Michelle died as she had lived -with a smile on her face... I told her it was OK

When Cork nurse Michelle Hayes found out her cancer was terminal, she arranged a dream wedding with the love of her life, Derry. He tells CHRIS DUNNE why her family are now raising funds for Marymount, where Michelle passed away
Michelle died as she had lived -with a smile on her face... I told her it was OK
Michelle (Shelly) Hayes, who died of cancer aged 38.

CORK nurse Michelle Hayes had a way with her that made everyone feel special. She beamed radiance and positivity.

“She took care of everybody else first, and herself last,” says her husband, Derry O’Donovan.

“Shelly had that rare ability to connect with people. She was as straight as an arrow.”

This woman, who was the life and soul of her family, passed away in February from malignant melanoma, aged 38, leaving an empty void in the lives of her husband, her dad, Steve, and all her family and friends, including her two older brothers, James and Peter, and two younger sisters, Aoife and Rachel.

“Shelly never wanted to reveal the extent of her cancer,” says Derry. “She was always thinking of others. She said; ‘I’m living with the cancer. Not dying of cancer’.”

Shelly and Derry had to think about the time they had left when she got the diagnosis.

“When we were told to make plans, we decided to get married quickly, on May 29 last year, in Fernhill House Hotel in Clonakilty,” says Derry, “It was a wonderful, special, emotionally charged unique day.

“It was a match made in heaven.

“Shelly had the first dance with her dad. She was a beautiful bride, despite the fact she had undergone recent radiotherapy treatment.”

Nine days before she passed, Shelly asked her beloved dad to organise a fund-raiser for Marymount, where she had received tender loving care and where she passed away.

‘Shelly’s Gala’ takes place in the Celtic Ross Hotel, Rosscarbery, on May 13.

Derry recalls: “She said, ‘Dad, get the boys together. You have to do a fund-raiser for Marymount’.”

Michelle (Shelly) Hayes, who died of cancer aged 38. with husband Derry O'Donovan.
Michelle (Shelly) Hayes, who died of cancer aged 38. with husband Derry O'Donovan.

Her dad, Steve, got on the job straight away.

“I got the lads together and we got going,” he says. “We’ve already planned an auction and car wash days. A coffee morning held at John and Sheila O’Regan’s raised €7,788.27 for Marymount.”

Steve adds: “The 24 hour service in Marymount is wonderful. The nurses there are unreal.”

People live meaningful lives in Marymount Hospice, even where life expectancy may be short. The heart, and soul of the place evolves from the people; the patients.

“From day one, the prognosis wasn’t great,” says Derry. “Shelly was under the care of oncologist, Dr Derek Power, who organised a care management plan for her.”

Dr Power is a member of the Irish Co-Operative Oncology Research Group, a National Body that brings International Clinical trials to Ireland.

“He met with us regularly,” says Derry. They were often tough meetings. He told us the time was very short. Shelly took everything in her stride. She never spoke about the seriousness of her condition. She kept it to herself. She was very private about it.”

When Dr Power suggested that Shelly be included in a clinical trial for a new immune therapy treatment, Keytruda, she agreed.

“Shelly was the first person in Ireland to undergo the clinical trial,” says Derry. “Dr Power told us there were no guarantees.”

She took on the challenge with her usual gusto.

“She addressed the workers who actually make the Keytruda from Merck, Sharp and Dohme, MSD,” says Derek. “The head physicist was in attendance as well as the MD of MSD Europe. Shelly showed physically living proof how the researchers made a life-changing difference, which was extremely powerful. Here were people looking at molecules all day.”

“The life-changing improvements and advancements gave us the gift of an extra three years that we so appreciated and we packed a lot into our lives.”

The couple were grateful for a reprieve from the cancer that intruded upon their happiness. They made the most of the three years.

What did Shelly, who had a lust for life, like to do?

“She loved travel,” says Derry. “We went to Italy, France and the USA.

“She was a GAA fan and supported Rosscarbery Rangers, travelling with her dad in a borrowed bus to all the matches. Shelly loved her glad-rags and Stella McCartney handbags. She loved bargaining and her drink of choice was champagne,” says Derry, smiling.

She lived life to the full.

“Most of all, she loved her family, her work, and looking after people.

“Shelley decided on a nursing career in her 30s. I encouraged her,” says Derry. “She had a natural flair for nursing. She was destined for great things.

“Shelly achieved her Nursing Degree from UCC and a place at the Royal College of Surgeons to study for a Masters last September. It was deferred until his year.”

 Michelle with Derry and niece Meabh O’Donovan
Michelle with Derry and niece Meabh O’Donovan

The cancer, which had been delayed by the immune therapy treatment, resurfaced, ruining the lives of all in its wake.

“When Shelly began experiencing lower back pain in July, 2017, we were facing a situation of huge magnitude,” says Derry.

“Since being diagnosed in 2012, each year Shelley had one or more surgeries. Each time it came back, she said; just take it out. And she continued to get on with things, even when she developed thyroid cancer. Shelly liked being in control and she had amazing drive.”

The young woman had an operation to remove a sizeable tumour. Three weeks later, the scans showed the tumour had come back stronger. It had spread. Operating wasn’t an option.

“Shelly was in crippling pain, but she never let on,” says Derry.

He was her right-hand man.

“I tied her shoe-laces when she couldn’t, after she lost her thumb,” says Derry. “I was her left arm.”

Shelly was admitted to Marymount. She continued her strong work ethic and organisational skills from her hospital bed.

Her mind, heart, and spirit were alive and well.

“Shelly was still working on hospital bed polices for Mount Carmel Hospital in Clonakilty, where she worked, and she drew up a rota for her visitors,” says Derry.

“She included her US cousins in the rota. Shelly, never one to mince her words, told them things were pretty serious.

“When we had a family meeting, she had name tags for all of us.”

When Steve came to see his daughter in Marymount Hospice, the pair went for a walk.

“We’d walk around the building and the church,” says Steve. “I told her she would never walk alone.”

But Shelly never felt alone in Marymount.

“The staff in Marymount are truly amazing,” says Derry. “From Paul at the door, to James in the shop, to Dr Marie Murphy, an unbelievable person, who has the job of looking after so many people and who has to deliver sad news once or twice every day. It takes a unique personality to do that.”

Shelly had a unique personality too.

“We were completing house plans and Shelly was Commander-in Chief,” says Derry. “She was the project-manager. Shelly never minced her words and always had the last word. We never had a row.”

Shelly had words of wisdom for her nieces and nephews. 

“She told them, work hard, get a good education, and a good job,” says Shelly’s sister, Rachel. “Then you will meet a nice partner and be able to buy nice things like designer hand-bags.

“Shelly was a great mentor and a great teacher. She told us, always be grateful for what you have.”

How did Derry cope, knowing his cherished wife was on borrowed time?

“I felt completely powerless,” he says. “I harboured thoughts that we could beat this, get past it, but the cancer started to win.”

Shelly died as she had lived, with a smile on her face.

“She opened her eyes and she smiled at me,” says Derry. “I told her it was OK,”

The aftermath was hard.

“You think you are prepared; but you are never really,” says Derry. “There is no manual to deal with grief. You deal with it in your own way.

“You go through the anger, the sadness. Shelly and I, we did every single thing together. You have to play the cards you are dealt.”

Life goes on. Shelly’s loved ones have done her proud.

The family, fun-filled day of entertainment and music planned for Sunday, May 13, will be a celebration of life, while raising much-needed funds for Marymount.

“Shelly did everything 110%,” says Derry.

“There were no half measures.”

Shelly’s Gala takes place in the Celtic Ross Hotel, Rosscarbery, on Sunday May 13, 2pm-8pm. All are welcome.

How to donate


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