By Libby Blom
WHEN Dr Nicholas Tonti-Filippini was 20, he was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease which was expected to result in kidney and liver failure within five years.
At that time Nicholas was living at Mannix College, Clayton, playing cricket for the university and umpiring Australian Rules football, and participating in Monash University social life.
He was committed to competitive chess and Amnesty International, president of The Psychological Society and The Philosophy Society, on the board of Mannix College with then Archbishop Frank Little and Bishop Eric Darcy, treasurer of the student society and a member in university choirs and quartets as a base baritone.
He was busily enjoying life and living it to the full.
“Initially, my parents and siblings did not know the gravity of my illness. As it became more evident, I seldom made the extent of it known to them,” he said.
Nicholas was a long way from home and could go for several months at a time without seeing them, though he remained in touch by telephone.
He was working hard at his studies and was in paid employment to support him and to contribute to the support of his family and younger siblings.
“I had nine siblings, so my parents, who were not wealthy, carried a heavy financial and emotional load. I did what I could and part of that was not to burden them with my problems,” he said.
“I recall once spending three days in intensive care after an anaphylactic reaction to a diagnostic procedure, but kept that visit to hospital to myself.
“I regret that isolation. I regret not allowing my siblings, especially, to give to me.
“Sometimes it is easier to be the one who gives and remains in control, than being the one who seeks help from another and depends on their love.
“My pride caused hurt and I regret that.”
As Nicholas had the great freedom of not expecting to have a career due to his prognosis he switched to subjects that were of greater personal interest –philosophy and theology.
“The diagnosis and prognosis made me ineligible for any of the international scholarships, but I was offered a scholarship to do a Masters majoring in Philosophy at Monash, so I took up the offer and at that time published a few articles in bioethics,” he said.
The interest in bioethics came initially from tutoring in Logic and Contemporary Moral Issues to first-year students, many of whom were medical or law students; and from lecturing Philosophical Issues in Ecology in the Graduate School of Environmental Science.
The career Nicholas thought he would never have, found him – his career was in bioethics.
At the time new bioethics centres were being established at Monash and at St Vincent’s Hospital.
Referred by Archbishop Little, Nicholas was invited to become a research officer for St Vincent’s Bioethics Centre and hospital ethicist for the hospital, an Australian first.
Eventually he became the director of the bioethics department.
“My experiences as a professional ethicist and personally through my illnesses and closeness to death provide material for discussion, but our students are graduates and bring their own rich professional and personal experiences,” he said.
“Thirty years later, I have had an extraordinary career in bioethics, but living every day as though it might be my last.
“That, more than anything, has given me stability.
“I have been free to present the truth, as I understood it, without having career goals to muddy the waters.
“The most significant event in my life was meeting (my wife) Mary and having her accept my proposal, fully aware as a doctor of what it might involve.
“She had the courage that we should be open to God’s will about having a family and we were blessed with four children.”
As a parent Nicholas prayed to be around until his last child left school.
Today his youngest is in the second year of a medical degree, another son is a graduate civil engineer working as an engineering “geo-tech” in a goldmine, one daughter is completing a graduate law degree while managing a fashion house with outlets in two states, and the other is a teacher with leadership responsibilities in a Catholic school and a musician.
Nicholas now prays to be around long enough to see them vocationally settled – his eldest has obliged and is due to marry her fiancé, also a teacher, in September.
His wife, Mary, has accompanied him every step of the way through his various illnesses, which included – failed coronary grafts and 16 angiograms, angioplasty and the placement of eight stents.
Mary has waited many hours while Nicholas has undergone procedures, no doubt fearing the worst as a doctor, and as he has become more disabled she has carried more and more of the load.
In life and in the classroom Nicholas has a tried and true philosophy for relating to another in sickness and in health and everything in between, “One needs to build from consensus, not from controversy, seeking what is the ideal way to relate to another in a situation.
“Most importantly evangelisation builds upon love for the other,” he said.
“The motive is to assist another to become a better lover through loving them and because they are worthy of that love.
“As everyone fears falling short of being a good lover, we must continually question ourselves: How can one best love another until the end?
“How can I in my illness and dying continue to be a lover?
“How can we share this journey together?
“How will I cope with the loss of control that illness brings?
“How will I manage to accept being dependent on others?
“I know now that the most important thing in anyone’s life is to feel wanted and needed. Even Jesus did not just give.
“He wanted to be received in love.
“He wanted his apostles around him in prayer at Gethsemane.
“He asked the cured leper who returned to thank him, where are the others?
“He asked the woman at the well to draw water for him.
“He rewards Mary Magdalen for washing his feet with her tears and ointment.”
Nicholas said Jesus clearly loved to be accompanied by his apostles and disciples and wanted their love.
“Pope Benedict called this desire to be loved as ‘eros’. God’s love is both agape and eros.
“As someone experiences illness and disability, their ability to continue to be received in love by others, to give to them may seem more limited.
“We need to know how to die well, accepting our human condition and its limitations and hardships, but still giving ourselves in love.
“Often that means swallowing one’s pride, accepting dependence on others and the need to receive from them in good grace.
“As we approach death, we are still teaching, still being parents and lovers, displaying our faith in God, our trust and our hope.
“When one is suffering, the love, the empathy of another has a profound effect on one’s experience of suffering.
“They literally suffer with us. If they love us, they too suffer and that being with us in our suffering is a most extraordinary gift.
“I have been so blest by Mary and the children.
“There has never been a moment over twenty-nine years when she has not given me her absolute support.
“I am greatly privileged by her gift of self, her untiring and complete love, by the divine gift of the children, and by the sheer joy that comes from such a union.”