The real oil on Helen Kelly

Steve Braunias sat with Helen Kelly, New Zealand's leading campaigner for medical cannabis, as she had chemotherapy this week.

There she was on Thursday afternoon with her headscarf and her green eyes, a visitor from Wellington sitting in a large chair with a footrest in the really quite pleasant wards of the Canopy Cancer Centre at Mercy Hospital in Epsom, hooked up to two bags of chemo.

"I haven't given up," said Helen Kelly. "But I am going to die. You wouldn't put your house on me being here in six months time."

Now and then another patient was helped on to his feet, and taken for a walk. He was very thin and very tall. There was the clatter of teacups and saucers, low conversation, sometimes something resembling a laugh. A terrible landscape clung to the wall like a stain. There was a doctor wearing a lively chequered suit. The curtains were pulled wide apart and offered a beautiful day; autumn sunlight glowed on top of Mt Eden.

A nurse put in a needle near Kelly's wrist. She turned her head. "Wimpy, eh? Not looking."

There were black rings underneath her eyes. She has advanced lung cancer. It's also attacked the brain. But she was witty and calm, and still kind of bemused at the curious fact of her second act in New Zealand public life - for years, she was the strong, determined face of industrial relations as president of the Council of Trade Unions, and she is now the de facto go-to national campaigner for medical cannabis.

Her own application was turned down. She asked the Ministry of Health for approval to take cannabis oil products made by Bloom Farms in San Francisco. The range includes Pineapple Kush oil ("a bright pineapple aroma with a hint of mint", according to the catalogue) and Mango Kush oil (grown in Garberville, California, "the marijuana heartland of the US").

They're inhaled as vapour, with 45-50 per cent THC content, for daytime and evening pain relief; Kelly estimates it would cost about $400 for six vapour pens. (She said she's already spent $100,000 on medicine treatment: "Dying is expensive. Thank God for Kiwisaver.")

The only alternative is old-fashioned illegal cannabis. I said, "Dak, pot, weed - what are you taking, exactly?" She said, "People have been dropping me off lovely cannabis cookies. They're mild, but they're good enough for me. I'll eat them at about 11am and I can get right through the day. I also take oil. Somebody's making it for me. I don't exactly know how they do it, but they cook it down and down and down until it looks like gunk, a black gunk, which is oil, and I suck it up into an empty syringe, and put a milligram of it on my tongue. It tastes disgusting. It's like eating dirty cigarettes."

Helen Kelly addresses delegates during the conclusion sessiom at the Job Summit on employment held at the TelstraClear Pacific Events Centre. Photo / NZME
Helen Kelly addresses delegates during the conclusion sessiom at the Job Summit on employment held at the TelstraClear Pacific Events Centre. Photo / NZME

"What's it do?"

She said, "It takes about an hour to come on, and it eases the pain in my hips and in the spine. And it puts you to sleep in a really nice way. Cannabis is the only thing I take which lets me sleep all night."

I said, "There was a story on The Spinoff recently with the deadly headline, "A nation in crisis". It was about the alarming shortage of cannabis over summer. Were you able to get a supply?"

She said, "I was overseas for a lot of that and I can tell you there was plenty in Geneva. I was having brownies. It was all I could get. They've legalised medical cannabis over there, but they haven't made the products available. So a friend went down to the sleazy end of Geneva and bought some cannabis, and came home and made butter from it, and baked cookies."

I said, "So you're kind of constantly mildly stoned. How did this start?"

She said, "People sent me articles about cannabis as a pain relief, and a friend of mine said, 'Well, why don't you try it?' Because it's amazing who's taking it. A head of a major business got in contact and said, 'I can trust you not to tell anyone, but I run a huge company and I'm in constant pain and cannabis oil enables me to keep working.'

"I've had a woman ring me up

whose mother was bedridden with arthritis. She said, 'How do I get some oil?' I tell people, 'To get it, just ask around.' I mean, it's everywhere. And now her mum's actually able to get out of bed."

I said, "Are you awash in pot?"

"I could be!" she said. "Honestly. I mean people have stopped me and chucked a rubbish bag full of dope into the car. But I keep it off the property. It's a class B drug, cannabis oil. I don't have anything to do with it."

I said, "It's so unlikely this has happened to you, isn't it, your role as a medical cannabis campaigner. Was it a conscious decision to go public?"

She said, "Well, I didn't see it coming. But after I got sick, I was booked to go on The Nation [on TV3], and I said to my partner that morning, 'I'm going to tell them.' Because somebody is breaking the law quite seriously to deliver me these drugs, and there's phenomenal benefit from it, and there's all these families who can't benefit from it.

"I need to take advantage of my position to speak out about it. We need a good law. A better law."

The needle hadn't actually found the vein, so the nurse came back for a second stab. This time it worked. Kelly turned her head again, winced in pain, and said, "What are you doing to me?" The saline got hooked up, and then the chemo. The steady drip of the clear liquid, the steady murmur of death in the pleasant room.

A recent UMR poll has showed 72 per cent support cannabis for medical purposes. The new climate in public attitudes towards the drug has helped shift attitudes towards Kelly, too. At the CTU, she was one of the most actively disliked women in the country - during the industrial dispute brought on by The Hobbit, she dared to criticise his foaming holiness, Sir Peter Jackson. But now Whaleoil has come out in support of Kelly's stand on cannabis, and there have even been congenial interviews with Mike Hosking.

I said to her, "It appears you are having the novel experience of being widely liked." She said, "I have begun to realise that, actually. It's been quite phenomenal since I've got sick. I wonder if it's just because I'm sick. But it is amazing, isn't it? I've had absolutely lovely letters from employers and politicians, National politicians. We don't all hate each other. We just disagree with each other, right?"

Protesting in Napier as president of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions. Photo / NZME
Protesting in Napier as president of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions. Photo / NZME

"Did you receive a note from Key?"

"No. But I know that he would haveI meanHe and I are not enemies. I did get a nice note from Finlayson, and one from English."

"How do you rate Key?"

"A very, very poor Prime Minister. His response to tax havens is just outrageous. And all that stuff about shower gels."

I said, "Shower gels?"

"You know, soap in the shower or whatever," she said, still seething about the fairly harmless radio appearance from last December, when Key and his radio hosts joked about dropping the soap in the shower.

"I just thought it was juvenile. And I didn't vote in the flag debate. I decided, 'I'm not playing that game.' I've had enough of all Key's games."

"How do you rate Andrew Little?"

She said, "I think he can get there, but I think he needs to take more opportunities, and not second-guess Labour's core values."

"How do you rate his predecessor?" "Who was that?"

"Cunliffe," I reminded her.

"Um - I don't know. I'm just not into these personality politics. I think values matter." I said, "Yes, but you could just answer the question."

She said, "I liked him and I couldn't figure out why he couldn't make it work."

Kelly gave serious thought to standing as a Labour MP in the last election. She wanted to take on the education role in Parliament. "If I was ever going to stand, that was the time," she said. "It's a regret I never got in there and did it.

"But if I've ever had a lucky escape, that might be it. Because what's going on in the world at the moment? Everybody's so unempathetic to each other. I think that's the nub of everything. We've lost our empathy. It's been trained out of people. A kid can get drowned in the beach and for a few days we're all empathetic."

She meant the death of Syrian refugee, 3-year-old Alan Kurdi.

I said, "You're very cynical."

"Yeah, I am cynical. I think maybe that comes with being sick. I just think we could be so much better. I'm really disappointed in the way this Government has been able to manipulate New Zealanders' psyches away from putting their best foot forward to putting their worst foot forward.

"One of the things I admired in Helen Clark, and I loved Helen Clark, is that New Zealanders felt we had to care about everything. It was exhausting! We had to care about the bloody Tampa kids [the Afghani asylum seekers], and industrial relations, and racism, and sexism, and the environment, and John Key doesn't care about very much at all."

People have been dropping me off lovely cannabis cookies. They're mild, but they're good enough for me.

A nurse had left Kelly a plate of biscuits. I swiped one, and said with equal sensitivity, "The likelihood is you'll die during the Key administration. How long do they say you've got?"

She said, "Yeah. Will I live to the next election? They're saying months."

"What's going to happen to you?"

She said, "I don't know. I don't know. That's one thing I haven't been brave enough to . . . It'll be lungs or the brain, and I don't know what's worse.

"The last scan I had, the brain cancer was under control, and the lung cancer was knocked back by 20 per cent, but all that is absolutely temporary. I'm hoping, and I'm having more scans next week, that it's stable. So we'll see. But the question for me is will I drown, which is what lung cancer does, or the other thing is some sort of brain catastrophe, which I don't want."

"Have you asked about that?"

"No. It's a really big question, isn't it? Why haven't I asked that, I wonder. I just want to manage my symptoms and get well. As well as I can."

I thought about the nice notes she'd received from Chris Finlayson and Bill English, and asked, "Did you get a note from Talleys?"

As recently as December, Kelly was presumably so loathed by Talleys, which own the Affco meat processing plants, that executives reportedly would not accept her sitting in the same room with them at mediation.

"I haven't had a nice letter from Peter Talley," she said. "And I wouldn't want one."

She assumed her health was perfectly fine until February 2015.

She said, "I woke up one night in pain. It was about three in the morning. I thought, 'I'm having a heart attack.'

"So I went into the hospital, and they didn't find anything. I was just at A and E, and a lung oncologist happened to be on call that night. They took a chest X-ray, and he said to me, 'It's not very good, actually.'

"I said to him, 'Do you think it might be terminal?'

"He said, 'Yeah, we do.'

"They did a CT scan and they could see it had spread everywhere. And so two young doctors who were on duty had to call us in, and they put us in a private room. We knew then. And they said, 'You have very advanced lung cancer, and these are all the treatments.' They were great, actually."

I asked, "How did you respond?"

She said, "I can't remember. I certainly didn't have that devastation of, 'Oh my God!' I'm a very practical person. I believe in mortality. I was in hospital, and people die. I feel incredibly privileged being able to die slowly."

I said, "Who is it hardest on?"

She said, "My mother. I don't think parents should bury their kids. And that's the thing - when you're sick like me, you see people who are sicker, or you see people sitting with their sick kids, and you begin to feel lucky. I wouldn't want to be my mother. That's harder. It's hard on everybody, but it's easier for me. You've got the exit strategy, haven't you?"

I said, "Even so, are you experiencing the dark 3am of the soul?"

Helen Kelly was in Tauranga. Photo / John Borren
Helen Kelly was in Tauranga. Photo / John Borren

"No," she said. "Are you frightened?" "No," she said. "The only thing that frightens me is when I feel a pain, and I think, 'I hope this is as bad as it gets.' You hope it's not a sign of what it's going to be like."

I said, "Are you going to disappoint me and say you've become all spiritual and that?" "No," she said.

I said, "You don't think you'll see your dad on the other side, or people you knew, like Ernie Abbott?" In 1984, Abbott was the Wellington Trades Hall caretaker killed in a bomb blast; no arrests were made, but there have always been suspicions it was intended to kill her father, Pat Kelly, also a union president.

"No," she said. "There is no other side. They've passed away. They've made their contribution. And that should be enough."

I said, "So what's the point? Is it leaving some kind of legacy?"

She said, "Well, what is the point? There might be no point. I hate to say it. What is the point? I don't even go there. But I'd like to leave a legacy, of leaving things a little bit in a better place, or of helping people thinking about things a little bit differently."

We talked for a while about how we probably moved in the same Wellington scene, in the 1980s, when we were in our 20s. "I'm 54," she said. "No. 53. I think."

I said, "You're not sure?" "I was born in 1964," she said. "When?" "September."

"Helen," I said, "you're 51."

"51!"

"Yeah," I said. "51."

"I'm too young to die," she said.

Helen Kelly

• Age 51. Daughter of trade union leader Pat Kelly, and his wife Cath. Pat Kelly emigrated from Liverpool. Her mother, Cath Eichelbaum, is a cousin of former Chief Justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum.

• The Kellys were initially Communists, but Pat Kelly later became an active figure in the industrial wing of the Labour Party. David Lange said of her father: "Gaddafi without the charm."

• Grew up in the Wellington suburb of Mt Victoria and still lives there. She and her brother Max did paper rounds. Attended Wellington High School, and Victoria University, where she studied law and education.

• Husband is Steve Hurring. Kelly has a son, Dylan, from an earlier relationship.

• Started as a primary teacher at Johnsonville Main School. Became a union delegate at the school, before embarking on a trade union career. Organiser with the Association of University Staff, now the New Zealand Tertiary Education Union. ?Spent five years as AUS until her election as Council of Trade Unions president in 2007.

• Diagnosed with lung cancer early last year. Never been a smoker.

- NZ Herald

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