Parish Heroes: 50 years of caring a ‘gift’

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Keith Cox is our first person highlighted in a new series published by The Catholic Weekly called ‘Parish Heroes’. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

Parish Heroes

For the past 100 years our parishes have been the cornerstones of local Australian communities. It’s those special people that help make our nation thrive. As we move into the 21st century who are the people in your parish that stand out and who make our community what it is today? Tell us their story and why they deserve to be recognised as a Parish Hero.

Keith Cox OAM has spent almost 50 years living with the dying.

As Australia’s first dedicated oncology nurse, he has cared for “tens of thousands” of people going through some of the toughest times of their lives.

Affectionately known as “Mister Sister”, the life-long parishioner at St Mark’s Drummoyne believes he was “born to help others” and that his faith has never been far from his side.

“God is my all, to have faith is such a gift,” he smiled.

“It is very comforting to know that God is there with you.

“Being asked ‘am I dying’ is something that is very difficult, many patients need that acknowledgement that they are dying and that they can let go.

Keith Cox with former NSW Governor Marie Bashir after receiving his OAM award in 2007. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

“I can remember saying from time to time ‘Our Lord has got your room ready for you now and you can let go’ and that did bring some peace. My faith has certainly assisted me in not only my career but all aspects of my life and for that I am very thankful.”

In a lifetime of firsts, not only was Keith one of the first male nurses in the country and Australia’s first dedicated oncology nurse, but also The Catholic Weekly’s first Parish Hero.

Launched this week, it is a series which will feature inspirational individuals making a difference in their local communities and beyond.

And making a difference is what Keith has spent almost 50 years doing, while retirement is not a word he recognises.

You can palliate people without killing them. It’s that simple.”
– Keith Cox

In addition to his ground-breaking career in cancer care, he is a dedicated member of his parish and volunteers for St Vincent de Paul and Canice’s Kitchen, is an acolyte, as well as a Eucharistic Minister, giving communion to residents in local nursing homes.

Seeing people through their best and worst times has been a privilege Keith couldn’t be more grateful for, which he has documented in his new book, A Caring Life, giving a fascinating insight into his extraordinary life.

He has dedicated most of his life to patient care, mentoring cancer nurses, writing research papers and addressing medical conferences around the world. In 2006, he was the third-ever Australian to become a cancer nurse practitioner and in 2007 was awarded an OAM for his services to nursing and community volunteer work.

A staunch advocate for palliative care, Keith said he has witnessed dramatic advances in medical treatment, and also the limits of what medical intervention can achieve.
And after almost half a century of nursing, said he can now answer the most commonly asked question during his oncology care, “Will I be in pain when I am dying”, with honesty and respect.

Acolyte Keith Cox at St Mark’s parish in Drummoyne. Photo: supplied.

“You can palliate people without killing them, it’s that simple,” he said.

“I am a very strong supporter of palliative care.

Sadly most people think dying will mean pain, which just isn’t the case.

“I understand euthanasia is not an easy topic to address but I just don’t believe in killing someone because they don’t have any hope.

WATCH THE VIDEO OF KEITH ON THE PROJECT PROGRAM

“I think in this day and age in 2022, you can give patients good palliation without lethal injection. A lot of people won’t agree with me but that’s my belief.” Born in regional NSW in the early 1950s and one of nine children – five of whom became nurses – he grew up in a traditional Catholic family and remembers being torn between two vocations, nursing or becoming a Franciscan Brother.

His older sister had become a nun at the St John of God Convent in Perth, and while studying nursing at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, he experienced a religious calling. However, after visiting a Franciscan friary in Campbelltown, he decided it was “nursing or nothing”.

A Caring Life by Keith Cox and Grant Jones is published by Pan Macmillan Australia and available now. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

He completed his oncology training at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London and on return to Sydney assisted in the establishment of the first cancer and chemotherapy service back at RPA before helping set up the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse centre. Staff, patients and their families sing his praises and thank him for his almost 50 years of tireless dedication and empathy.

“Nursing has quite simply taught me that many of the gifts I have come from our Lord,” he said. “I guess my advice to anybody would be believe in yourself, you can do anything in life and don’t worry about being the first in something.
“Everything in my life I have done has been with great faith, and can honestly say I wouldn’t change a thing.”

A Caring Life by Keith Cox and Grant Jones is published by Pan Macmillan Australia and available now.

NOMINATE YOUR PARISH HERO AT: [email protected]