Auckland mum Celia O'Donoghue hauls a lemonade ice block out of her garage freezer while recounting a heart-rending story of loss, illness - and betrayal by a health system that, she says, has let both her daughter, Mia and her late husband down.

O'Donoghue is used to multi-tasking. The ice block is for her three-year-old daughter Tabitha, patiently sitting on the couch. It will help keep her occupied while O'Donoghue talks.

Mia, one of 13-year-old triplets, has melanoma and lymphoedema, the result of lymph nodes being removed from her groin after the cancer was found to have spread.

In January O'Donoghue's husband, Greg Goodwin died after a gruelling battle with bowel cancer. The family all miss him terribly, and Tabitha is still traumatised by his death.


On the kitchen bench is a roast chicken meal cooked by a friend, worried that O'Donoghue was getting worn down.

"Take home this delicious food," her friend said. "Eat it."

She is grateful for the thought behind the meal. It is friends like that, her family and old school mates of her late husband who have got O'Donoghue through two years of hell and have helped to pay medical bills.

She met her husband-to-be, Greg Goodwin, 10 years ago. He was to become a devoted step-father to her young triplets, Mia, Max and Oliver. Three years ago the couple had Tabitha.

Life was perfect. The family lived in Epsom and Goodwin had a good income.

But then things started to unravel when Goodwin, then in his early 50s, became ill.
Doctors determined he was suffering from a nervous breakdown. He left work but became increasingly unwell.

From Goodwin's physical symptoms, the couple suspected something serious and, not wanting to delay diagnosis through the public system, paid for a private colonoscopy to be done in July 2015.

From there, their world started to collapse. Goodwin had a massive tumour, stage four bowel cancer.

O'Donoghue family: Max, Tabitha, Celia, Greg, Mia and Ollie. Photo / Supplied
O'Donoghue family: Max, Tabitha, Celia, Greg, Mia and Ollie. Photo / Supplied

The day Goodwin received a letter from the ADHB to say his appointment for a colonoscopy had come up, he was already in hospital recovering from surgery to remove the tumour.

"If we had waited on the public waiting list he would have died of a bowel obstruction."

O'Donoghue says it's no wonder she has lost faith in the medical system: "Greg went to the GP for a medical certificate every month for two years. No-one picked it up."

It was later that same year that the couple noticed a mole on Mia's leg had changed. Their GP told them not to worry, that moles often changed during puberty.

Over the 2015 Christmas break, O'Donoghue says, she watched the mole grow and change.

"None of us thought it looked right."

In March 2016, she took Mia to a different GP. He agreed the mole needed to be removed.

"He rang me two weeks later when I was at the oncology unit at Auckland Hospital with Greg," says O'Donoghue. "He told me it was cancer."

Starship recommended a wide local excision of the mole site be done by a GP. O'Donoghue, concerned that the cancer may have spread, says she asked for more testing - sentinel nodes and/or a PET scan. Starship doctors told her the wide local excision was adequate, she says, and declined further testing.

"I decided that wasn't good enough because my husband was dying in front of me from cancer," O'Donoghue says.

The couple took Mia to a plastic surgeon, a former school friend of Goodwin's, who did the excision and referred Mia to a melanoma specialist for sentinel node testing.

The result was as O'Donoghue and Goodwin feared. Mia's cancer had reached the lymph nodes in her groin and was stage 3.

It was the start of a series of hospital visits that, at times, saw O'Donoghue dashing between Starship and Auckland Hospital, visiting her daughter and husband with a toddler in tow and two other sons to care for.

"Last Christmas Day they were both in hospital."

Dad Greg Goodwin died in January after a gruelling battle with cancer. Photo / Supplied
Dad Greg Goodwin died in January after a gruelling battle with cancer. Photo / Supplied

Goodwin fought valiantly, undergoing 40 rounds of chemotherapy until medical staff said his cancer was no longer responding. O'Donoghue cared for her husband at home until he died on January 22 this year, aged 53.

She turned 35 the next day. She was, she says, terrified at the thought of coping alone. She still is.

With savings exhausted after paying thousands of dollars for some of Goodwin's treatment, and then Mia's, O'Donoghue moved to a townhouse in Sandringham.

Since the node removal, Mia has battled with lymphoedema which causes her leg to swell. With no lymphoedema service at Starship - Mia's condition is extremely rare - O'Donoghue takes her daughter weekly to a private lymphoedema specialist, paying for treatments with the help of a charitable trust.

O'Donoghue says they were told Mia did not qualify for the ADHB's adult lymphoedema service because of her age, but the ADHB disputes that saying it provides services for both children and adults.

Patients are prioritised based on clinical needs, a spokesman said this week. "Mia has been referred to and accepted by, Auckland DHB's lymphoedema service."

That's news to O'Donoghue who is adamant she was told Mia could not be treated in the adult lymphoedema service. It has taken her six months to get a pair of pressure stockings, worth $300 a pair, for Mia.

Friends and family have been helping out with bills but she knows she can't keep relying on them forever.

"I feel very alone. "The weight of raising these children myself is overwhelming and I feel very responsible for Mia's health."

Tabitha has reacted badly to the loss of her father, to the point where she can no longer attend kindy. O'Donoghue takes her to work each day. Every night the little girl falls asleep clutching a photo of her mum and dad, taken on their wedding day.

Her older sister, Mia is a typical teenager who likes hanging out with her friends, is good at running and plays netball. She loves clothes, and wants to be an interior designer. She's shy and is worried about questions about her cancer from kids at school.

Right now, O'Donoghue's priority is to create a good life for her children, and to be able to pay medical bills. Mia had two more suspicious moles removed from her neck and arm this week.

O'Donoghue wants to get her two sons, Mia's triplet brothers, tested for melanoma but is worried about the cost. And she's trying to give Mia a normal life.

"She has watched me having to fight and argue which has given her anxiety, " O'Donoghue says. " She's worried that we've had to do so much privately, and she's worried how much it costs."

After an approach from the Herald, the ADHB is offering to meet Celia and Mia O'Donoghue to "clarify any misunderstanding".

An Auckland DHB paediatric oncologist was talking with the family "to find out how we can assist them at this very distressing time, " a spokesman said. "We want to ensure Mia and her family get the support they need."

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