HOTEL DE REPAIR
In the hills behind Lismore, northern NSW, it’s another day. The converted shed I’m in is wide and open to the winds,
birdsong. Not that a crow’s declamation should ever be called a song. All around it’s green and pastured. In the distant valley
small black cows fattening for the kill. They eat for their masters, locked in a world of appearances and seemingly unaware of
endings until the abattoir’s stench and scream terrorises these benign animals. Not too far away the local kelpie is rounding up
chooks. He can’t help himself. Nobody watches him. He knows what to do. It’s all sport to him.
There’s a large canvas on the easel, primed and ready to go. A commission. I draw out the first marks before my sister comes
I’m working from an idea. It’s a Jungian thing, transcendent anima. A young man hovers over the landscape playing some sort
of stringed instrument. In the sky a galaxy far far away. After awhile I take a break and move onto the veranda for a drink.
Focussed eye slipping from distant point to point, brain lazily scanning peripherals.
On the only road slicing through the valley about a k and half away a small progression of five cows trundling along the
bitumen. Shit. They belong up here. Must’ve got out and are making a determined run for…what? Guess they’re just running
because they can.
The property owner’s out. It’s just me here. No way to easily reach the runaways. Grab my walking sticks and get to the car,
fire it up and head for the gate. On the way I see the kelpie’s lying in the shade of a mulberry tree. I whistle him up.
“Come on Zeph, some real work to do buddy!”
Even though he hardly knows me, he sees the open door and jumps in. Willing little bloke. Off we go in pursuit.
Past the first gate, down across the paddock to the second gate leading onto the road. That’s the culprit. It’s lying wide open.
Hang a right and in the distance the cows are still wobbling away. I drive up gently past them and stop. Open the door and tell
Zeph to go get ‘em. He doesn’t need instruction and heads straight for the escapees. Patiently and slowly turns them around.
By this time I’m walking slowly along the road…that’s full speed for me…and back beyond the gate I see a car has pulled up
and the driver’s out, standing in the middle of the road to block the cows. Zeph still not running the girls too hard. They see the
man and turn towards the gate. The kelpie lets out a couple of sharp barks to hurry them on and they roll back in through the
gate. I can’t believe it. Call Zeph up, close the gate.
The helpful bloke’s a local farmer. I see him smiling at the incongruous old city slicker and his V8 doing herding. We discuss
the genius of dog. I thank him for his help, get in the car. Zeph jumps in and we motor back up the hill.
Could have used a kelpie back in the precrippled 60s when I worked briefly as a roustabout for three shearers way out west.
Had to pen up which was to keep three pens full of sheep, pick up the shorn fleece and throw it on a sorting table and
occasionally supply the disinfectant, “tarboy!” when a sheep was cut accidentally…and they’d need stitching. Rough trade.
The sheep, in spite of being probably the most stupid of mammals on earth could sense a bad scene and would not obligingly
go to pen. Normally a dog would help. This blow-in city boy didn’t have one so I had to manhandle the hapless creatures
picking them up by their wool and, well, just, er, throwing them into the pens. The cocky (station owner) came by and evidently
disapproved of my technique. Roused on the roustabout. A man needs a dog.
My sister arrived and spread the meal out. Tucked in feeling well successful with the cows once more bepaddocked. The
mouth and its clever little tongue managing to both eat and talk almost simultaneously. We indulged in the luxury of the
location and our great good fortune to be there and then.
At one point my words started to slur a little. She noticed this and chuckled. Not sure why. It happened again. Soon we were
both cracking up with this weirdly, almost trippy dysfunction. My tongue apparently couldn’t adequately move the food around
in my mouth either. Fine readjustments to normality evidently a fabulous source of humour. We both figured it would probably
be a good idea to get to a doctor at some point.
The next day I was having a little trouble swallowing. A few days later it was clear it wasn’t a passing phase. Rang up and
made an appointment.
The GP, a US girl not long out of med school listened as I described the symptoms and without too much hesitation said it was
probably an auto immune disease, no biggy really and might be managed with a daily dose of a single drug.
Got the script filled and headed back to the hills.
A few weeks later the diagnosis was confirmed. A reasonably uncommon auto immune disease, Myasthenia Gravis. The
gravis part sounded awkward and the symptoms did seem to be getting worse.
It wasn’t long before I could hardly swallow at all and began spluttering and spitting trying to deal with saliva production, a
surprising, previously unnoticed minor flood. Bought a blender so I could get some food down. Checked in with a higher
medical authority, the only physician in the area.
He suggested an operation might do some good. A thymectomy. Try it and see. Ah, science.
Booked in with a surgeon who duly whipped out the possibly causative thymus gland. It’s a bit like the appendix in that its work
was now supposed to be redundant. The gland, in its day, responsible for the immune system set up in late childhood. The
prevailing theory is that it becomes reanimated inciting self-harm. For reasons unknown.
The symptoms however continued to worsen. Soon it became almost impossible to swallow. Talking was a joke. Less laughter
now. I began to lose weight. From a healthy 58Kgs I was down to about 45. A weight loser’s wet dream. Except that
represented a big chunk of my already slim mass. My formerly strong body was gasping.
I moved up to Brisbane where I thought I might get better treatment.
After some weeks hanging out with some dear friends who had heroically managed to put up with the pretty disgusting spitting
and spluttering I got in to see a neurologist who sent me straight to hospital. A flock of doctors surrounded me trying to figure
out what to do.
Eventually a singular character appeared, waded into the assembly, made a few remarks, delivered a couple of instructions
and buggered off. The whole bunch of white coats disappeared. He turned out to be the Myasthenia specialist and within a
short time (for a hospital) the nursing staff had slid a 24/7 feeding tube up my nose and into my belly. So began a ten week
stay on the tenth floor ward of Brisbane Hospital. My bed next to the window looked to the north over suburbs and some small
distant hills with their spiky transmission towers. Twinkling lights at night very pretty.
A long-term paraplegic with paralysed bladder sphincters I had early on and quite fortunately been able to develop a technique
of peeing which involved pressing with the finger tips of both hands (won’t work with just one) onto the bladder exerting full
arm force until my finger tips came into contact with the spine. Usually the procedure left a small residual in there but
otherwise successful and I’d had no bladder infection since the injury in 1972.
As my strength continued to drip away it became increasingly difficult to satisfactorily empty the bladder. Each time I could get
less and less out so the need to pee became more frequent. Finally the effort required was such that I could barely transfer
from the toilet back into my wheelchair. Eventually couldn’t make the gap and crashed to the cool tiled floor.
By then I was so weak I could barely lift my head off the toilet floor. Reaching the alarm button was out of the question. I
summoned what little remained of my energy to bang a limp scrape on the door trying to summon a nurse. One appeared,
shouted in dismay, not very nurse-like, and summoned a wardy to come and pick me up.
In the meantime my bladder continued to fill up. Painfully. I could even see the damned thing, a minor planet rising over the
belly horizon. Asked the nurse…actually, wrote a note as speech had become largely unintelligible saying I needed a catheter.
Of course a doctor is required to do this and it took awhile for one to appear. By then I was distressed. And hurting quite a bit
more. Informed the doctor of my need and he said no, they wouldn’t do a catheter because it was not policy. Some rubbish
about infections. I indicated it would only be for three, four days max. Until some strength returned. He remained
Intense frustration and anger began to add to the cocktail of stress and pain as I tried to argue with inarticulate babbling and
scribbled messages with the registrar doctor. He went away, it seemed, to escape this raging patient and I guess to consult
with a higher authority. Clearly he didn’t want to get into trouble for breaking house rules. And our argument had hit a sloppy
Finally another doctor appeared and set up for a catheterisation. As she slid the tube up the urethra and it popped into my
bladder, a relief bettered by few other physical experiences in life poured in, bathing me in the sweet tones of gratitude and
love. It’s easy falling in love in hospital.
So it happened. Three days later, and on the 24 hour drip feed my strength began its long slow march back to functionality, I
asked them to remove the catheter. Whatever immune suppressant drugs they were feeding me were having a good effect on
the swallow and over the next eight weeks I slowly migrated from thick liquids to mashed baby food until I was ready to leave
the blessed hotel de repair. Amen to all that!