In 2002, Bronwyn’s novel was complete and under review by her publishers, but she was severely restricted in her ability to return to her beloved speaking engagements. Her condition, aplastic anaemia, had worsened and she was transfusion dependent. A planned visit to Wellington NZ in February to talk at a number of schools had to be cancelled. For most of the year her haemoglobin and platelet counts were at dangerously low levels, and she suffered frequent bouts of illness, bleeding and pain as a result of both the condition and the side-effects of her treatment. She underwent two infusion courses of animal protein extracts ALG and ATG, in December 2001 and in April 2002. These are immunosuppressants which it was hoped would halt the damage to stem cells in her bone marrow and allow them to again generate healthy blood cells.
By May 2002 it was apparent that the treatment had failed, and that there was no alternative but to prepare for a bone marrow transplant. Between blood transfusions, Bronwyn enjoyed a few brief periods of reasonably good health. In May, she spoke at the Sixth National Conference of the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) in Perth, Western Australia, and at a Playgroup Association of Queensland Conference in Brisbane. Despite regularly bleeding gums, bruising and extreme exhaustion, her audiences and many of her close colleagues were unaware of the gravity and the distressing prognosis of her illness.
In June, she managed a transfusion-free nine-day holiday with her husband at her favourite spot, Currumbin Beach on Queensland’s Gold Coast. Initially elated to get approval for just five days, Bronwyn extended the break practically on a day by day basis with the reluctant agreement of her specialist and friend, Dr Sally Greenaway.
Her final triumph was a keynote address delivered to the Pastoral Care Conference of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools (AHISA), in Brisbane on July 10th 2002. Bronwyn held her audience of 400 delegates, youth advisors, year coordinators, chaplains, supervisors, psychologists and counsellors, enchanted for two hours as she delivered, standing up on a high stage, what she considered the best talk of her career. She was on a high for days.
She said afterwards in an e-mail to her daughter Anna, then back-packing in Europe:
“I felt very relaxed as they were such a responsive audience and I had been there for three days of course, so knew quite a few of them by then and had worked out already that my talk was going to appeal to them. Also, I think it helped that I was fresh; had not been doing it for months, had not got blase…
At the end, the tall distinguished and absolutely delicious Headmaster of Churchie (Brisbane’s oldest and most famous private school, which is where it was being held) came up on the stage to make his thankyou speech but the applause went on for so long that in the end he just gave up and finally said: ‘I am not going to comment on Bronwyn’s presentation because I think the ovation we have just heard says it all.’ “
On Tuesday, July 23rd, less than two weeks later, Bronwyn died in Westmead Hospital, Sydney.
There was shocked disbelief among colleagues, friends, and family alike. Even those who knew the details of her ailment, including Bronwyn herself, were unprepared for the speed and viciousness with which it finally cut her down. Her daughter Anna was forced to abandon her European holiday and make a frantic dash from Switzerland via London to Sydney, receiving the tragic news on her arrival at Sydney Airport early on July 24th.
Bronwyn’s funeral, at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, Baulkham Hills, in Sydney’s West, two days later, was a touching and memorable ceremony, attended by a packed congregation of over 400. Flowers, tributes and messages of consolation continued to pour in to the family home for many weeks.
The Proceedings of the Perth CBCA 2002 Conference was dedicated to Bronwyn with the words:
In memory of Bronwyn Donaghy who was dedicated to raising
social awareness amongst young people
through her life’s work and writing
for her family Frank, Aidan, Anna and Liam, who have lost so much.