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Carol McDonald – a remarkable survivor

We walked through Carol McDonald’s immaculate little house in Darlington and sat looking out into her beautiful garden on the rising land at the back. The dogs around our feet greeted us enthusiastically and the sun shone. Then I asked her about her beginnings in life. What a contrast! reports Dorothy McRae-McMahon in the South Sydney Herald in October 2009.

She was born in Eastlakes and given away at 2 years of age, to be cared for by her grandparents. Carol remembers hunting for leeches which would be used to diminish the bruises on her body. Her parents took her back a while later. Her mother died at 42, drinking methylated spirits. Her father was a violent sociopath, who was eventually imprisoned.

In 1951, at the age of 12, she became a Ward of the State and lived her next years being moved into various Girls’ Homes, two of which were in Glebe. The descriptions of her life in these institutions sound like something out of a Charles Dickens book. By 6am they were scrubbing floors, followed by the laundry – endless sheet washing in cold water, followed by the boiling copper and mangles. Then there was the cooking, with requirements to find any weevils. There were severe punishments for minor breaches of the strict rules. It was a miserable and anxious life, for children who felt lost and lonely with no families of their own. There was little schooling for Carol, who had no shoes, books or uniform. She worked in a factory to try to raise some money.

She now shows us her invitation to attend the Government apology to people who, like herself, were another form of “stolen generation”. The love and parenting and care they were due in their young lives was, in effect, stolen from them. She is not sure what that apology will mean for her, if anything.

In spite of her deprived and abused beginnings, Carol McDonald got on with her life. From the age of 16, she worked, originally at the GPO in Martin Place. She married at 19 and had two children, a son and a daughter. The decision to end the marriage was hers and she simply moved on, taking nothing with her, and set herself up again in another home. She, of course, always carries with her the love for her children and now grandchildren.

In more recent years, she was working for a TAB Agency, in various roles. However, after dealing with six robberies, with her behind the counter in two different locations, she felt it was time to retire from that job! Most of the robberies were committed by armed men and we sat, amazed, and listened to the way she casually told us how she had tried to outwit them all by herself! However, the last one involved a whole gang of violent men and she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. It was at this stage that she retired.

In 2007, she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Leiomyosarcoma, for which there is no known cure. It is very aggressive and attacks many parts of the body at once. To try to delay its progress she had to decide whether to have some chemotherapy treatments alongside various trial operations. She felt it was worth doing that, partly for her own sake and partly in order to contribute to future information about cancer treatment for others. In spite of all efforts, her body quickly resumes its battle with the cancer and the symptoms return.

Her hair comes and goes – friends and neighbours recognise the scarf as the sign of it going. She laughs to herself as she describes her fingernails and toenails falling off after one treatment and her needing to cancel the manicure and pedicure which she had previously arranged. She remembers being given apricot kernels to eat by one of her family because they had been told this would help – and then finding that, quite apart from tasting terrible, they were quite toxic for her! She has nothing but gratitude and respect for the fine care she has been receiving, especially from the Royal Women’s Hospital and the various doctors and nurses who have been treating her.

What lies ahead? Hard decisions about whether to go on with any more treatment. Facing that this may be her last Christmas. Thinking about a will and any wishes she may have for what happens after she dies. She agrees that she still has thinking to do and much to face.

One thing is for sure. Carol McDonald is a survivor in the most profound sense. Her traumatic, and in many ways tragic life, has not defeated her spirit – her capacity for love and laughter and her gentle heart.

Photo: Ali Blogg - Carol McDonald with her four-legged friends