidding!

TARA BROWN: That probably says everything, doesn't it?

DAVID CONRY: Probably, yes.

TARA BROWN: It's hard to fathom the loneliness these two must feel when they are on their own, but Shevaune thought of it years ago, and begged David to get on with his life — a life without her.

DAVID CONRY: She knew that she was getting sicker and she wanted me to have, you know, all the things that we had planned, you know, kids, and whatever else, and you know, that's how gutsy she is, she's saying "David, I love you, but you should leave me." I just walked away. I never had that conversation.

TARA BROWN: You walked away, but you stayed.

DAVID CONRY: Yeah. Walked out of the room.

TARA BROWN: Strangers may only see Shevaune's disabilities, her shakiness and her wheelchair, but to her friends, inside this frail body is a fabulous, vibrant woman. This 33-year-old gets a kick out of doing what other young people do. Through no fault of her own, Shevaune Conry just happens to be sick. It's sobering to think any one of us could so easily be in her position. Thankfully for her, and the rest of us, she married a man who will always care.

DAVID CONRY: Just more motivated to make a difference now. I mean, that's all I can do — make a difference for Shevaune, in particular, and others. It doesn't make it any less sad, but I'm comfortable that I can't do any more for her.

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