Trudy Davis: Tributes flow for 'symbol of region's heart'

Illawarra darling Trudy Davis has died, 25 years after the community crusade that took her to the other side of the world for life-saving surgery.

The mother of two passed away at her Shellharbour home on Friday morning following many years of health problems. She was 42.

She became a household name in 1988, after the Mercury's then editor Peter Cullen launched a public appeal to raise funds to fly her to Switzerland to have an aggressive brain tumour removed by renowned surgeon Ugo Fisch.

Trudy Davis: Appeal for help sparked outpouring of generosity

The surgery was a success, and a lasting bond formed between Ms Davis, then 16, and Mr Cullen, who she called "PC".

She made him godfather to Jei, and was devastated by his death in 2000.

Mr Cullen's wife, Janine Cullen, said her husband was won over by Ms Davis's smile and zest for life, which she maintained despite her health troubles.

Trudy Davis talks with a friend weeks after her brain tumour operation in Switzerland, October 1988.

"Peter was a tough, hard newspaperman in some ways, but Trudy melted his heart," said Mrs Cullen, who remained a friend to Ms Davis and her family.

"She was always bubbly and had this beautiful, radiant smile. She fought the longest battle against all the odds, and raised two beautiful boys. Peter would have been thrilled that she could see her boys grow up."

Out of the limelight, Ms Davis cherished family, especially her mother, Karenne, and her boys, now aged 19 and 11, whom she "idolised".

She was a regular helper at the school canteen and, reading a story in the newspaper about a boy who also suffered serious health woes, contacted Mrs Cullen recently to discuss "what we can do to help".

Ms Davis's own health troubles were the result of a rare disease, neurofibromatosis, which she once described as "like being the Elephant Man, only my tumours grow in".

She underwent a further operation for a tumour in her shoulder in 2004. Her gratitude for the community fund-raising effort never faded and she set out to become a nurse, but was too unwell to complete the qualification.

Peter Newell, who was managing editor of the Mercury in 1988, this week recalled the "countless" fund-raisers held to get Ms Davis to Switzerland. She became a symbol of the region's heart, he said.

"Trudy was the face of a fighter, that's for sure, but she was also a great demonstration of how this region pulls together," he said.

"It was a magnificent coming together - a wonderful example of how this Illawarra community at all levels looks after its own."

Former Mercury journalist Carol Johnstone, who travelled to Switzerland in 1988 to report on the outcome of the surgery, remembered the teenage Ms Davis was "terrified" the surgery would damage her facial nerves, leaving her unable to smile.

One of her first requests after she woke from the procedure was that media record her smile so she should show people in the Illawarra she still had it.

Prof Fisch, learning that his surgery fee was the result of community fund-raising, wouldn't accept the payment. With the agreement of the Illawarra contingent, he gave the money to a young European girl whose family couldn't afford her lifesaving surgery. In the end, the Illawarra's money paid the other related costs - other specialist and hospital fees - and made a contribution to another girl's surgery.

Ms Johnstone paid tribute to Ms Davis's "courage and honesty".

"It is tragic that we have lost Trudy at such a young age and my heart goes out to the family," she said.

"As a 16-year-old, Trudy won the hearts of the Illawarra community and others across Australia with her courage and honesty in the face of such a life-threatening illness.

Ms Davis is survived by her sons, her partner Brett McLaurin; her brother, sister and parents.

Trudy Davis, pictured with her mother Karenne after her brain tumour operation in Zurich, Switzerland.
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