Strength ‘tinged with sadness’ — Lesley Elliott remembered by nursing colleagues

December 13, 2022

Kind, caring – and incredibly strong. That is how colleagues from the close-knit neonatal intensive care (NICU) at Dunedin Hospital remember Lesley Elliott.

Elliott died on November 20, aged 76, after enduring Parkinson’s disease and dementia in her final years.

She had been a neonatal nurse for 33 years, continuing to work at the NICU after her daughter, Sophie Elliott, was murdered by ex-boyfriend and former tutor Clayton Weatherston in 2008.

Advertisement
Southern Cross Advert

Elliott drew much comfort and strength from her nursing colleagues and friends – many of whom had worked together since the 1970s.

Jan Seuseu

“I remember her saying that that’s a stable part of her life and she took a lot of comfort from staying on and working there as well as venturing out on her new ventures,” Elliott’s former charge nurse at the NICU, Jan Seuseu, told Kaitiaki Nursing New Zealand.  “We were all a very close-knit group, so we all did keep in touch. In early years, all our families grew up [together] and we got to know each others’ families.

“Sophie, of course, was the apple of her eye, and her two older brothers. And we used to hear all the details day-to-day about them.”

Barbara Findlay

Retired NICU nurse Barbara Findlay said Sophie’s death deeply affected the whole team.

“It was hard – we were all in shock, as Lesley was, for a long time. But I think, if anything, it pulled us closer together, and we all supported each other.”

NICU staff did everything they could for Elliott in the wake of her daughter’s death. “People came forward and asked if they could donate some of their leave to her, to support her, which was a lovely thing, which we did allow to happen,” Seuseu said.

Staff also made a patchwork quilt for Elliott – “everyone did a patch” – and spent a few days sewing it together, which was a healing experience, Findlay said.

‘She stood up for what she believed in’

A very strong person, Elliott had always been prepared to stand up for her beliefs, colleagues said.

In the 2000s, she fought to ensure obstetric nurses’ scope of practice was recognised. Current NICU charge nurse Juliet Manning said Elliott campaigned against a 2003 Nursing Council proposal that obstetric nurses (ONs) be scoped as enrolled nurses. “The end result was the ability of ONs to apply to Nursing Council for a change of condition to their scope of practice.”

Elliott herself applied in 2005, and was scoped as a registered nurse.

“She went to Nursing Council, she went to Government over it – she’s always been the type of person who stood up for what she believed in,” Seuseu said.

NICU course graduation, 1990. Lesley Elliott is front row, at left.  Jan Seuseu is also in the centre at very back. (Photo courtesy of Dunedin NICU)

“So she got all that settled and then they [then-Otago Health Board] came out and said that obstetric nurses couldn’t work in neonatal intensive care units, which is where she was working,” Seuseu recalls. “So once again she went into battle.”

Sophie and Lesley Elliott, as pictured in Lesley’s book ‘Sophie’s Legacy’ about her daughter’s death and the challenges of dealing with the justice system.

Eventually, Elliott and colleagues successfully argued on the basis of their experience they should be able to remain working in NICU, Manning said.

‘Sophie, of course, was the apple of her eye, and her two older brothers. And we used to hear all the details day-to-day about them.’

Elliott came to NICU in the late 1970s, from the Queen Mary Hospital obstetric unit, later becoming a lactation consultant to both. “Once again, she gave all she had to that, keeping her role in NICU at the same time,” Seuseu recalls.

Granted honorary NZNO membership after her retirement in 2016, Elliott had been an NZNO delegate and involved with the former NZNO obstetric section for many years. She had also been on NZNO’s Southern Regional Council on the NZNO board as a director and vice-president. She had also been the recipient of two NZNO awards, for national services to nursing and midwifery and services to NZNO.

Lesley Elliott circa 2010, from the NICU staff noticeboard. ‘She faced things, she faced it all,’ say colleagues.

Strength ‘tinged with sadness’

Seuseu said Elliott always had “huge” amounts of energy and fortitude, even after the death of her daughter.

“She certainly did still have that strength and determination but it was very much tinged with sadness,” Seuseu said.

Findlay said Elliott still wanted to have conversations about her workmates’ children, despite the pain it must have caused her.

“It was hard as a lot of us had children the same age as Sophie – [my son] was the same age and there were one or two others as well,” she said.  “When she asked what they were doing and the achievements that our children had, and you think ‘oh, Sophie would have been doing this’.”

But Elliott was always willing to talk about it, “she never shied away from it”, Findlay said. “She faced things, she faced it all.”

NICU conference organising committee in 2004. Lesley is on the far right and Jan Seuseu third from left.

For the next eight years before she retired, she juggled nursing work with domestic violence advocacy, ploughing her energy into the Sophie Elliott Foundation she set up to raise awareness of abusive relationships, and colleagues saw less of her, Seuseu said. Elliot travelled around the country talking to young people about the signs of abuse and how to have healthy, safe relationships.

‘She wasn’t dwelling on what had happened any longer, she was back in the early days, which we thought was a real blessing.’

With author Bill O’Brien, Elliott also wrote the books Sophie’s Legacy’, about her experience, and Loves Me Not’, about safe vs abusive relationships. While the Foundation closed in 2019 as Parkinson’s disease took its toll on her, the ensuing Loves-Me-Not school programme to prevent abusive relationships continues, now run by New Zealand Police.

Elliott also invited people over to see Sophie’s room, which many couldn’t cope with – and where the NICU quilt lay. But says Findlay, “it was a very healing thing to do.”

“It was a remembrance of Sophie and a shrine to her life. She was very keen for as many people to go to the house and, after I’d been, I thought ‘I’m pleased I did that’.”

NICU dinner, likely late 1980s (Lesley at front on right). Photo courtesy Dunedin NICU.

Elliott was exceptionally kind and caring, “she was a fabulous person,” Seuseu said. “The parents loved her, they enjoyed it when she was looking after the babies.”

Findlay also remembers Elliott as “meticulous and very organised . . . Whenever she went to a conference or study day, the next day there would be written up in our communication book a very detailed account.”

Elliott retired from nursing in 2016, aged 70, and had been in care in recent years as her Parkinson’s disease worsened and dementia set in.

Advertisement
Grow as a nurse with Ara

Friends who visited said that in recent weeks, Elliott did not always recognise people, and was living in a past where Sophie was still with her, Seuseu said.

“She remembers Sophie as a little girl, and she says ‘I’ll go and tell Sophie this or Sophie that’, so she obviously wasn’t dwelling on what had happened any longer, she was back in the early days, which we thought was a real blessing.”