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Honouring Mitchell: let this be what makes you, not breaks you

After just 10 months of treatment, the Swee family lost beloved husband and father, Mitchell to an aggressive and fast-growing blood cancer in early 2021. Wife, Bridget honours his legacy by sharing their story and how her family is starting to find their feet in a world without him. 

In early 2020, the Swee family was like many others around the world adjusting to a ‘new normal’ in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Mitchell and I had been together for 14 years and had three beautiful children, Grace, seven, Maisie, five, and Douglas, three,” said Bridget. 

Bridget and Mitchell on a beach holiday in December 2019
Bridget and Mitchell on a beach holiday in December 2019

She was working as a nurse at The Wesley Hospital (Brisbane) and Mitchell was a refrigeration mechanic working on a big job at the Gold Coast.  

“He was waking up at 4am and doing the long drive back and forth to Brisbane each day,” explained Bridget.  

“It was the beginning of April when he started to complain of tiredness and getting aches and pains in his bones.” 

But it’s just the flu 

A month later, Mitchell started to show signs of a bad flu. He went to many doctors before finally going to the local clinic for a COVID-19 and blood test where he was told he might have viral meningitis. 

As a nurse, Bridget knew he would need a lumbar puncture to confirm that and after speaking with her co-workers, asked him to meet her at her work.  

“When he arrived, he looked rubbish and everyone kept saying to me, ‘he looks really sick’,” said Bridget.  

Hours later, the worst was confirmed, and Mitchell was diagnosed on Monday, 25 May 2020 with leukaemiaThat Friday his diagnosis was confirmed as T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). He was only 33 years old. 

Rollercoaster treatment 

The following months felt like a rollercoaster with Mitchell achieving remission three times, only to relapse weeks later. 

“Blood cancer is so cruel in the way it attacks the body, it just felt relentless,” said Bridget.  

“I feel like many of the nurses knew it was the beginning of the end when he first relapsed while waiting to go to transplant. 

“He barely made it home for the next six months, had a cardiac arrest, and by his third relapse his body was completely wrecked.”  

Mitchell Swee and the kids at the park
“The day before we found out Mitch had leukaemia. Even though he was feeling sick, he pushed himself to come to the park with the kids and me.”

Knowing his body wouldn’t handle more treatment, Mitchell’s hematologist and family made the decision to take Mitchell home and let him go with dignity, surrounded by people who loved him. 

“He was such a man of routine and loved his independence,” said Bridget. “He hated being in intensive care and cherished the time he got to be home with the kids running around.”  

How do you want me to live? 

In the lead up to Mitchell’s death, Bridget asked him what his expectations were for their family after he was gone.  

“We had been together my entire adult life, he was my person,” said Bridget 

“I asked him how I was meant to do life without him here, taking my mental load and standing beside me as we raise our children.  

“He told me to do it my way, to not spend my life bending for people who won’t bend for me and that I shouldn’t retreat into myself, as much as he knew I’d want to. 

“He said to make sure our babies were okay and that this will be the thing that makes them, not breaks them.”  

Enjoying the lasts 

Over the next month, the family enjoyed time together at home and Mitchell pushed to be present in every moment, despite the pain.  

“Looking back at videos during that time, he just amazes me with his desire to live even though his body was literally eating him alive,” said Bridget.  

“We had a trip to Australia Zoo one day, were driven around and got to feed giraffes and pat rhinos. 

Mitchell Swee and family
Father’s Day 2020 when Mitchell was waiting for a transplant – “so full of hope”

“We watched the show with Robert Irwin and I said to the girls, ‘see that little boy, he lost his daddy too and now they’ve built this zoo to keep his legacy alive, there are people out there just like you’.   

“All their friends still have their dads, so I wanted them to feel like they weren’t alone.”   

Nothing prepares you 

Even towards the end of his life, Mitchell never stopped fighting to live every day.  

“Mitchell gave it everything even when the odds were stacked against him,” said Bridget. “He never complained and took everything in his stride. 

“He would always say that anger is a wasted energy, that being angry wouldn’t change anything but just waste the precious time. All he wanted was to enjoy the time he had left with us. 

“He was truly an amazing man.”  

Mitchell passed away at home on Good Friday, 2 April 2021. 

“It was exactly how he wanted it, no one was scared, we all got to say our goodbyes and I love yous,” said Bridget.  

“Although we knew it was coming, nothing can prepare you for that moment. 

“I kept wanting him to linger and I knew if he asked me, I would’ve told him to stay for me forever. 

“But no matter how much time you have, it can never make that final goodbye easier.” 

Christmas Day at the Wesley Hospital
“Christmas Day 2020 at our second home, the Wesley Hospital. Santa even dropped presents there”

The resilience of children 

Bridget is proud of how Grace, Maisie, and Douglas have managed everything over the past year.  

“Of course, there are hard days where they’ve hurt themselves and are crying just that little bit harder than normal,” she said. 

“You can tell there’s something more boiling under the surface and it’s hard seeing them cling to the other dads at the playground, knowing they are missing Mitchell. 

“We kept telling them that although Daddy couldn’t be here anymore, he will be in our hearts forever. 

“Our youngest, Douglas, told me he wants to take Daddy out of my heart and put him back on earth. I tell him I would give anything to be able to.”  

Other people’s expectations 

When Mitchell passed, Bridget felt as though everyone else’s expectations came flooding through her door.  

“Many people asked me why I had never told them how sick he actually was,” she said.  

“Well, I was busy fighting every day for my husband and trying to sustain some normality for our kids.  

“While my family and friends have been amazingly supportive helping me through it all…when I go home at night, it is just me.”  

Swee family at Australia Zoo
The Swee family’s trip to Australia Zoo in March 2021, when they got to feed the giraffes

Bridget now makes a concerted effort to answer honestly when people ask how she is doing.  

“Everyone just wants you to be ok so they can go on with their daily life,” she said. “Not many people like it when you answer with, ‘no, I’m not ok, but I don’t need anything from you right now’. 

“I simply don’t have the time to appease those people and I’m now allowing myself to be selfish.”  

For the next year, Bridget is firmly focused on working out how she and her children will cope and function in a life without Mitchell.  

“I’m in no rush to return to work and I just want to be there for school pickup, drop off, and put them to bed every night,” she said.   

You’re going to need this person 

In the first few weeks of Mitchell’s treatment, Bridget was handed the card of Leukaemia Foundation Blood Cancer Support Coordinator, Kate Arkadieff. 

“I was told, ‘you don’t know it yet, but you’re going to need this person’,” remembered Bridget. 

Swee family portrait
“Our last professional family portrait, capturing love, taken by a friend in March 2021”

Kate was able to organise free childcare for Bridget and assist with applying for income support. 

“But it was so much more than that,” said Bridget. “It felt like she was always one step ahead of me and it was almost as though she was waiting for my next phone call, ready with what I needed. 

“You really need someone who gets it, who understands the absolute devastation blood cancer wreaks on your life. And someone who can listen to all your questions and fears without judgement or expectation. 

“Kate was that person for me through it all.” 

Taking care of things 

Always a planner, Mitchell had set things up to put the family in good stead for the future. 

“The first year of our marriage, Mitchell got made redundant which really scared him,” explained Bridget. “My dad works in insurance, so Mitchell asked him what he needed to do to keep us secure.  

“He told Mitchell to get life insurance and income protection to ensure our assets were protected should something like this happen.”   

Because of this, the family’s school fees and mortgage are taken care of and Bridget has been able to take the time she needs to grieve at home. 

You only get one shot at this 

For the first time in her life, Bridget doesn’t know what the future holds and it “scares the hell” out of her. 

Bridget Swee and Kate Arkadieff
Bridget Swee, right, with Leukaemia Foundation Blood Cancer Support Coordinator, Kate Arkadieff

Their blood cancer journey has taught Bridget that she only gets one shot at life, and she will be doing it ‘her way’, as Mitchell wished. 

“Everything we had mapped out for the future is now gone,” said Bridget.  

“I could wallow, but what does that do for Mitchell? He had no choice in the matter. Blood cancer was his card and he had no control over how that played out. 

“I’m putting in the time now with a psychologist to process what we’ve been through so in 10 years I can look back and say, ‘I survived that’, and look at what I had created and accomplished from such a tragedy. 

“Cancer has taken everything from me, but there’s still a lot of love, a lot of light, and a lot of wonderful people which I never would have met had we never been through it.” 

Need to talk? We encourage you to call the Leukaemia Foundation on 1800 620 420 or email [email protected] to be put in touch with one of our grief support team staff. 

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Last updated on February 23rd, 2022

Developed by the Leukaemia Foundation in consultation with people living with a blood cancer, Leukaemia Foundation support staff, haematology nursing staff and/or Australian clinical haematologists. This content is provided for information purposes only and we urge you to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis, treatment and answers to your medical questions, including the suitability of a particular therapy, service, product or treatment in your circumstances. The Leukaemia Foundation shall not bear any liability for any person relying on the materials contained on this website.