A Time to Remember


This is my account, as I remember it, of the events before and after 22nd June 2005.

A normal day, one of those nice winter days we all enjoy in Coffs. We were back at home for a week getting organized to go to Sydney for the Radiotherapy treatment to the diagnosed Throat Cancer. It was due to commence on the following Tuesday and we were driving to Sydney on the Sunday prior. All the preparations were proceeding as planned, I had already been to RNSH to have a mask made and fitted, had all my back teeth extracted to give the ray a reasonable shot of hitting the correct places, and earlier, to have a biopsy extracted to confirm the cancer.

Went into the en suite to clean my teeth, or what was left of them, and, as I bent over the basin I noticed blood in it and it was coming from my mouth in gushes. I called to Gail and she got our next door neighbour, a nurse at the hospital, to assist. We partially stemmed the bleeding with the use of a towel and called an ambulance which had me in Emergency in good time.

I recall being met by a male nurse, a fine type of young man. His name, I think is Anthony. They must have then removed my clothes and then Anthony was inserting one of those dreadful catheters . I remember thinking that I had only come here to get the bleeding stopped and they are already attacking my privates. A young woman then arrived with a safety razor and said she was going to shave me and what a pity it was that they had no shaving cream. I refused and told her to go away. As I lay there in what I assume was the Intensive Care Ward a few people came and went passing the time of day with each other. One lady came in and appeared to know me. It could have been an old friend however my thinking was far from clear.

Something then happened. I remember the nurse being at the bottom of the bed and then being pushed to another area and I recognised my specialist dressed in surgical gear. Another voice said to him “do you know how to do this? My next semi clear recollection was waking up in what I was told was John Hunter Hospital, Newcastle. Apparently, I had been placed in a coma in Coffs and was airlifted to Newcastle where another event took place which required more surgery.

I have thought a great deal about the time I was in the coma and I refuse to believe that it was a total blank. Certainly there was no feeling of pain or transportation or anything tangible. I am however convinced that there was something, a sort of blackness, yet not without life or some distant awareness. Blackness with a light around the edges is my best description at this stage but I just wonder if there was something other than a complete nothing.

Just after I became aware of where I was I was told we were waiting for a helicopter to take me to Royal North Shore Hospital where I would be admitted to Intensive Care. As they have now a bed waiting for me.

It was all a bit overwhelming and then a Catholic Priest arrived at my bedside and offered me The Last Rites which I gratefully accepted as it was then I realized that things had been, and still were, pretty serious!

Anyway, a short time later the Care Flight doctor turned up and commenced the usual paperwork to get me boarded and one the way to Sydney. Eventually they loaded me onto the floor of the helicopter together with the pilot, co-pilot, doctor and observer, for the quick flight to Royal North Shore Hospital. After a very comfortable flight we arrived and I was pushed into what was the Intensive Care Unit.

A young nurse greeted me, said her name was Emily and she would be looking after me. This little saint was magnificent and was responsible for settling me down and administered constant care for the next number of hours until she was replaced with another saint named Kate who worked the long night shift. I was embarrassed by the number of times I disgraced myself and they just cleaned me up without ever loosing their cool or their bright and breezy personality. I seemed to have tubes and pipes all over my body and there seemed to be constant administration of drugs and other things through them. The X-Ray people turned up every hour or so and took something of importance.

From my position in ICU, I was able to see the main entrance. At one stage both the swinging doors opened to reveal the approach of three people, walking in line across, and wearing stethoscopes. On the left in a dark suit, a tall dark and handsome bloke about forty. In the middle a blonde female, a little overweight and dressed in tight black top and trousers with the mandatory bare midriff. On the right a shorter gentleman, two days growth and dressed casually. The blonde obviously adores the tall one who does not seem to react and she is giving the cold shoulder to the shorter one. Although I have always avoided watching those dreadful hospital shows on TV, I imagined this scene must be straight out of one! The blonde finally came over to me and announced that ‘she was from The Doctors’ and to let them know if I needed anything.

It must have been around mid-morning when Emily told me that there was a bed for me in the ward. I thought “this will do me, out of Intensive Care and out of danger – I must be getting better”. So I got out of bed, wrapped myself in a blanket and sat in a wheelchair waiting to be pushed to my new home. Emily told me to get back into bed as there was a lot to do before I can move. The paper work for a start would take at least an hour, then all my medication had to be assembled. Anyway, about two hours later I was on my way to be handed over by Emily to the nurse in charge, at that time only thank God, of my new ward. She was a middle aged, complaining pommie who told me not to expect too much as she was very busy and understaffed. I made up my mind to win her over and have her licking out of my hand as soon as possible. I was just getting into my stride with this plan when she went off duty and I never saw her again.

The surroundings were not all bad – four beds to the room with our own shower and toilet. There was a TV and telephone available on a pay for use basis but it all looked too complicated so I did not get connected. As I still had all the tubes and wires running all over my body I was not very mobile, however it was a relief to get away from the obvious pressures of ICU. Other than my first experience with the ward nurse I was generally impressed with the nurses and other staff I encountered during my time there.  They all had there own personalities and, it seemed, modes of dress. Probably one third of the nurses were male. I do not know why, but that really surprised me. A large number were non-Australian born and I was quick to realize that the system would not work without them. The bloke in the bed opposite me was from Sapphire, only about 10 kms from our home. We were both a bit too crook to talk and get to know each other much, although we met with our wives a couple of times in Radiotherapy and will certainly be in contact when we are both at home and on the improve.

It did not take me long to realize that the use of the attention button was about as useful as the hostess call button on Qantas when the cabin crew are having a spat! You just have to wait until a nurse appears or, if you are mobile enough, go looking for them. My first night was a problem, the surroundings were strange and I was not too well. I asked to be aided to the toilet three times. The second and third seemed to upset the wardsman who accused me of just wanting to go for a walk. In the main though the staff were very understanding and helpful. None of them liked the shift which started at 2am and I learned not to expect too much out of them.

One nurse named Peter, an Englishman, was by far and away the best and most capable there and I owe much of my improvement to him. He looked after the tracky where most of the others seemed to shy away from it of just gave it a quick clean. There were a few sightseers among the nurses from other wards who arrived at different times to have a look at the tracky which led me to believe that they were not very common.

I was getting daily visits from the surgeon registrars and one from the Radiotherapy head doctor who were planning when to start the treatment. After a couple of days I was refitted with the mask and then it was time to commence the thirty six radiotherapy sessions. Luckily Peter was on duty and he came down to the treatment area with Gail and me and I found this very reassuring.

I had been campaigning on all fronts to get rid of the catheter, all the pipes and wires and get out of the hospital as Gail had now set up a base at The Artarmon Inn. I had been in the ward for five of six days and I was totally sick of it. I finally started to succeed. They decided to remove the catheter and I was overjoyed until a young trainee nurse arrived and said she was going to do it. When I asked her how many she had done she pointed to it and said “this is my first”. I thought beauty and gritted my teeth but all was well and what a relief? Next day the clumsiest of all the trainee nurses, a little bloke with thick glasses said he was going to remove the three tubes into my right groin. I suggested he went and got a senior nurse to supervise. When she arrived she asked him which hand he was going to use and his reply “either one, there are both about the same”. I gripped her hand tightly and closed my eyes and did not feel a thing. All I had do to now was get out of the joint and be back living with my bride. In a couple of days we were living at the once good but now very rundown Artarmon Inn which be our home for a couple of weeks until we bit the bullet financially and moved to Medina Apartments in Crows Nest. It was far more comfortable and cleaner and was nearer the hospital. We were well looked after with daily visits by a community nurse. One called Annie seemed to take a shine to us and came as often as she could.

In my dealings with the medical staff it became very obvious that there was an ongoing friction between the surgeons and the radiotherapists at the highest level. Some times it appeared that they could only just tolerate each other. At the lower levels I was very impressed with the staffs’ dedication and caring.

The radiotherapy started, Monday to Friday and, although the mask was most uncomfortable, I thought I handled the first couple of weeks pretty well, I could feel the treatment catching up with me as I had been pre-warned. By the time I had reached number thirty six, on 9th September 2005, I felt fairly crook and looked forward to coming home to. A long drive, on 10th September, but it had to be done. I arrived home feeling very sorry for myself and very difficult to live with!!

Right from the time I was diagnosed with the throat cancer we have been assisted by many old friends. We grew up in the tennis world around Sydney’s Northern Suburbs and I made many friends during my time in Apex and the response from them has been wonderful. Each time I needed to go to Sydney prior to the treatment there was always someone to pick me up from the airport and drop me back to catch the return flight to Coffs. Once I was in Royal North Shore, and then at our commercial accommodation, there was a constant flow of visitors. Many stories were exchanged with our old tennis friends and we hope we can maintain contact with them. I was in Apex for 21 years and made friends in my own club, Lane Cove and as I journeyed throughout Australia holding various association positions many other friendships were made.  The Lane Cove members were terrific as were the blokes with whom I served in other Apex activities. We will never, ever be able to thank them enough. Our family has been most caring and supportive. All these people have played an enormous part in getting through to this stage.

Nothing would have been possible without my little champion, Gail. Her fighting spirit pulled me through many difficult moments when I could have easily thrown in the towel. She has had to cope with my awful moods and depression, she is my life.

1 Comment

  1. Kevin Tighe

    Hi Tony and Gail, I am certainly impressed with how you have come through your illness and still have a very good sense of humour, and how you are willing to help others.
    Take Care


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