Journeying together with compassion | Chris O'Brien Lifehouse
 In Inspiring Stories, Lifehouse News, Patient Stories

The love story of Maria Calibag and Julian Orjuela began in the kitchen of an upmarket Rose Bay restaurant, where Julian was a pastry chef and Maria a trainee. Neither of them had family in Sydney with hers being primarily in the Philippines and his in Colombia.

They married and she fell pregnant. Sometime during her pregnancy, she began suffering acute stomach pains.

“It was really painful like I wanted to die – it was too much pain,” she told Jo Wallace for the Instagram account @HumansofNewtown.

Maria was diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer. She was 29 years old and 32 weeks pregnant.

Two days later, in mid-September, a team of medical specialists across maternal and foetal health at RPAH and oncology at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse made urgent arrangements for Maria to deliver her child.

Her baby was born at RPA Women and Babies. She was a girl. Maria and Julian named her Maria Natalia, to be known as Natalia.

More than eight weeks premature, Natalia stayed in the care of the RPA Neonatal Intensive Care Nursery.

Meanwhile, the new mother came into the immediate care of Chris O’Brien Lifehouse across the road, to start palliative chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Chris O’Brien Lifehouse and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital are connected in many ways. One physical manifestation of this is a tunnel that runs under Missenden Road, joining the two institutions together.

When Julian was at the hospital, he and Maria walked through this tunnel to visit their baby.

RPA’s neonatal care team liaised with Maria’s Lifehouse care team to arrange visits around her treatment.

One day, Maria was getting ready to visit Natalia and bathe her for the first time. St Andrews College Choir, a choral group at the University of Sydney which regularly sings to patients and families, was at Lifehouse that day. They sang to Maria and Julian as they left.

Isn’t she lovely?

Isn’t she wonderful?

Isn’t she precious?

Less than one minute old

Under the care of RPA’s neonatal unit, Natalia gained strength and was discharged — not to her home, but to Lifehouse.

The cancer centre was the baby’s first home environment.

Staff from across Lifehouse rushed to create a baby’s nursery on the ward.

The director of medical oncology gathered clothes and a bouncer. ICU nurses brought in more clothes and practical items. The RPA team that had cared for Natalia collected money to buy a bassinet. It was delivered to Lifehouse where the facilities team pieced it together.

Head and neck surgeon A/Prof Michael Elliott dragged in bags of sheets, towels and clothes, which his wife Angela, a volunteer, had collected from staff and friends and washed at home. Prof Diana Horvath AO, a member of the board of directors of Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, later came in each day to help bathe Natalia.

The day Natalia arrived, Maria held her daughter in her arms as Julian stood by them. She lowered herself into a chair by the window and sang to her baby.

The sun’ll come out, tomorrow

Bet your bottom dollar,

That tomorrow

There’ll be sun.

Julian often slept in the hospital with his wife and daughter. Maria’s aunties regularly flew in from the Philippines and USA and gathered in the family’s makeshift home on the ward.

Natalia was baptised by Fr Joseph, a regular pastoral visitor at Lifehouse and RPA, at St. Joseph’s Camperdown. Gail O’Brien and Lorainne Brecard, the volunteers manager, became Natalia’s godmothers.

Maria and Natalia were briefly discharged. Not long afterwards Maria was readmitted.

She died on February 2, 2019.

Paul Lahood, a funeral director and Chris O’Brien Lifehouse supporter, undertook the repatriation of Maria’s body back to the Philippines, with Paul Lahood Jnr personally overseeing her journey.

Staff from across both hospitals came together for a memorial service to celebrate Maria’s life. The St Andrews College Choir sang again.

I am waiting for you

For only to adore you

My heart is for you

My love, My love, My love

This is my grief for you

For only the loss of you

The hurting of you

My love, My love, My love

This is Collaborative Care.

“I just want my baby to grow strong. You know, like a really tough girl.”


Maria’s story shows us Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and Chris O’Brien Lifehouse journeying together, responsively and compassionately, with patients and their families.
Collaboration is at the heart of this life-enhancing partnership between these two institutions.

To read more stories like Maria’s, please visit our 2018-19 annual review.

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