Thinking of others to the end: vale Paul Costello

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Paul Costello, the founding chief executive of the Future Fund, the founding chief executive of NZ Super and the second-last chief executive of STA before its merger to form AustralianSuper, died at 8.50am last Monday, November 5.

He didn’t want to talk much about his career in the months before his death. He mainly wanted to raise money for the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and its head of the lung cancer section, Professor Ben Solomon, who miraculously had given him a precious eight extra months with his family – wife Denise and adult children Harry and Caitlin. Paul was 61.

The funeral is this afternoon – 2pm November 12 – at the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne. One of his final wishes was to continue the fight against the illness, suggesting a donation to the ‘PeterMac’ Centre in lieu of flowers.

Paul came within days of dying in March this year but, thanks to the efforts of Professor Solomon, was able to procure access to an experimental drug from the US, called LOXO. It had an immediate impact and enabled him to function almost normally for several months before, as it often does, the cancer returned. For a full account of his battle and his illustrious career, click here

I know Paul didn’t want to talk much about his career because he told me. After hearing he was sick earlier this year I tried to contact him but was told by friends that he was too ill to engage in any media. After he’d started his recovery period, though, I was able to contact him and told him I wanted to write a profile. He asked whether I wanted to write about his journey with cancer, to which I replied words to the effect ‘well, it’s hard to ignore it, but mainly I want to write about your career’. He said he wasn’t so interested in that right now but would think about it. Normally that’s code for ‘no’ but a week later he phoned and offered me a deal. Remember, he was a great businessman as well as a great family man. The deal was that if I helped him to promote a fund-raiser for PeterMac then he’d talk about his career on the record. As it turned out there was some juicy stuff off the record too but I’ll have to take that to my own grave in due course. We had a deal.

To widen the promotional net I got help from friends John Durie, a columnist at The Australian, David Chaplin, publisher of Investment News NZ, Debbie Wilkes, publisher of Industry Moves, and public relations consultants Claudia Pritchitt and Leeanne Bland of Pritchitt Partners. We knew David Neal at the Future Fund had donated the office’s spacious foyer for an event, so we promoted it as best we could. Paul seemed very pleased with the resultant $110,000 raised that evening.

Paul was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in February 2017 with his only symptom being an annoying cough which he had put up with for a couple of months, with typical male stoicism. He was among the approximately 20 per cent of lung cancer patients who had never smoked. The cancer spread to his brain and his liver.

He said goodbye to those who had been in touch during his cancer journey in a group email on October 30, by which time he was in a hospice receiving palliative care for pain and nausea. There was to be no more treatment for the cancer. It was his third group email about his health.

It said, in part: “This third one will be my last. After six wondrous months with LOXO and contemplating a new phase of life through the privileged lens of one who has been days from death, the cancer made a sudden and aggressive return to my body in early September. I am back in the palliative care hospital I was in earlier in the year and I will see out my remaining days here.  Sadly, they will not be many from this point.

“The focus is no longer on fighting cancer but is exclusively on beating the pain and nausea which have made recent times so miserable for me and the family. The control of these symptoms is all I want now. It takes a lot of pressure off Denise, Harry and Caitlin to not have to care physically for me anymore and I am very happy in this hospice in Prahran, Melbourne. To be facing the prospect of my death again so quickly after my last venture into this space is taxing on us all. I am exhausted by the fight on my hands.

“I have so appreciated your friendship and support through these last two years and my time is now up. I continue to value these gifts but am unable to reciprocate. I would love to hear from you. Denise will be certain to read any replies to me.”

– G.B.

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