Doomadgee, we write it
In our orthography
Really should be
No flag raising here
No speech or ceremony
On Australia Day
River runs warm
Kiddies swim and swarm
On Australia Day
In Australian passion
On Australia Eve
Here in Doomadgee
Broken hand, broken
Jaw, cut faces and more:
That’s Australia Day
Too far away
This Australia Day
A busy day this
In the hospital
We plaster, we suture
Like there’s no future:
Future no feature
of Australia Day,
Not here, no way,
The end of Australia Day –
In hospital halls
But short the respite –
Quick! Elder sick,
Dying On Australia night –
Dying here in Doomadgee?
Quiet, quiet, his voice, his breath –
Small his smile at threshold of death –
Good night Australia:
System failure in Doomadgee
Beside him, quiet woman – or girl –
His guard and ward in this world
Trembles, faces an Australian day
Elderless in Doomadgee.
He slips away from teeming kin
Who hold tears and keening in;
A dreadful peace on Australia Day
And quiet, this night in Doomadgee.
Woman injured, perhaps a fall,
A fracas? Who knows –
Perhaps a brawl?
Over the phone the nurse tells all:
She’s in a collar:
I call Flying Doctors:
Eight thousand dollar.
I take notes: a punch to the mouth
And she fell;
Got a kicking to the head
And the belly as well
Her neck is tender
C2-3, where the cord is slender
She can feel, can move…
That doesn’t prove
We’ll mend her.
I take it all down, arrange the flight.
Ask ‘Who? How?’ – at least:
It was a male. I called the police.
I take notes, recording in full
The news that’s not news,
That minds like mine
To take it in at all
Nurse gives name:
Like a punch to my mouth
Then a kicking,
Shame like flame
To burn my aorta –
The name – that ordinary name –
Is the same
That we gave
Word reached me, and when it came, it came obliquely. My writer friend in England, Hilary Custance Green, forwarded a letter that had reached her by way of one or another of the virtual media. ‘I wasn’t certain what to do with this,’ she wrote, ‘I thought it might be spam, but I decided to forward it, just in case.’ The writer of the letter asked Hilary if she could forward it to her old doctor. The letter bore strong feelings that had brewed and bubbled within the writer over years.
‘Dear Dr Goldenberg, I don’t know if you remember me but I remember you and I have wanted to contact you for a long time.’ There followed the remarkable declaration that my actions had saved the writer, now aged fifty-five, when she was a girl of seventeen. She owed her present happy life, she wrote, to my intervention, as well as the help of some others around that time.
The letter, and the memories it evoked, thudded, jolted within me. Yes I did remember the girl, firstborn of three, trapped in a hell where her violent alcoholic father abused all in the home. I remember the face, fair skinned, the coronet of fair hair. And her brave, fugitive smile.
I read on, and as I read the girl’s name came to me, a diminutive in the Australian way, never Anna but ‘Annie.’ Annie’s father was a helpless, hopeless drunk, and when drunk prone to unpredictable extremity. Annie would await his return from the pub with dread, hoping he’d keep away, hoping helplessly her mother and sisters would be safe. She’d have fled the family home long before but father had screamed and waved his gun at her. His words – ‘If you try to leave I’ll shoot you and the others and myself’ – shocked me. Uselessly, helplessly, I trembled for the child. The child confided she never brought a friend into that house, for fear of the shame. She told me these things, forty years ago, and I recognised a further shame, even deeper, Annie’s self-disgrace to be ashamed of her own father.
In her letter Annie reminded me of the Saturday night she finally escaped. Father had drunk all that day and into the night. Annie sheltered in her bedroom but when father burst in she ran from him, wearing only her nightclothes. Father screamed behind her, ‘You’ll never come back into this house, girl!’ The girl walked through the early hours, avoiding exposed places. She found herself in the deep dark of a railway culvert and, terrified in that blackness she decided, ‘This is where I’ll have to sleep from now on.’
Annie wrote, ‘I walked to the clinic and laid down and waited there for you to arrive. You’d always been kind and understanding. I knew you worked the Sunday mornings. I didn’t have anywhere else. You took me in when you arrived and after work you drove me home so I could safely collect some clothes. Then you drove me to a refuge.’
Annie’s account of that last-first morning was only dimly familiar. I felt small stirrings of pride, and a tenderness for the girl in the nightdress. Much stronger was my shock as I realised I had not thought of her since the ‘rescue.’ Annie had disappeared from the days of those busy years. She had lived, thrived, suffered reverses, sought salvation, recovered, blossomed, become the assertive woman her mother could never be, married happily and raised children, good citizens, and now saw grandchildren. Forty years and no thought by her wonderful caring doctor. That child had come into her own and that doctor had reached his prime and passed it.
Perturbed, I wrote to Hilary to thank her for sending word, for her gift.
The word found me in the outback. I wrote to Annie, giving my phone number and told her I was anxious to speak to her. My phone rang as I rode my bike across the railway line. I dismounted and answered and the voice said it was Annie and for twenty minutes I listened to her narration of the events of a turbulent life. We agreed we’d meet after my return from the outback.
In the exchange of emails that followed a second voice entered, followed by a third, then a fourth. Later a fifth and a sixth made contact. The writers, all roughly contemporaries, had been my patients in their teenage years. Each bore a burden of recollection which pressed now to be discharged.
Three women, matrons now, waited for me at the restaurant. I opened the door to faces that shone. I saw three faces of girls in their teens. I stepped forward and found myself clasped. Lined faces kissed mine, ample bodies held me close.
We sat. The women said how young I looked, I said how good they looked. The past was with us, the past with its beauty and its horror. The past, reverberating with friendships I had forgotten and the three had remembered.
How had I forgotten?
The waitress came, hovered, departed. Again she came and we promised we’d soon choose and order. It was not soon. Forty years here, twenty there, so much event, so much life. Babies – it turned out I had delivered them – were now adults, some even parents.
The waitress returned. Jerked into the present we ordered.
Girls Numbers Two and Three are sisters. I asked after their parents, immigrants, older than me by ten years, proud people, beavers in the general community and within their own. Mum was alive, still vibrant – ‘and fat, like all of us!’ Shrieks of laughter. And Dad?
‘Dad’s fat too, and dementing. The grog; it’s Korsakov’s.’ The speaker is Number Two, now a nurse. In the care of their aging parents she’s the officer commanding Number Three and their brothers.
Both Three and Two were married when I last knew them. They’d married matching buffoons, agreeable blokes when sober, not often sober, not often enough agreeable. Three spoke: ‘Even before we married I saw how my father in law treated his wife. He’d tell her she was stupid, shout at her to shut up when she spoke. One time I saw him belting into her – he was full as usual. I froze. We never saw that. Mum and Dad would drink a couple of gins after work but they never got nasty. Not like that.’
Memories returned to me of the mother in law. A tall trembling lady, her face pink and scarred, she’d address me in a soft trembly voice, describing symptoms I could never fathom, never cure. Now I understood.
‘It wasn’t too long before Robbie was getting aggressive like his Dad. He’d go to the pub after work, get full, drive home drunk. I had my first girl, then the second. I thought, “No. This isn’t what I want for them, not what I want them to see.“ I rang Robbie and I said, “Don’t hurry home you drunken bum. Your wife and your kids have split.”’ Peals of laughter from Three, far the widest at our table. ‘Did he ever hit you?’ – I wondered. ‘Lot’s of times, but I’d belt him too!’ More jolly mirth. Three sits opposite me, her great arms a gallery of art in brilliant reds. Finer tattoos crawl upward from her bodice, another spiders around her neck.
‘Weren’t you scared, leaving him?’
‘No.’ The thought is a stranger to Three. She stares at my unexpected question. ‘There was no future there. I got up, took my girls and went.’
Did I raise an eyebrow? I certainly wondered at her resolve, her clarity. Her fearlessness. ‘Yeah, money was tight. I got a job and I worked and I looked after my girls. They’re good. Their blokes are lovely. And the three of us, we’re very close. Like me and sis here.’ The two women looked at each other and smiled.
Two reminded me: ‘I was a mother at nineteen. Got married. You delivered my babies, Howard. I was in labour, terrified, not knowing anything. You got up on the bed beside me and stroked my back.’ Did I? Nowadays the Medical Board would caution me for this sort of thing. They’d require me to undergo Education.
Two continued: ’You know everything about us. You’ve seen all our vaginas!’ Careless in their merriment the girls showed none of the self-consciousness that saw me look down and blush. ‘I’m diabetic now,’ continued Two. ‘But I’m good. After I left my husband I worked as a nurse, you know, State Enrolled. When my kids were adult and near-adult my partner encouraged me. He said, “You’ve always wanted to study. Do it.” So I did. I studied nursing at Melbourne University. Boy that’s a gap – from Victoria Uni to Melbourne. But I did well…’
‘Got Distinctions’, Three’s voice was proud.
‘I did all of it on scholarships. I had to perform. They can take the scholarship away if you get bare passes. Now I’m specializing in Mental Health, in charge of the ward. I love it.’
Three told me how she too had always worked in health, in administration. She described without bitterness how, after eighteen years, her institution had managed her out of her job and into retirement. ‘Now I write poetry. I go to Creative Writing classes. And every Wednesday I post a poem on Facebook. Wednesday is the hump of the week. I call my readers, my “humpies.” Here’s this week’s poem’. Three handed me her phone where I read her tidy quatrains. The verses spoke in anticipation of this gathering, in praise of the poet’s doctor, his kindness, his understanding. Blushing again I came across a ‘Like’ in response. The author of the Like was Four, another ex-teenager whose family I’d been close to. Four wrote, ‘I remember how Dr Howard comforted me when Karen died.’ Another thump.
I remembered Four, a striking girl with olive skin, tight black curls, a smile that made you feel like singing. I remembered Karen, Karen who was lost, that sparkling child. Karen was in the car that drove to the pub in the bush hamlet twenty kilometres distant from my country practice. The pub filled the young driver up with grog and watched him drive the carful of friends home. How many died when the car missed the bend? Four? Five? Karen was extinguished in that crash. I remember speaking afterwards with Four. Was she the only one I was trying to comfort? I think I was trying to comfort myself too. A year or so later another young driver killed himself driving home from the same pub. His passenger suffered a fractured neck, became quadriplegic. From that time until left I doctored the human wreckage. And my rage burned against that pub. I nursed a futile wish to close it down.
The girls spoke of the men in their present lives. Annie had formed a lasting union with Ian that prospers still. She showed me the album her family made for her fiftieth birthday. Here were Annie’s mum, Annie at fifteen, Annie’s own grown children, Annie with Ian. I saw a tall man, angular and strong-looking, with a craggy face. Two and Three spoke warmly of their own blokes. All three had known some duds but the ‘girls’ bore no hostility to the male race. When, at the conclusion of the evening, Ian turned up to drive Annie home he towered over me. My not-small hand was lost in his handclasp. Instantly likable, solid as a wall, he smiled and I felt gladdened for Annie.
Two asked Annie: ‘Have you ever seen your father again?’ Quietly came the reply: ‘I always vowed I never would. Then four years ago he wrote to me, to all of us, Mum, my sisters. He said he was dying, in Mallacoota. His heart was failing, from the grog. He wanted to see us. Mum wouldn’t come, neither would my sisters. But I thought, “He can’t hurt me now.” So I went. He talked and he talked, poured out his side of our lives. He lay on the bed and asked me to lay by him and cuddle him.’
I looked at Annie, my eyes wide.
‘I thought, “He can’t hurt me now. He’s old and he’s dying alone.” He’s got a partner but she’s not his blood. It’s not the same. I climbed up beside him and I held him. We laid there together for a good while. After a couple of days I went home. He died two weeks later.’
One night when I was about thirteen the local police called my father to examine a body that had been found in the park. The woman (the girl?) was eighteen. She had been raped and strangled. Dad returned, a great sadness in his face. His voice was drained. He said, ‘Her only crime was being a woman.’
I did not understand.
I met a young woman recently who has been treated over twenty years for depression and anxiety. She’d been given medications as well as psychological therapies and psychiatric help. She still sleeps poorly and takes sleeping tablets as well as Valium when she’s anxious. She tells me she spent years drinking a bottle or two a night, ‘closed away’, later using cocaine, ecstasy and ice. She hears the ticking of her fertility clock, she wants children but she feels unready.
Diffidently I asked about abuse. She trusted me enough to confide, ‘I was raped when I was thirteen.’
‘Was it a relative?’
‘No, a school friend one year older than me… I looked for him recently on Facebook and I wrote him a message. I’ll email you what I wrote if you’re interested.’
I was interested.
I’m not sure if you remember me but just wanted to touch base after so many years and confront something which happened when we were at school together.
Remember the night we went to one of your female friends place and another one of your mates came along (apologies but their names don’t spring to mind).
Anyways, the events of that might have haunted me since and, well, finally I’ve managed to build up the courage to message you and speak up.
It saddens me that what happened has affected me so much and for so long.
I honestly thought that you were a friend back then and you and your friend took something away from me and I have never forgotten and it has affected me all this time.
My dignity was taken away and diminished.
I still have vivid images in my mind of being extremely intoxicated even to the embarrassing point prior to what happened that I had been sick on your jacket which I wore as it was cold. After this I was too ill and had to go to the spare room to sleep it off and at that point both you and your friend had taken advantage of the situation of me being passed out drunk and you both fucked me.
I will never forget also to this day that your mum, and I understand her being your mother defending you and your friend in saying that neither of you would ever do such a thing.
Saddens me that I was the one apparently untrue to the situation in yours/your families eyes.
The next morning my mother and brother had picked me up and they saw that something was not right. I had blood on me and looked a mess and was taken to the doctors but I was too shocked and embarrassed to admit to anything.
XXXX this was probably not the best way to do this via FB and just understand I’m not wanting anything from you nor an apology or anything but just feel that this is something that I’ve had to stand up to and to give me peace of mind after so many years.
I understand violence born of anger or fear. What is it in a male that allows him to hurt a woman or a child by calculation? I know this violence, I see it and I treat its fruits; but I don’t understand it. That people live and re-live and suffer and endure I do know. Some suffer beyond endurance and slash or die. I know some few who manage to create an enlightened response. This young woman said, ‘I changed cities to change my life.’ Soberly she added, ‘I think I am making progress.’
She found work in the justice system. And she found a sort of spiritual greatness that shows in these closing lines to her old school friend:
I would however like to ask you to always watch over your daughter, nieces if you have any and younger family members so this never happens to them.
Ours is a world in agony. The holy is awash in profanation. Men hear the voice of a ravening god that sends them to cut off heads. Others kidnap children in the name of a god. Again the toxic cohabitation of religion with violence, the foul marriage that brought us the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and Bushido on the Burma Railroad.
In the centre of our own country the Hayes clan lives at Whitegate, a ‘town camp’ in Alice Springs. The site is ancestral land going back to a time before the counting. Last week local government cut the water supply to Whitegate. The power died there some time ago. The cold desert nights are bitter.
How to breathe? Where to find hope? Why believe in our species at all? What light can we show our small children?
Last week the International Council of Christians and Jews honoured Debbie Weissman, a veteran worker across the tribes and creeds, building frail bridges of peace. Peace has broken out in Gaza-Israel. Rod Moss, artist and writer, chops wood and hauls water to Whitegate.
The peacemakers, the hewers of wood and drawers of water: these small signs. I clutch at such as these.
A quiet night. Apart from the ten year old who coughs through every winter and the two year old with a cut leg, all our patients wash up on our shores on a tide of intoxicants. Subtract grog from these lives, says the Director, and we could close half our cubicles. Take away drugs and we’d need only a quarter.
We treat the thirty year old whose man – drunk – split open her scalp and broke three of her fingers; we check out the Frequent Flyer with (real) kidney failure disabled for the fourth night in a row by (spurious) chest pain; he seeks opiates and when denied a needle, suddenly invigorated, he walks out. Tall and elegant, the forty-something in the very high heels tripped over her long legs following a fusillade of shots (vodka). She tore her medial collateral ligament. The man snoring down the back treated his epilepsy with a slab in place of his Epilim. The ambos brought him in, fitting. He’ll need observation until morning…
The ward slows, starts to doze. Time to go to the loo. Above the urinal a laminated protocol provides advice on intoxication. The notice is headed:
TOILET PAPER – SEPTEMBER 2014.
Around two in the morning an irruption of large bodies in blue. One, two, three, four police officers, escorting one small man whose pale blue shirt is soaked. Handcuffed to the bedrails, he yet manages to give the cops the finger – two fingers actually – one on each hand. He blows kisses to the cops. The officers remain unprovoked.
The ambo, a non-combatant, provides the story: The pub called the coppers because he was behaving wildly. His friends say he had taken ecstasy, crack and alcohol. And another tablet – they don’t know what. He went crazy in the pub. Security tried to quieten him and he fought them; then he fought the cops. These four are only half the number it took to control him. They cuffed him. Somewhere along the line he vomited.
The man is surprisingly small. His short half shirt is soaked in lumpy vomitus. Between his gallery of tattoos patches of skin are missing from his knuckles. A large abrasion swells and shines dully on his forehead. A dull steel ring decorates his lower lip. Another improves an eyebrow. When a nurse tries to mask him (“You’ve been vomiting, we need you to wear a mask”) he speaks simple words in surprisingly mild tones: Please don’t touch me. Please don’t touch me. The nurse looks too slender, too young to handle this unpredictable person. Her speech is a further surprise. Turning from the patient to the gathering of uniforms congregating around the cubicle, she asks: Do we really need all these people? She draws the curtains, comes close to her patient and asks: Have you taken drugs?
Have you been in a fight?
Has your head has been injured?
Have you vomited?
Do you take any regular medications?
Do you have any medical history?
This is a nineteen year old without symptoms, without any reason to be here. Mildly the nurse says, Well then, once we find there’s no reason to detain you will you have any objection if we return you to these officers?
To his denials of all symptoms and concerns the man adds, I don’t believe I have any obligation to answer your questions.
A compact young doctor joins the conversation: Look, Simon, we’re here to help you. We aren’t the police, we’re not charging you, we’re not collecting evidence.
Like her nursing colleague the doctor speaks calmly. She focuses on assessing and helping the patient. Your heart is racing. You’re a bit dry. We’ll put a drip into this vein. Do you mind?
No answer. Eyes closed, resolutely mute, the young man affects a coma rather than concede anything to anyone.
The boy trembles as far as his manacles allow. Is he just scared? Are his drugs making him paranoid or is he frightened by the storm of chemicals that fight each other inside his brain? Or just terrified of the police?
His shirt is wet. The thermometer reads 35 degrees.
Are you cold?
Would you like a blanket?
Do you need to pee?
Taking the nurse aside I confide: With this drip running he will need to urinate eventually. Handcuffed as he is, he’ll need help. How will you handle that?
We’ll give him a bottle.
He won’t be able to unzip. Someone will need to pull his dick out for him.
That will be your job.
An hour later, I find the nurse and ask for the bladder report.
He’s been. He’s voided.
How did you do it?
I took him to the toilet. He did the rest.
O no: the cuffs are off. He’s calm now. I walked him there and he managed himself. The cops are leaving.
I check in the cubicle. With no need of coma or bravado or petulance, the young man – or boy – lies on the bed and chats with his girlfriend – another surprise: impeccably presented, she’s a demure young lady.
Domestic violence, drug seeking, a lacerated child, another who coughs; grog, grog, grog, and multi-chemical intoxication…
A quiet night in Casualty.
Consider Phillip. He lies in his hospital bed, a person unknown. Deep in the stupefaction of alcohol he lies as one asleep. Possibly he is asleep.
I stand silently and watch Phillip and I consider him.
The police were alarmed when he vomited violently in their lockup. They called the ambulance that brought him to my one-doctor hospital. The nurses, veterans in the management of all forms of intoxication, called me, troubled by his scatterings of impulse, his wildly fluctuating state of mind and mindlessness.
I arrive to find a thin man of twenty-five lying on his side, inert. His body has curled into the position of a foetus in a textbook. Phillip’s narrow face, tapering downwards to a thin chin and a Ho Chi Minh beard, buries itself in a pillow. His eyes are closed.
I address him: “Phillip.”
Not a flicker.
“Phillip, I’m the doctor. I’ve come to help you…Phillip!”
Only minutes before my arrival the nurses found Phillip conscious and verbal. One moment he was weeping for the death earlier in the day of an aunty in his hometown on a nearby island; the next he was wolfing the sardine sandwiches the nurses prepared for him.
Now he is immobile, unhearing, a narrow form, a closed face, a straggle of black beard.
In these parts the death of “an aunty” can signify unbearable loss. And the access to alcohol can trigger irresistible impulse to harm.
I stand and consider Phillip.
Do I leave him lie – the chicken option? Or stir him up, revisit loss, possibly unleash the grog-drugged demons?
“Phillip, show me your tongue.”
Eyelids flicker, the eyes open. A mute question on a busy face: What – show my tongue?
“Phillip, I am the doctor. Please show me your tongue.”
Lips part, a pink lizard shows itself and retreats. Now it crawls from its dark cave and rests, clean, a healthy pink. But dry.
Phillip’s chart records a low blood pressure reading. Less than 100/60, it might betoken the relaxant action of alcohol on blood vessels. Equally such a reading might simply reflect his norm, his youthful good health. He’s a stranger here. We don’t know his normal BP. And it matters.
Abruptly Phillip sits up in bed. A pillow goes flying, bedclothes are flung aside. Phillip’s scrawny arm reaches behind his back, deep into his undies. He scratches furiously. He looks around. A wildness in his movements. He lies down and begins to whimper. He buries his head in the crook of an arm and weeps now, regular little bleating sounds, a child giving way to grief. Before I arrived, the nurses tell me, Phillip squatted on the floor, folded his head in to his torso, his body a concertina; at the same time he drew his arms against his chest and his fingers into the attitude of prayer – the nurses were taken by the strange gracefulness of his fingers – and he began to cry.
This second weeping exhausts itself. Quietness falls in the darkened room.
Without warning Phillip’s fingers race around his belly, scratching in a frenzy. Now they plunge to his undies and pull them down, exposing a circumcised member. Meanwhile my own hands yank bedclothes upwards to restore what? – dignity? – modesty? For the exhibition is so insistent, so obscure, so confusing, I feel alarmed and I am sure my alarm is for the women around me, anxiety occasioned by the actions of the thin man in the bed, actions quicker than thought, movements without reason or purpose. As the bedclothes jump and subside before me I am reminded of the inscrutable movements of the unborn. And indeed there is much that is infantine about Phillip, his way of looking at and into the attending nurse or at me, his helplessness, his mute, unknowing enquiry, his submission to tenderness.
I decide on an intravenous saline infusion to rehydrate Phillip, to wash out the grog and to lift his BP. And not incidentally, to provide immediate access to a vein in case of urgent need. I am thinking of sedation that might short-circuit a fatal impulse. On the other hand, sedation can further lower a low pressure and depress grogged breathing.
First I have to sell the deal. Phillip is (still) a voluntary patient of whom involuntary treatment would be assault.
“Phillip, we’re going to give your body a drink. We’re going to put a needle in your vein so we can make you feel better.”
The busy face, thinking what?
“We’ll put a needle in here.”
Phillip looks at the finger I have placed on his arm vein as at something mystic.
Nurses bring the gear for a drip. The nurses who are due to go off duty do not go. Every able bodied person in the hospital gathers around Phillip. No-one has expressed it but all of us feel anything might happen.
The sharp trochar pricks Phillip’s cubital skin. Beneath my sentinel palm that rests gently on his shoulder I feel his muscles bunch. Now his hand flies up towards the face of the cannulating nurse. Her face tightens and darkens, her voice finds steel: Don’t. You. Think. Of It.
A moment that freezes. Ten eyes stare, Phillip subsides, we breathe out.
“Midazolam, 2.5 milligrams, now!” My command is a whispered shout. Moments later Phillip is sedated, leaving nurses and doctor unsedately measuring blood pressure and monitoring respirations.
Two hours later the nurse in command calls me, apologising needlessly: “Phillip is agitated again, should we repeat the sedation?”
“Should we? We have to!”
Incidentally the nurse’s midnight enquiries to the clinic on Phillip’s island confirm that his BP is always low. The pressure of a healthy child.
Sleep will not come. The eye in memory sees a teenager, crazed, sad, helpless, feeling everything, understanding nothing, terrified of the feelings that clamour and hammer in his head.
At length a question crystallizes and brings me back to Phillip’s bedside. We two are alone in his dark room. His eyes are open, his body at rest. Before I can pose my question Phillip has one of his own. He gazes at the inside of his elbow. He fingers the bandage that holds his cannula inside the vein. The white bandage is bright in the gloom. “What if I pull all this out?” His finger explores dangerously, his voice asks innocently. I beg Phillip not to touch the tubes, not to disturb the bandage. “We want to help you Phillip.”
Now for my question: “Phillip, what else have you had today – apart from the beer?” There has to be something else. I don’t see this behavior with grog alone. And more than that, Phillip stays beneath the roof a special house in this community. It is the house of an older white man. A white man with many younger black visitors and residents. A nurse at the hospital says: “We treat a great deal of sexually transmitted disease among the young residents of that house, and too many drug-taking people.”
Artlessly Phillip gives answer: “I smoked ganja today doctor. You know, dope.” He looks to me, that look he has, free and clear of adult care, of consequence. He looks to me, the grownup. Aunty has passed: it is for me to know, for me to be a parent.
Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 27 February, 2014.
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.”
A commotion from the waiting room. Raised voices, female voices, one shrieking, another, less frantic, also raised.
The frantic voice cries: Get him something for the pain. He’s in terrible pain. Get a doctor, he’s in pain.
Please don’t scream. Try to be calm. I’ll go and call the doctor… Here’s the doctor now.
The man who is in terrible pain lifts his hands,which are bleeding. Tall, in his mid-twenties, he has a scar that runs obliquely upward from his lower lip to the left hand corner of his upper lip. His eyes look yellowish. He bleeds from transverse lacerations on the backs of his hands. Both hands.
In the treatment room the wounds are swiftly cleansed and anaesthetized. The man’s companion leans over the doctor’s shoulders squawking, He’s in terrible pain. Give him something for the pain!
By this stage the doctor is busily suturing the numbed skin. The lacerations are jagged, roughly parallel, two on each hand.
The young man’s companion is tall and thin, younger than he, agitated and relentlessly noisy.
The doctor looks up from his suturing, engages his patient’s gaze, asks confidentially, What happened?
Punched the windows. Both hands.
The doctor looks over his shoulder towards the injured man’s companion, still highly audible. He raises an eyebrow, asks: Was there a disagreement?
Bloody oath! It was her or the windows. I punched the windows.
The doctor thinks – wrong choice.
The young man’s skin is tough. It resists the doctor’s pressing needle. The doctor pushes harder, the skin abruptly gives way and the needle penetrates the doctor’s left index tip.
He pulls off his glove, washes the finger vigorously, asks over his shoulder – You’re not using any drugs are you?
Nah… hardly anything. Not now.
Are you injecting?
Nah. Not since I was inside.
The doctor scrubs harder.
The man adds: Look, you don’t need to worry. I haven’t got HIV. They test you before you leave.
The doctor looks unconvinced.
Look Doc, I’m clean. The only thing I’ve got is Hep C.
The doctor surveys the man’s hands: three lacerations down, one to go.
He asks the nurse for a syringe and a test tube, he draws blood from the wound, fills out a pathology slip, and sends the man’s blood for serological testing for a range of blood-borne infections.
In defiance of the law he does not seek consent from the patient. He scrubs again, re-gloves and resumes his suturing. He speaks: I’m testing your blood. I’ll give you the results when you come back to get the stitches out.
The wounds look tidy now, four curving rows of small black bows sit pretty as a flower bed against the thin red lines of closed lacerations.
The man and his lady friend leave without paying.
Only now does the doctor read the patient’s surname on the chart. He recognizes the name: he used to treat the man when he was a small child. His battling single mum did her best with the children. The sister turned out alright. Until today the doctor had lost track of the son.
The doctor sends off his own blood and learns that he has no antibodies against HIV, Hepatitis B, Hep C or syphilis. His patient does indeed have Hepatitis C. Now the doctor must wait three months to discover whether he has caught the incurable – and at this time, largely untreatable – liver virus.
The man who had cut hands never returns.
In the course of those months the doctor spends a lot of time in meditation.
The man who had cut hands was born in July 1972. Same month as my daughter.
He wonders about the birth of the young man. Who delivered him? He asks his friend and celebrated senior partner, Dr. Donald Cordner: I met Rodney Blank the other day. I knew him as a kid. Did you deliver him?
Yes, I did… his sister too. What became of them?
The younger doctor fills him in. Then asks, You do believe in preventative medicine, don’t you Donald?
You know I do. What are you getting at, Howard?
Well I was just thinking – you could have saved lot of people a lot of trouble if you’d drowned him at birth.