Monday, February 28, 2011

Returning home

It’s now nearly one week after the earthquake. The official death toll is still rising, as searchers systematically go through the rubble. No one has been found alive since Wednesday.

In the Air New Zealand magazine, an advertisement now has the ring of bitter irony: “What investment could be safer than houses?” Every plane leaving Christchurch is booked solid. Small children with their own little backpacks peer out from the aisle. The mood on board is surprisingly upbeat, although the newspaper reports suggest that some of those leaving Christchurch are leaving forever.

I don’t often watch TV, but this weekend I turned it on, drawn despite myself to the stories of disaster and eyewitness accounts. Every figure crossing the screen is labelled either “lucky survivor” or “brave rescuer” by the (usually breathlessly overwhelmed) presenter. I know they’re trying to do a good job, but it seems disingenuous. I don’t like being witness to a hyena feeding frenzy. My mental disturbance is not helped by watching footage of destruction sandwiched by ads trying to sell me maternal health supplements and hair care products. The most obscene ad I saw was one which tried to insinuate that eating McDonalds would help me lose weight (“Weight Watcher’s approved – so now you can feel good!”)

Luckily, the newspaper coverage from The Press is far better. Amazingly, it’s still being published and delivered – a much slimmer format than usual, but the writing in it is often pretty good. Many of the eyewitness accounts are from Press reporters whose building was one of those destroyed in the CBD. Writing as citizens and fellow survivors, their accounts are detailed, insightful and full of clarity, rather than swimming in emotion. There’s time enough for emotion later, now is the time for facts which can help people. I’m particularly impressed by the editor who is already thinking about the future of the city and whether this time, relocation (rather than repair) of the CBD is the best option.

Ditto with National Radio, on which I was briefly interviewed on Saturday afternoon. Conscious of the fact that radio is now the main information source for affected families, they’re doing their best to provide up to the minute advice about where to get clean water, food supplies, help. They’re also broadcasting messages of support and help on its way – I was asked to talk about what the arts community is doing to help (many fundraisers have either been held or are planned, as well as more practical measures to help professionals and businesses get back on their feet).

Online, there’s information flying around. Aside from a few messages still seeking people who haven’t made contact, you can now download information sheets about maintaining mental health and news items about what’s being done to support the disabled, refugees and the elderly. The trivialities have returned to facebook – there’s 20 replies to a post about what colour car to buy.

My weekend at Grey Hospital was civilised, although I did get more patients than usual. None of these were from Christchurch, but it does seem that there are going to be a lot of knock-on effects from the earthquake. Many patients outside Christchurch rely on services there being available when they need them, and many are trying to anticipate demand by getting seen earlier or moving to another centre. I communicated with other paediatricians – frequent phone meetings are taking place as units around NZ fill up. There’s a particular demand for Level 3 (the most intensive) baby care, and this could get worse with a number of premature births expected to be triggered by the earthquake. Midwives are among the professions being asked to volunteer to help. The situation is likely to last months and I’m worried about burnout of my colleagues.

As I step out of Auckland airport in search of a taxi home I'm greeted by a blast of warm air - it's 25 degrees and yet another scorcher. It feels as if I've been away for longer than three days. I'm happy to be home and on solid ground.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The weed mat of humanity

As I stepped off the plane into Christchurch yesterday I was surprised at first by the gentle hum of conversation, the clink of coffee spoons, by smiles even. I don’t know why but I expected silence and grim reality etched on the faces of those I passed. But the airport was in full swing, uniformed staff walking around as if it was just another day of departures and arrivals.

It took a while to spot the small things wrong with the picture. The small cafĂ© where I like to pick up soup had shelves empty of nearly everything except, oddly, cake. There were a lot more uniforms than usual. I realised that the friendly chatter around me had a tone of enforced calm. And Gate 1, at the arse-end of the airport, which is usually empty except for the few who are scheduled to take small ‘cigar planes’ to exotic destinations like Hokitika or Timaru, was packed. There were people on the floor, kids cartwheeling in the aisles, luggage spread all over the carpet.

I realised as I arrived to wait for my plane that everyone had their faces turned to the window, watching as an air ambulance landed. Two land ambulances pulled up, policemen strolled around in casual conversation with a blonde airport attendant, there was some activity involving old ladies and wheelchairs. The ambulances loaded up and departed and everyone turned their attention back to the TV, which was showing a live feed from the CBD. The electronic board showed a roll of departures – suddenly places like Hamilton or Tauranga felt like another country. Even though there were no announcements about when the delayed flights would depart, no one bugged the service desk people, who had clearly been at work for a very long time. Not even when the scanner failed and they had to board everyone manually and slowly.

As my plane finally left the tarmac I remember feeling a great sense of relief, followed by a sense of irony that I would find a small plane often dubbed the “flying coffin” safer than being on the ground. Yet being in transit in Christchurch for just one hour felt stressful. I have no idea how the people who live there can cope, seeing as they’ve been dealing with this threat since September. Everyone on the plane glued their faces to the window, trying to see if they could spot the cracks in the earth. My co-passenger later said he could identify the Hotel Grand Chancellor, which even from that distance had a visible lean.

Ferrying us to Greymouth, the taxi driver cheerfully rattled off his experiences: everyone on the West Coast felt the quake, of course they did, and they were all dead scared. The supermarkets had been cleaned out of bread and milk the last few days. Some people had taken off over the Hill to look after their rellies; the rest didn’t want to go anywhere near. But they all felt it, oh yes they all felt it alright.

In the hospital today, it’s impossible to escape the reality, even though my patients are the usual stream of wheezers and coughers mixed in with the chronically unwell kids. The nurse unit manager tells me that several doctors from Christchurch were doing a clinic here, and when the quake was felt they said it was a small one, comparatively. Then as it became evident what the news was they loaded up, six doctors in a four person car, and set off over the infamous hill road through Arthur's Pass. Luckily there were no slips and the road was not damaged.

Later in the morning one of the Christchurch paediatricians rings me to check I’m ok and to hand over a few patients. They usually cover the Greymouth services, in person or by remote – I’m only covering for the weekend. He cheerily assures me that they are all fine, their families are fine and in fact they are still happy to take transfers should I need to. I think of the months of overtime and stress ahead of them.

The TV is on and once more we are transfixed, swallowing the stories of desperation, of despair, of hopes dashed, as if there is no other diet. But there isn’t. Everything else seems shallow by comparison. The whole world seems trivial compared to what we are going through. And yet we are the trivial ones – glued to the TV while at least half the people who the earthquake affects don’t have access to power, let alone a TV, and they probably wouldn’t be inclined to watch it anyway. For them, cellphones and radio are their link to the world. And while we gasp in guiltily perverted horror at the scenes of devastation rolling across our screens, for some it will be weeks before they see the full images.

It’s still sunny as I step outside to go back to the hotel. The ground feels solid under my feet, but I breathe in the smell of fresh grass, just to make sure. I’m alone this weekend – my husband is back in Auckland – but I don’t feel isolated. I feel part of this great weed mat of humanity which has been pulled up by its roots in the last few days and is still trying to find a place to anchor. Piece by small piece, we grab onto the familiar things. We are beginning to joke again. And – even though it feels a little bad – we are beginning to smile.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

On the edge of normality

I’m at Auckland airport, waiting for a plane to Christchurch. On my way to the departure gate I’ve walked past people in jackets saying things like Red Cross and Australian Civil Defence; I try not to stare as I walk past a small desk with a large sign saying American Consulate, with two men in suits sombrely wedged behind it. Every few minutes an announcement asks people arriving from Christchurch to contact police or emergency staff in the foyer if they need assistance. It’s clear that this is not a normal day. Outside is normality, the world getting on with itself; here I am at a portal, a place where people with the label Survivor emerge to be whisked to safety.

At the gate, I scan the faces of new arrivals. There’s an elderly gentleman holding his grandchild like she’s the most precious thing he’s ever seen. My eyes fix on the small bandage just by his left ear. Did he get grazed by falling bricks, or is it just one of the legion of small injuries the elderly get on a daily basis? Is it just my imagination or is there hope, fear and impatience etched on the faces of my fellow departing passengers?

Once before in my life, I’ve taken planes with sorrow as my luggage. That time I travelled alone. No one noticed my transparency or commented on how I floated because I didn’t belong to the earth any more. The world turned on without me, everyone laughed and made noise and I watched from the other side of a wall that I thought would be permanent. I know what it’s like to take a plane knowing that I’ll only find unimaginable pain at the other end, the loss of a loved one, and how I’m impatient for the plane to land anyway.

This time it’s different. I am merely an observer. Everyone sees the sorrow – how could we not, when it’s our own world which has suddenly been cracked open - and we’re talking openly about it. The digital stratosphere is full of messages of love, of relief, of people telling the world they’re ok, to only worry about those less fortunate. Everyone tells everyone else to hug loved ones. But soon the messages of loss will start coming through. There’s a sense that we’re standing on the edge of a black hole that has opened up. And true to being Kiwi, we feel slightly guilty that we’re ok while someone else is suffering.

And then my little artist brain pipes up, the little cruel artist brain that knows how suffering wrings you out and then pushes you on, harder than before. Maybe it’s good for us to feel this way, once in a while. It’s not at all good that this has happened, but a disaster on this scale reconnects Godzone to the harsh, real world. Despite the images and people coming from outside, and the national obsession with travel, there’s still sometimes a feeling that this is the last safe place on earth, a place that’s clean and green and wrapped in cotton wool. A disaster on this scale shows us that safety can turn to danger in an instant. A crack has opened up on these islands of ours and suddenly we know what it’s like to be without communication, without security, fearing for our very lives. We’re no longer distant from what we see on our screens.

Christchurch is being compared to a war zone: transport, water, power and communication are down or unreliable, there are still bodies lying on the streets and buildings burning. Yet despite this people can still get on a plane and escape. Their family can text them to make sure they’re fine, and their friends gather pledges on the internet. We’re still at heart a civilised nation which has not lost its humanity enough to help others, and to deeply feel for others. And for that we can be grateful, not guilty.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A foot story

After attending our friends' wedding on the weekend, and dancing the night away in my gold tango heels (I defy any woman not to develop a shoe fetish when in Buenos Aires), I now feel ready to write the story of the one glitch in our wedding day.

The day was perfect - weather, venue (Mark's grandparent's huge garden in Blockhouse Bay) and guests, even the small ones, all perfectly behaved...except of course I had to step on a needle a few hours before the ceremony. What's more, being only a paediatrician, I didn't notice it was a needle (it had gone in so deep there was only a puncture mark). So, I walked down the aisle, took photos around the gardens, went to the beach and even danced a tango, all the time with a worsening pain in my left foot. It did mean I had to abandon my glamorous gold tango heels for something a little kinder, though.

You can see the romantic results in the photos (a few posts below) when Mark had to pick me up and carry me around. Impromptu bedroom surgeries were performed to investigate the unseen "splinter", once by my bridesmaid (who also happened to be my sister and a surgeon, and very wisely refused my request of a radical dissection) and once by Mark's sister (who's a designer, and handy with a pair of sewing scissors). Finally, having hobbled home at 2 am to "rest and elevate" my offending limb, and woken with it no better, we went to Ascot A+E the next day where very luckily we hit a skilled orthopaedic surgeon who just happened to be doing a locum there. (It turned out he'd worked with my sister - she told me later he was known for his fine handiwork.) After some painstaking dissection he extracted a 1 cm long broken sewing needle from deep in my anaesthetised foot. Just goes to show that love + one panadol is a great analgesic.

After a single stitch and a course of Augmentin, I am now fully back to 100%. A fact I have now proved with my dancing - hurray!

Tuesday Poem: Notes for reading a poem

Preparation time:
The space between breaths.

Scissors, scalpel or chainsaw.
A pen (does not need to be expensive).
More paper.

Degree of difficulty:
A pebble’s throw.

1. Take a deep breath. Rise to the balls of your feet. Staying there, find the horizon.
2. Close your eyes and point to the open page of poetry.
3. Open your eyes and read on your exhaled breath.
4. Draw a line between the words you have read.
5. Repeat these steps, in any order.
6. If you like the poem, cut it up and rearrange. See if you like it any better.
7. If you don’t like the poem, write your own.

I wrote this poem a couple of years ago for a visual art exhibition, Little Rain. An experiment in the abstract and quirky.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tuesday Poem - Aubade(1)

I have worn another groove in you
this one between the
clavicle and deltoid

carved a notch
under your sleeping chin
to fit my head

moulded an upright nipple
where my fingertips rest

as sunlight taps the window

your breath blows even
against my neck

my hands walk downwards
I haven’t
much time

This poem needs no explanation or introduction! I wrote it some weeks ago but post it today in honour of the season. Incidentally yesterday evening, Valentine's Day, was spent at a tango class where I practised "close embrace" - walking backwards in high heels with my face nestled against a stranger's chest, both of us learning to adjust our breathing, the lengths of our steps, so as not to cause any injury. It's more fun than it sounds. I danced with Mark too of course but talking about strangers makes it a better story.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Just a note that I have received some comments on this blog from "anonymous". I welcome all comments, favourable or not (so long as they are not outright abusive, spam, or in a language I can't read), but since you know who I am, I'd like to know likewise! So "Anonymous", please repost with your real name - and thanks so much for your feedback. :)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Falls, by Edward Lowbury

Pulled by the sky's gravitation
Smoke falls upwards;
The monkey-spider floats, in perfect balance;
And a child on shaky limbs
Drops into its mother's arms,
Or falls light - no need to fear the fall
When earth is near and motherly.

But no maternal arms
Reach out to save those on shaky limbs
Who fall in second childhood.
The earth is hard and far away beneath them
The bones are brittle
And every fall brings pain or injury -
Until, at last, light
As smoke, they feel once more
The gravity of the sky
And learn to fall upwards.

- from Apollo, an anthology of poems by doctor poets (ed E. Lowbury, pub. 1990).
This is a book that's been in my possession for a while, but I wasn't until I went on my latest medical working trip to Greymouth that I took it out. Lowbury, a pathologist, includes two of his own poems in this anthology that samples widely from modern poets to the poet-physicians of antiquity (when indeed art and medicine were viewed as the same thing - Apollo was the winged god of poetry, medicine and music.)

What I love most of all about this poem is the surprise of the last line, a truly surprising and revelatory moment but one which the poem, with deceptive simplicity, builds up to. It's one finely poised between emotion and observation too - an edge which, as all doctors know, is a difficult one to walk. Although it's never mentioned, I have a sense that Lowbury is not just referring to his patients, but to some personal experience of the "shaky limbs" and the hardness of the world in a "second childhood".

In the introduction to his book, Lowbury observes: "With his wide experience of humanity a doctor should be able to view the world more objectively and with more empathy than most people; if he is poet this should broaden the scope of his writing, not only in the depiction of, or in imagery derived from, personal experience. Indeed, it is in their response to a wider range of human experience... that doctor poets have made their most widely valued contribution to poetic literature."