Once, on a cold day in Melbourne

Someone called the Clinic the other day and left this message: ‘Alexa Rosa wanted to speak to the doctor who treated her mother a long time ago. And she wanted to buy your book.’ Did I know an Alexa Rosa? I thought somehow I should. A scene came back to me: a cold winter’s day in Melbourne, a young family in a front room, a sick mother, her worried husband, their adult daughter.

If this truly was my Alexa, then her story was strong and bright in my recall. I could never forget it. It was the winter of 1971. I had a new marriage, a new licence
to practise medicine outside of the hospital and a brother about to marry
in the United Kingdom. In order to raise the fares to the wedding I moonlighted as a radio locum. A radio locum installed a two-way
radio in his car and travelled, like a taxi driver, to wherever the job
called. On this occasion the call came to the Migrant Hostel in Kororoit Creek Road Altona. My bride, an able map reader, sat at my side and navigated.


Kororoit Creek Road in Atona was a long drive from everywhere else. When we arrived and parked in a vast car park, Annette (the bride) repeated the Controller’s directions, “Building 19, apartment 5.” I stepped outside.
Here, at Melbourne’s western edge, you could see the setting sun
disappearing beneath the horizon and the world darkening.

I didn’t feel happy leaving Annette there in the dark. I looked beyond the carpark toward the distant buildings. Would Annette be any safer in that lowering mass? Annette said, “I’ll be alright here. Just go.” Troubled, I went. How would I find building Nineteen where someone needed a doctor, someone who was suffering from something, possibly something serious? Having now reached the first of the buildings I could see my search was hopeless. The buildings were all great bulky cuboids of concrete. All were unli. And the dark was cold. I wandered and looked for numbers. No number nineteen anywhere, no five. I knocked on a door to enquire. The door opened, I asked, Can you direct me to Flat Five? A hand flew to the heart. The head shook: I not English. I sorry.

I felt sorry too. I turned dully away. Of course no English, everyone here newly arrived, everyone indoors, appalled, like me, by the cold. Movement in the shadow on
my left. I hailed the shadow: Excuse me, do you speak English? The head
shook no, while the face smiled a wide yes. The shadow, a young man,
beckoned, and signed me to follow. I followed. He moved swiftly along cement paths, in and out between buildings, along corridors, until abruptly he stopped in his tracks, pointing and nodding furiously. The shadow knocked on a door, turning to me, smiling. Pointing towards the door, the shadow said, English! The door opened and a voice spoke: Good evening. How can I help you?
Did you send for a doctor?
No.
Is this Apartment Five?
No. This is seven.
Is this Building Nineteen?
No but I’ll take you to Number Five..

This was someone not lost in language nor in space. Feeling found, I followed. A building or two or three later, my guide stopped and knocked on a door. I noted a large numeral 5 next to the doorway and felt almost
hopeful. The door opened and a pretty young woman appeared. Behind her stood a man, older than she; behind him a couple of small children, curious and fearful, clutched at the man’s legs and peeked. The young woman saw my
medical bag. She told me her name and said, Come in Doctor. Thank you for coming. My mother is sick.

Mother lay on a couch. She did not look well. Her daughter explained: We arrived just today from Spain. During the flight Mother started to cough and it was hard for her to breathe. Now she has a fever. We didn’t know how to call a doctor. Thank you for coming.

I examined the lady. I thought I heard altered breathing sounds in one
lung. I bent and listened hard. The air struggled into one side of the chest, it rattled and squeaked.This was bronchopneumonia. Ordinarily a hospital matter, this called for X-RAY, possibly intravenous treatment as an inpatient. How would this lady get to hospital? Would Medicare cover a new arrival? Would the ambulance take her? Was there another way?

I straightened and addressed the  man through his adult daughter. Mother is sick. She has an infection in her chest. She needs strong antibiotic medicine, she might need to go into  hospital. If you wish I can start some treatment here, now. And with luck she will improve quickly.

The daughter translated for her father. The two spoke with the mother, the three nodded. They had decided. The daughter spoke. Thank you doctor, yes, we would like you to treat her. Thank you doctor…we don’t want hospital.  I fished out some  penicillin – no, mother is not allergic – and gave the lady a hefty dose by injection. I wrote out a prescription for oral penicillin to commence the next day. 

Leaving detailed instructions for a range of eventualities I prepared to take my troubled leave. I wished the lady well, I wished the whole family good health in Australia. The daughter reached for a purse. How much do we pay you, Doctor? I did not want payment. A doctor who deserted his sick patient didn’t deserve payment. I said something like, There is no charge. To myself I said, You have paid me, you’ve paid off my guilt. The young woman protested, No Doctor, we must pay you. We don’t know who sent you. How did you know we needed you? I didn’t know. Once again I wished them well and I left, my ears burning with blessings I could not accept.

Back in the car, I found Annette unharmed. I said, I couldn’t find my patient. And I told her the story.

***

It might have been six months later when I was called to the Delivery Suite for the birth of a baby. Birth was not expected for some weeks. Labour was well advanced when they called me and birth was imminent. I needed the mother to help. ‘Push, hard, push! The mother didn’t speak English. A masked figure at her side coached her, translating my words: Big, long push. Push….The mother pushed, her face turning deep red, the veins standing out on her forehead. Stop pushing now! Don’t push! Breathe, breathe…The mother breathed and with each breath the head advanced. The mother breathed her baby into this life, accompanied by fluids, red and clear and mucoid, and followed by the placenta and cries from the baby and crying from the mother. I counted fingers and toes and other parts and placed the baby on the mother’s chest and wished the new family joy. I pulled off my mask and thanked the person whose interpreting had made the birth smoother. I extended a hand, My name’s Howard. We have met, she said, removing her mask. I am Alexa.

***

Alexa explained she had come to visit her friend, now a new mother, in her ward. Abruptly, labour started and accelerated. The hospital discovered there was no-one to interpret for a Spanish speaker so Alexa volunteered. We chatted. She told me her own mother was well, recovery had gone smoothly. She, Alexa, was working as a wardsperson in this hospital. She told me she hoped to study nursing.

I said, I don’t know if you realised I had been called by an entirely different person on the day you arrived from Spain. I never found that person. I never discovered how I fund your Mum. I know, said Alexa. God sent you.

A few weeks later my father told me a new family had started seeing him as their local doctor. They’re from Spain, he said. They tell me you treated the mother for pneumonia.

***

Forty-nine years passed. Locked down, I’m doing Telehealth from home. A message arrived for me, asking me to contact an Alexa whom I had know years before. I rang the number. Alexa speaking, said a voice. The voice sounded Aussie. I told Alexa who I was. She asked, Do you remember us? If you arrived from Spain in 1971, then yes I do. How could I forget? We did. It was 1971. I guess you were about nineteen then. Exactly. So you’re sixty-eight now? Yes. And I did do nursing. I’m still nursing. We talked for a while. Mum is still alive. She’s ninety-three now. Dad only died last year. Do you remember what you said when you left us that night? What did I say? You said, I wish you health and happiness in this country. You blessed us and your words came true. I reminded Alexa of her words to me in the Delivery suite. You said, ‘God sent you.’ That’s right. God did send you. It’s the only explanation. That was the night I became a believer. I found God in the Hostel.

***

In the few days that have passed since Alexa opened the closed door on half a century, I’ve felt excitement and perturbation. I’m excited that Alexa and I will ‘meet’ again, that I’ll ‘see’ my pneumonia patient again, spry and vital; that I’ll meet the children and their father, that I’ll learn their stories. At the same time, some different, powerful feeling operates and unsettles me. It’s the thought of the power of a word, the reverberation of a small act. Alexa sees the hand of the Divine. Does that make me somehow an instrument in a plan? I cannot begin to recognise anything so lofty. I dismiss any idea of some special mission I might have; I find that sort of belief a burden, an embarrassment; it makes me want to run away.

But I’ve been moved to tears thinking how a simple act might lodge in memory, might germinate as a seed, might influence a life; that somehow, quite without intent or thought or awareness, a simple act could take root, help, lift, encourage, perhaps inspire. That thought brings with it a glow, the sense I have done as I know my father did before me – many times – some act of unwitting goodness that lived on afterwards. I’ve felt overcome with a feeling of blessing, perhaps of being a small link in a long chain that might continue on, in lives undreamed…

Mercedes, aged 92 years
Alexa and son

33 thoughts on “Once, on a cold day in Melbourne

  1. This story has been a mainstay in my life – I’m Alexa’s sister, Monica. I was 3 at the time, today I am 53. I’m utterly moved to see the story written out to be shared. I have no words.

    Like

    • Monica

      Thank you for writing

      The only time we two met, I ignored you

      I spoke to your parents through your big sister

      And now, at last, I have the opportunity to meet you properly and to hear your own individual story

      I look forward to that

      Your elder sister has all my contact information.

      Please get in touch.

      It will be a big day for me.

      Sincerely

      Howard

      Like

  2. On Sat, 16 May 2020 at 10:59 pm, howardgoldenberg wrote:

    > howardgoldenberg posted: ” Once, on a cold day in Melbourne Someone called > the Clinic the other day and left this message: ‘Alexa Rosa wanted to speak > to the doctor who treated her mother a long time ago. And she wanted to buy > your book.’ Did I know an Alexa Ros” >

    Like

  3. Howard,
    You’re right this is a ‘cracker of a story’.
    Life is amazing! So delighted that your reconnection with Alexa & her family has brought you such beautiful emotions & feelings.
    You have shown many, many acts of kindness, which my family has been fortunate to witness & experience over 49 years of your care & friendship.
    Cheers Bev & Wayne xx

    Like

    • Bev, Wayne,

      I am reminded all the time that the person we give ourselves to, leaves the giver enriched as well

      Every teacher knows she learns as much from her student as the student learns from her

      Thank you, such loyal readers, such loyal friends

      Like

  4. Howard you also touched my life more profoundly than you can imagine. You were capable, and you were kind. You listened when I described my baby’s symptoms and you were the first doctor who did not dismiss me as a simply an overly worried new mother. You treated us like people. And you were a person with us, not an impersonal doctor. I want to cry even thinking of it.
    What may seem a action so small to you is so enormous for a powerless person.
    I was right. My baby was very unwell. The answer came several months later. But in the whole journey you were the only one who was kind.
    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a great story Howard. It’s amazing how people can come back into your life. It made me feel quite emotional. Xx Janette

    Like

    • I made me emotional
      I feel emotional still

      In conversing with Alexa I have learned much

      And how she and her sons and sister contribute to our community

      We do not do favours for immigrants (eg our friend Pat) and asylum seekers; it is they who enrich us!

      Love

      hg

      Like

    • Me too , Janette, me too, an abiding feeling of the significance and the mystery of connection

      Connection across time and connection across space and across generations

      And the richness, the part of connection

      Perhaps it reminds the human we are not alone

      Like

  6. Thankyou Howard for this beautiful story. You were indeed an instrument divine intervention. Kind regards Brian

    Like

  7. Hi Howard ❤
    How are you all doing?
    It is a beautifull and touching story.
    Love from us all in Israel. Hope to see you soon.
    Keren

    Like

    • Ah motek!

      Thank you for writing Keren

      I can’t help feeling this chain of event and circumstance carries some meaning, some significance, some teaching for me

      I hope I’ll learn it

      With love

      Howard

      Like

  8. Love this Howard – beautiful story and always amazes me how the universe works. Love your writing and missing your personalised prose! Hope you are well.

    Like

    • Emma I did not know you saw this blog

      I take it as an honour

      As ‘personalised prose’ I suppose you mean bespoke verse

      So here we go

      One upon a time
      A long time ago
      So long, it was before they invented time
      It was cold enough for snow

      When a mother flew from Spain
      With her kids and her man
      And coughed and sickened
      And the woman’s daughter quickened

      And called a man of healing
      Who got lost
      In all that frost
      And in misery I. His feeling

      He got found
      With relief profound
      Amid the guilt and shame
      He’d lost his patient’s name

      And later later late
      By miracle and fate
      Once again got found
      O joy, o joy profound

      Like

  9. Beautiful story, Howard, not just for what you did, but your awareness of its significance all these years later and how many people’s lives you touched.

    Like

    • Bewildering and affecting, the entire chain of event and circumstance , Anna

      I fear I have not made clear just how much this is a story of Howard lost, and being found

      Howard blind, eyes opened by others

      Thank you for such a charitable response Anba

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Allah bless you my dear friend. You are the reason of happiness for many people, and I am one of these people. That’s how the real doctor should be, and that’s what I learned from you. Wish me luck to work soon, to be the reason of happiness for people.

    With friendship,

    Farooq 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  11. A beautiful memory for everyone. New migrants, and we know about this … they look for the least bit of kindness .. and the blessing you gave Was never forgotten. I want to give you a blessing Harold.. I need an email address to send it. Sheila

    Liked by 1 person

  12. and I recall, with gratitude, the many acts of kindness my daughter, my late husband and I received from you all those years ago in Diamond Creek. As a newcomer to the area I asked another young mother if there was a local doctor I could see, She said “There’s a new one, he’s Jewish.” And so I chose to see you. One of the better choices I have made in my nearly 73 years of life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shush, Jan

      Surely you – of all people – understand how much more the helper receives than the helped

      These encounters – both in Altonaand in Diamond Creek – enrich us and deepen us

      So thank YOU

      Like

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