19 July 2019

Elvis had left the building … and other rural yarns

Grumpy Old Doctor RedHerring

Dear Julia,

As you know I like to start the day with a coffee.

Yesterday I changed my routine and began with a stabbing instead. The effect on my nervous system was the same as that of six long blacks.

The victim of the stabbing was remarkably relaxed and sanguine. A carving knife flung in anger from close range by a crabby spouse can mortally wound, to come out of the encounter with a severed artery in the lower leg – necessitating resuscitation and evacuation by RFDS for emergency surgery – didn’t seem like a bad result.

Unlucky to be stabbed, but lucky to be alive – it all depends on your point of view.

It’s much like the strange formations visible around Kimberley towns when arriving by air. What you see depends on what you are looking for, and changes with the time of day and the angle of approach.

Anthropologists have mistaken them for crop circles. To geologists they represent reefs of newfound mineral wealth.  But on closer inspection from ground level, it would seem both interpretations are correct.

Footy fields around here are ringed with decades of empty beer cans, a series of variegated aluminium halos. To the geologist they represent the makings of the next mining boom. Gold mines may be thriving and there may be a rise in interest in rare earth metals, but hereabouts, aluminium is where the really big money will be made.

No need for drills or refineries, the finished product is right here for the taking and perpetually replenished. It’s just like The Magic Pudding, you mine some aluminium on Friday and by the next week supplies will have been restocked with interest. (I am floating my own company called Magic Pudding Mining Investments. Watch out for it in the Australian Financial Review).

The eye of the anthropologist is more discerning. To them there is meaning in the colours and a story to be read in the subtle patterns of deposition.

White means light beer, the perennial staple laid down in seasons of stability and relative harmony. Green is the colour of the heavy Victoria Bitter, abundant in times of plenty and harbinger of a community teetering on the brink of dystopia.

As a descendent of those responsible for the introduction of alcohol to this country I have no right to be sanctimonious. As one familiar with the interior of the glass house of intemperance, I should not throw stones; but a few days of ramped-up domestic violence, falls, fits, fights and pancreatitis can harden your heart.

Which is not to say that alcohol is the root of all illness here. Diabetes, pneumonia, heart disease, syphilis and kidney failure – in no particular order – don’t spare the abstemious.

Big doses of antibiotics, the innate toughness of little kids, the RFDS, dialysis and even renal transplants all save lives; but not always.

Transplants are rare in the Kimberley, despite kidney failure being rampant.  The dialysis nurse told me that those in the health department who decide these things have determined that this is unacceptable. The number of transplants must increase forthwith! 

Fresh goals have been set, there are new targets to be met.

But you cannot be on the transplant waiting list if you continue to smoke or drink. Tobacco and alcohol are both addictive and a fundamental part of the daily diet for many. So while the need for transplants increases, the waiting list for those transplants does not grow unlike the number of “tossers” making ignorant decisions in far-away committees and board rooms.

Of course we have “tossers” up here too, but they are generally of the more benign, rubbish-throwing variety.

In our accommodation we have a small backyard that, on arrival, yielded 17 plastic bags, two balls and a small thong (pink) last week. We are staying on the cleaner side of town.

Kimberley patients sometimes treat healthcare with the same disregard. They can present late and leave early. Last week at 11pm, I admitted a woman to hospital with raging pneumonia, put up a drip and started intravenous fluids and antibiotics, only to be greeted by an empty bed and a vacant room at 6am the next morning.

Like Elvis, she had left the building and provided no forwarding address.

I have seen two police, armed with guns and copious cups of coffee, share the room of a drunk man with a head injury to make sure he didn’t slide under the door, walk through a wall or auto-defenestrate and thus make himself unavailable for interview next day.

The tendency to disappear is not confined to times of illness. Many adults seem to be perpetually absent. The ratio of children to adults at family-orientated social functions appears to be roughly 50 to one and minors of primary school age roam freely at night with their younger siblings for company.

Perhaps the parents are present in another dimension, but I sometimes feel the normal laws of nature don’t apply here.

Life is a paradox. The perpetrators of domestic violence are courteous drivers and always use their blinkers in town, unlike most farmers I know. I have seen skinny, barefoot, matte-haired children with a sleek and well-groomed dog on a lead.

When parental guidance is offered it tends to be refreshingly forthright. On discharging a young lady after treatment for pneumonia (yes, she waited to be discharged instead of doing it herself) my learned medical advice was reinforced by her father: “You should take your tablets. You can’t smoke. You can’t drink. You can’t even smoke marijuana.”

Cheers! I’m out of here.

Love, Dad

Dr Max Higgs is a former country GP, a current rural and remote locum and a collector of stories

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