Just before noon the phone called me from the river to the hospital. The hospital held me until long past midnight.
A man with his jawbone fractured, pushed right out of alignment, said: “There was a fight. I was watching it and a man came up from behind, on my right side, and king-hit me.”
I called a plane to take Sampson to Mt Isa.
Eight thousand dollars.
A man came in and showed me his hand, puffed up, a boxing glove of soggy blood under the skin. Beneath the blood, the head of the metacarpal bone had snapped. I said: “You’ll need an operation. We’ll fly you to Mt. Isa.”
Eight thousand dollars.
On the TV Rafael Nadal struggled into night with back muscles in spasm. A chubby baby, feverish and short of breath, took me from the tennis. Over the previous day or two I had seen this baby at peace. He filled all who saw him with delight. Such abundant flesh, so well at home in grandmother’s embrace.
This was their third night visit in 48 hours. Grandma brought him in this time as previously. She nursed the weeping Buddha and comforted him. The rule in Aboriginal health says, “Three strikes and you’re in.”
I said, “He’ll have to go in. To Mt. Isa. You can go with him.”
“Grandmother said:” I can’t. I’ve got my own six-month old at home. I’m breast-feeding him.”
“What about his mum?”
“She doesn’t have him. I do.”
The letter from Child Protection said the same. So Aunty went.
Very late at night came an urgent call. The voice said: “A man has come in with a high temperature. He’s very old.”
The thermometer said: “39.9 degrees.”
That sort of fever says “sepsis.” In this man’s case his septicaemia arose as a complication of pneumonia.
I asked the man about symptoms. He shook his head. He had no complaints.
“What about pain?”
He said, “I think my head hurts.” He said it as if he was far from the pain. The pain was a sensation like memory; he had to summon it to name it.
The man sat bent forward, breathing quietly, speaking softly, his bushy moustache a permanent smile.
At his side sat a young woman. Her gaze never moved from the breathing old man.
I asked, “Is he your grandfather?”
She said, “Yes.”
“Will his wife come…?”
The young woman said, “No, just me. Me and my brothers.”
“He’ll need to go to Mt. Isa. Your grandfather is seriously ill.”
A sad shake of her head, She said: “I can’t go. My baby… My brother will go, one of my brothers, Ambrose.”
“How old is your Ambrose?”
“Eighteen.” Seeing the doubt on my face she said: “Ambrose will look after him properly. Us three – my brothers and me – we live with him, we look after him. We do everything.”
The old man’s vital signs went from worse to frightening. The sphygmomanometer said: “60/40”.
The Emergency Consultant at the Flying Doctor Base in Mt. Isa said, “The plane is on its way. Give him Adrenaline.”
We gave him adrenaline. We gave him three different intravenous antibiotics and a fourth, by mouth. Hunched forward, moving only zephyrs in and out of his chest, the old man breathed and the breath did not speak to my stethoscopic ears.
I said, “Please lie back if you can.”
He lay back, air moved in and out, the silver bush on his upper lip filled and emptied, emptied and filled, semaphoring life. The blood pressure machine said, “80/50…90/65…110/70”.
The young woman gave way to a brother. The brother, after a time, gave way to another. This was the eighteen year old, tall, thin, lightly muscled. His bearing was solemn.
The sound of an aircraft flying low overhead changed the tempo.
Quickly, quickly, gently, many hands helped the old man slide from the couch to the ambos’ trolley that he would ride to the vehicle and on to the airfield.
We pushed him towards the ambulance parked outside the front door. Lining the wall, gathering in numbers, gathering over the fretting hours of the old man’s time with us, waiting, standing quietly, were three daughters – themselves matrons – and men of all ages, boys, small kids supported on young hips and attached to slender breasts. Only minutes earlier the waiting room had been empty. All had stood outside in the dark and the heat. The chill of a hospital ward did not invite them.
All eyes now followed the old man. Hands reached for him. The ambos halted, the file flowed forward, a wave of silent care. I saw one woman, a daughter, her eyes swimming, her lips trembling. I stepped forward and said: “Your father has been desperately ill, but he seems to be turning the corner. He’s holding his own now.”
She said: ”He didn’t want to come to the hospital. He was scared. He thought you might fly him out to Mt. Isa. When they flew Mum out, she…” The voice, soft, husky, now faltered:“…Mum never came back.”
I looked at the gathering and asked: “All these people – all his descendants?”
She said, “Yes, all his kids and his kids’ kids and their kids.
And there’ll be just as much family waiting for him in the hospital in town.”
The ambos took the old man away. The family melted away.
The senior nurse breathed out and said: “If I come to my final hours and I am surrounded by that much love, I will know I have lived a successful life.”
While the nurses tidied the Emergency Rooms, I wrote up my clinical notes. A nurse approached, apologetically. She said, “Would you mind? We have a lady here with a cut head. It might need stitching. It was a belt buckle.”
In ED an old lady sat. Seated opposite her, too long of limb to sit without sprawling, were two large men in navy blue with large guns at their hips.
I looked to the lady. She wore a patterned dress in black and white whorls. The bodice was splattered with red. Her head was a savannah of silver-black curls. I had to search for the laceration which was small and shallow. Blood had clotted in a thin line between the margins of skin. Nature had stopped the previously brisk bleeding.
There was not much to do, nothing medical.
I asked, “What happened.”
The nurse said: “Fifty dollars.”
The nurse shook her head. Was she angry? Disbelieving? Or simply busy with the wound?
She resumed: “Her husband demanded fifty dollars and when she didn’t hand it over he hit her with his belt buckle. Isn’t that right?”
The old lady spoke for the first time. She said, “Sixty.”
Unhappily, guardedly, I turned to the police officers and asked: “How can I be of help to you gentlemen?”
The taller one had blue eyes. His firm face softened. He said: “You can’t. We’re just waiting here until you’ve all finished, then we’ll drive her home. Don’t want an old lady to walk home alone. And it won’t be her home. We’ll take her somewhere else, somewhere safe.”