All posts tagged feature

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Dying Wish: In-home palliative care nursing’, February 2017

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Magazine, published in the February 11 2017 issue. Excerpt below.

    Dying Wish

    Few terminally ill Australians get to spend their final days at home. When it happens, it can be the greatest gift of love.

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'Dying Wish: In-home Palliative Care Nursing' by Andrew McMillen, February 2017. Photo by Justine Walpole

    It begins with the lighting of a candle, the bright tone of a ­ringing bell, and a card plucked from a deck of Buddhist prayer cards then read aloud: “Now may every living thing, young or old, weak or strong, ­living near or far, known or unknown, living or departed, or yet unborn – may every living thing be full of bliss.”

    On this Monday morning in a northern suburb of Brisbane, six clinical nurses and support staff are gathered around a table inside a building known as Karuna House. Its walls are painted pale blue, its ceilings are high, and pinned to a corkboard are dozens of booklets gathered from funerals and memorial services. These are some of the organisation’s recently deceased clients, for the nature of Karuna’s work is to offer support to ­people who are terminally ill, providing in-home palliative care services to about 50 families at a time. ­Written in red on a whiteboard is the number four – the tally of clients who died the previous week in mid-November; the same as the week before.

    In a corner of the room beside an open ­window sits Camille Doyle, 40, who listens intently while making handwritten notes on a printed page that shows her clients’ names, addresses and current assessment: “stable”, “unstable”, “deteriorating”, or “terminal”. This fourth stage is followed by bereavement, which involves caring for those left behind. Today Camille will visit four homes; by now, she knows these people ­intimately and the routes to their houses so well that she doesn’t need a map.

    On a bushy block in Samford Valley, 25km north-west of Brisbane CBD, sits a large timber house owned by a married couple of 49 years. When Camille knocks on the door at 11.30am, she is greeted by Sandra Huelsmann, a 73-year-old grandmother who wears pearl earrings and a ­silver heart necklace. “Hello, Millie,” says Sandra, smiling. They hug, and Sandra welcomes the nurse into a home she has visited regularly for the past six months, an unusually long relationship for Karuna. The longer duration reflects the complex nature of this particular palliative situation.

    On an adjustable bed in a room towards the front of the house is Tony Huelsmann, a retired dancer, choreographer and dance instructor whose skills were once in high demand at schools throughout Melbourne and Brisbane. Sandra was one of his dance students. He was 30 when they met, seven years older than her, and it was love at first sight.

    Born in Germany, Tony has spent much of his life in Australia. Now 80, he is dying from complications associated with several internal and ­external cancers, including a rash of angry red squamous cell carcinomas that have colonised the skin of his swollen upper thighs. These painful sores require daily dressings, performed by a personal care worker, while Karuna’s rotating ­roster of nurses help with symptom management, bed-baths, toileting and bedding changes, as well as emotional support for both husband and wife.

    Since May, Tony’s world-spanning life has been confined more or less to these four walls while Sandra cares for his every need. At night, she snatches sleep where possible. It is their wish for Tony to die at home and they are both determined to see this wish fulfilled.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian. Above photo credit: Justine Walpole.

  • The Saturday Paper story: ‘Schlock Therapy: The Clown Doctors of Lady Cilento’, February 2017

    A feature story for The Saturday Paper, published in the February 11 2017 issue. Excerpt below.

    Schlock Therapy

    In hospitals throughout Australia a dedicated troupe of clown doctors dispenses therapeutic comic relief.

    In a quiet and unassuming corner of Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in South Brisbane, a transformation is taking place. Inside a nondescript room are two women who seek to make people laugh so that they might forget their surroundings, if only for a few moments.

    Standing before a mirror in a small room, Jenny Wynter applies eyeliner to complement the bright red circles painted onto her cheeks, before picking up a watermelon-adorned ukulele to tweak its tuning. Louise Brehmer secures a series of rainbow-coloured hair ties into her pigtailed locks, dons a purple bucket hat, and fills the pockets of her white lab coat with an array of props. The final touch? Bright red noses, naturally, for a clown can feel only naked without one.

    Affixed to the lockers that occupy the back wall are photographs of six clown doctors, who work in pairs to prowl the bright-green building while spreading mirth. For a few hours at a time, these women dress up to stand out. They seek to become the lowest-status person in every room they enter; they aim for nothing more than to become the butt of their own jokes. When the red noses are on, they’re professional goofs. They act as outrageously as possible to make everyone around them feel better about themselves. “There’s not many jobs where walking down a corridor elicits a smile,” says Brehmer of their eye-catching costumes. “We’re here for the entire hospital, to bring an element of lightness to a serious place.”

    Brehmer has been doing this work for 16 years, and considers it a valuable addition to her career as a freelance actor. “I’m still learning,” she says. “Some days, I have no idea what to do in a situation.” Wynter is a comparative newbie: her background is in stand-up comedy, and she has been a qualified clown doctor since June 2016, having completed her “clownternship” after making 50 appearances in the role. “It’s so much about reading the room, and being willing to change at any point,” she says. “You’ve got to show up with an open heart.”

    On leaving the change room, they switch from friendly colleagues to partners in comedic crime. In the hallway outside, near an immunisation centre, they embrace and address each other by their stage names for the first time today. “Hello, Wobble!” says Wynter, who is now known as Doctor Angelina Jolly.

    As soon as they round the corner, they join the general population of the public hospital’s bustling second floor, and the improvised routine begins in earnest. Within the first five minutes of finding an audience, Doctor Jolly blows bubbles and distributes squares of toilet paper to some bemused boys, Doctor Wobble uses her stethoscope to check the heart rate of a visitor’s stuffed panda, and the pair of them launch into an enthusiastic rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, accompanied by Doctor Jolly’s ukulele. “A lot of the day is just spent cracking each other up,” says Wobble, while they ride an elevator up to the sixth floor.

    To read the full story, visit The Saturday Paper. Above photo credit: Jodie Richter.

  • The Weekend Australian Review story: ‘Dazzling Dress-Up: Icelandic artist Shoplifter’, November 2016

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Review, published in the November 26 issue. Excerpt below.

    Dazzling Dress-Up

    The 10th anniversary exhibition at Brisbane’s GOMA is enveloped in a remarkably bright installation by Shoplifter

    The Weekend Australian Review story: 'Dazzling Dress-Up: Icelandic artist Shoplifter at GOMA Brisbane' by Andrew McMillen, November 2016. Photo by Glenn Hunt
    Affixed to the glass above the entrance to Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art is a large decal depicting a curious meeting of blue and orange. At first glance, the nature of the bright substance in the image is unclear: is it smoke, paint, fairy floss, or something even weirder? Positioned in the centre of this combination are some words –”GOMA Turns 10″ –and on walking through the doors, another great bloom of colour reveals itself, positioned high up on the right wall, as if a psychedelic shagpile carpet has been transposed to the vertical plane.

    It’s only upon journeying further into the building –past the fences that surround a towering, under-construction slippery slide –and turning right into the Long Gallery, however, that the mystery substance suddenly makes sense: it’s hair, and there’s a bloody lot of it. Stepping closer to take it all in, the first comparison to spring to mind is that a sizeable chunk of the Great Barrier Reef’s most spectacular section of coral has somehow been transplanted here. Two white walls are connected by a furry overpass that tickles the top of your head as you walk beneath it, and in between the neutral surfaces is an ocean of bright purples, pinks, blues, greens and yellows.

    Named Nervescape V, this immense installation has clearly been designed as interactive art, as the urge to touch the extraordinary arrangement of synthetic hair will be practically irresistible for any attendee, no matter their age. Its prominent position in the downstairs gallery reflects its role as a key attraction of Sugar Spin: You, Me, Art and Everything, an exhibition curated by GOMA’s manager of international art Geraldine Barlow. Next month the gallery celebrates its 10th anniversary, and Barlow has been digging through storerooms to rediscover some of GOMA’s greatest hits since its opening: hence the enclosed, multistorey slide, otherwise known as Left/Right Slide by Belgian artist Carsten Holler, which first appeared in 2010.

    In a decade of showcasing conversation-starters and eye-poppers while becoming the nation’s most-visited art complex –together, the Queensland Art Gallery and GOMA attracted 1.8 million visitors in 2010 –the gallery has never seen anything quite like this. Casting her eyes across the phenomenal field of colour that envelops the space and extends high up the wall, Barlow compares it with “giving the building a bit of a hairdo”, and it’s hard to disagree. There’s nothing subtle about this piece, and that too is by design.

    Nervescape is like a model for the whole exhibit,” she says of Sugar Spin. “There’s a vast collection here: I’ve plucked out popular favourites, but it’s important for me to use those in a storytelling mode that’s not entirely didactic, but which sets up a rich ground that sparks off peoples’ own natural sympathies, interests and curiosities.”

    Barlow is also hopeful that the sights and sensations encountered in these spaces will stick in the minds of visitors long after they have left. “Queensland has its theme parks, and people look to them for a certain kind of pleasure and joy of taking them out of their daily realities,” she says. At GOMA, “we need to do that differently, but still understand that people want a sense of delight and wonder, and a place that gives them an energy back — it doesn’t just require them to read a long, serious text [beside an artwork] to know what’s going on.”

    It is early November when Review visits GOMA for a preview of Nervescape V, whose installation was completed the day before with the aid of two scissor lifts and a dedicated team of assistants. The visual artist behind the work is Hrafnhildur Arnardottir, though given how tongue-twistingly alien her Icelandic birth name appears to the average English speaker, she is happy to be addressed by the nickname Shoplifter — or Shoppy for short, which perfectly suits the Australian preference for proper noun truncation.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian. Above photo credit: Glenn Hunt.

  • Stellar story: ‘Part-Time Superheroes: Brisbane’s hospital window cleaners’, October 2016

    A feature story for Stellar, published in the October 30 2016 issue. Excerpt below.

    Part-Time Superheroes 

    Meet the window cleaners who drop by to brighten the days of patients at a children’s hospital

    Stellar story by Andrew McMillen: 'Part-Time Superheroes: Brisbane's hospital window cleaners', October 2016. Photo by Claudia Baxter

    A 10-year-old boy named Griffith Comrie is waiting by a window on the sixth floor of the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in inner-city Brisbane. He’s been doing a lot of waiting lately since having a stroke in his hometown of Gladstone nine weeks earlier, after which he was airlifted 520 kilometres south for treatment, rest and rehabilitation. He’s missed a lot of school and has had to learn how to walk and talk again. His short-term memory has suffered; he jokes to his grandmother, Dorn, that there’s not much point in watching movies lately, as by the time he gets to the end, he can’t remember what happened at the beginning. Sometimes, he thinks he’s on an extended holiday from his usual life back home.

    As he sits beside seven-year-old girls Thea Rendle and Millie Allen, an unexpected visitor drops into his line of sight. On the other side of the glass, Superman descends with a thick rope and harness around his waist, white sneakers on his feet and a yellow hard hat on his head. The bright blue outfit, complete with “S” chest insignia and red cape, are unmistakeable, even for a memory-affected boy like Griffith. The youngsters are mesmerised. Why, they wonder, is Superman visiting them?

    Suddenly, another rope drops down. “It’s Batman!” yells Thea, before Millie – who’s wearing her school uniform, having had a morning appointment with her therapist – corrects her: “No, it’s Spider-Man!” She’s right: hanging in front of them is the web-slinger himself, wearing black-and-orange sneakers and a dark hard hat, while his shoulders and pectorals bulge with well-sculpted muscles, presumably earned from swinging between tall buildings such as this one.

    Spider-Man delights his young audience by turning somersaults and showing off his aerial dexterity, yet his facial expression remains impassive behind the dark red mask. Superman, however, can’t stop grinning, and the pair of them ham it up together while dangling from the ropes that hold them in place, dozens of metres above the busy street below. For any pedestrians who happen to look up, the sight of the two superheroes together must be as disorienting as it is grin-inducing.

    What the kids don’t know is that underneath the superheroes’ outfits, they wear bright yellow high-visibility shirts bearing the name of their employer, Queensland Water Blasting. Nor are the youngsters aware that, rather than stopping criminals and saving the city from imminent destruction, their purpose here – when they’re not engaged in midair gymnastic trickery – is to wash the hospital’s hundreds of external windows. It’s a big job, requiring them to be on-site every weekday for about three weeks, doing their best to avoid sunburn by following the building’s shade as the earth turns.

    To read the full story, visit Stellar. Above photo credit: Claudia Baxter.

  • The Saturday Paper story: ‘The Other Worlds Game: League of Legends and eSports’, October 2016

    A feature story for The Saturday Paper, published in the October 29 2016 issue. Excerpt below.

    The Other Worlds Game

    With hundreds of millions of players, online gaming now has professional ‘eSport’ competitions watched by huge global crowds.

    The Saturday Paper story by Andrew McMillen: 'The Other Worlds Game: League of Legends and eSports', October 2016. Photo by Dylan Esguerra

    Ten young men sit on a stage behind computer monitors deftly manoeuvring mouses and frantically stabbing at keyboards. These two teams of five are the best in Australia at a game called League of Legends, and it is their full-time job to stare at screens while attempting to outsmart their opposition. On a pedestal between them sits the winner’s prize: the Oceanic Pro League (OPL) cup, a gleaming silver trophy lit at all times by an overhead spotlight. Facing the stage is a raucous crowd of 2000 fans who have each paid $26 to sit on a hard plastic seat at the South Bank Piazza, in Brisbane’s inner city, and cheer on their favourite team.

    Hundreds have dressed in custom-made costumes based on their favourite game characters. Two commentators provide a running dialogue of the action, which is displayed on three enormous screens above the players and their machines. Wearing headphones to block external sound, the players communicate with each other via headsets. A battery of green and blue LED lights flashes overhead, while at the front edge of the stage live webcams capture the gamers’ facial expressions above their gaming nicknames: among them Swip3rR, Tally, k1ng and Raes.

    There are also tens of thousands of fans watching the OPL grand final at home on Fox Sports, at several cinemas around the country, and streaming the footage online around the world. Welcome to eSports, short for “electronic sports”. Such competitions have been enormously popular overseas for years, particularly in South Korea, where strategy games such as StarCraft and Defense of the Ancients – or DoTA in the online world’s abbreviated fashion – are watched and played by millions. The OPL 2016 grand final is Brisbane’s best-attended live eSports event to date, and one of the biggest yet held in Australia.

    League of Legends is the world’s most popular online game – the most recent figures this year show that 100 million players log on to its servers each month. LoL is a multiplayer online battle game, where each player controls a “champion” with its own strengths, weaknesses and special moves.

    Leading the Legacy eSports club is Tim “Carbon” Wendel, a 24-year-old health sciences graduate whose boyish features offset a lanky athlete’s body. “It’s kind of a mix between basketball and chess,” he explains. “It’s five-a-side, every person has an individual role, in the same way you’ll only have one centre or point guard, and you’re always moving. It’s obviously a lot less physical, and very strategic like chess, but the difference there is that it’s in real time.”

    Beside him sits Aaron “ChuChuZ” Bland, Legacy’s second-longest-serving member, a 19-year-old in a black hoodie and dark-rimmed glasses. The five members of this minor-premiership-winning team live in a share house in Sydney’s western suburbs with their coach, An “Minkywhale” Trinh. They spend about six hours a day training together by playing friendly matches with other teams. There are also regular video reviews of their performances, and individual practice is expected on top of that. Heading into events such as this, the players will spend up to 12 hours a day in front of a screen.

    To read the full story, visit The Saturday Paper. Above photo credit: Dylan Esguerra.

  • Backchannel story: ‘Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!’, August 2016

    A feature story for Backchannel. Excerpt below.

    Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!

    How the online encyclopedia manages mental illness and suicide threats in its volunteer community.

    'Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!' by Andrew McMillen for Backchannel, August 2016. Illustration by Laurent Hrybyk

    One recent Tuesday night in the suburbs of Sydney, Elliott* was sitting in front of his home computer, editing Wikipedia and debating with a fellow volunteer who was continually undoing his hard work. He was devoting his weeknight hours to developing an article about Salim Mehajer, a former deputy mayor of a Sydney city council who had attracted national headlines for a variety of indiscretions, including shutting down a public street without authorization in order to film his own wedding. But as Elliott typed, his eyes intent on the screen, his mental state was deteriorating.

    Elliott, 37, knew the inner workings of the online encyclopedia better than just about anyone. Since his first edit in 2004, he had invented the popular ‘citation needed’ tag, used by editors to indicate when a statement requires more evidence. He had started the administrator’s noticeboard,where the site’s volunteer leadership could discuss inflammatory incidents. And he wrote ‘exploding whale,’ a quirky article that remains emblematic of the sparkling brilliance for which the crowdsourced encyclopedia is widely beloved. For the latter creation, which summarized how the Oregon Highway Division attached half a ton of dynamite to a beached sperm whale carcass in 1970, he was awarded Wikipedia’s first ‘oddball barnstar,’ and so another user pinned a bright green badge to his userpage to acknowledge his enterprising work.

    But on this particular night, his virtual achievements were far from his mind. With his wife and two young children occupied in another room, Elliott was locked in what’s known as an edit war, while using a different account than the one that had earned him his earlier plaudits. Elliott was convinced that his detailed account of Salim Mehajer’s traffic violations, including an occasion in 2012 when he ran over two women in his car, belonged on the site. His interlocutor, another Australian editor of prominent standing within the community, remained unconvinced. “I don’t like the guy either, but Wikipedia’s policies on undue weight, original research and biographies of living people don’t not apply because you don’t like someone,” the second editor wrote, mistaking Elliott’s industrious research for bias against Mehajer. On several occasions, this second editor had reverted these lengthy additions, before using one particular adjective to describe Elliott’s work: obsessive.

    Their bickering had been brewing for several days. The pair went back and forth in the article’s ‘talk’ page, which is linked in the top left corner of every entry on the site. Elliott argued passionately for his cause, and at one point logged out of his account to back up his own argument anonymously; these contributions were tagged with his IP address. Two days earlier, he had responded anonymously to another editor, writing, “I fart in your general direction, which is a hell of a lot more pleasant than editing Wikipedia, I can tell you!” After reviewing the conflict, a site administrator decided to ban Elliott on that Tuesday night. “Given the seriousness of this conduct, I’ve set the block duration to indefinite,” noted the admin.

    Elliott’s mind was on fire. Already short-fused from several months of unemployment and recent health and financial woes, he felt overwhelmed with stress. As he sat fuming in front of the screen, his wife approached and asked him to help put their children to bed. The request startled him, and he reacted with a flash of fury. Elliott immediately regretted his anger. Stunned and embarrassed, he grabbed his phone and keys, hopped into a white Hyundai, and sped off.

    After driving for a while, he parked outside a local school and switched off the engine. He pulled out his iPhone and started typing a lengthy email. Titled “The End” and sent to a public Wikipedia mailing list watched by thousands of people around the world, late on the evening of Tuesday, May 17, Elliott’s email begins, “I’ve just been blocked forever. I’ve been bullied, and I’m having suicidal thoughts.”

    More than 2,000 words later, after recounting the events surrounding his ban in the exhaustive manner of a man well-versed in defending his position to nitpicking online strangers, he wrote, “I know I’m not well. I have fought this feeling for a decade.” Elliott ended with this: “I sit here in my car and contemplate suicide. My despair is total. There is not a kind one amongst you.You have taken my right of appeal, my ability to protest and my dignity. You have let others mock me, and I have failed to contribute to Wikipedia’s great mission—one I feel so keenly. I failed. I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. I will drive, I don’t know where. I pray my family forgives me.”

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel. Above illustration by Laurent Hrybyk.

  • The Saturday Paper story: ‘Hopes and Prayers: Scott Patterson’s #LetThemStay photograph’, July 2016

    A feature story for The Saturday Paper, published in the July 2 2016 issue. Excerpt below.

    Hopes and Prayers

    A gathering of five community leaders for a photograph in a Brisbane church aims to further focus attention on the plight of offshore asylum seekers.

    The Saturday Paper story: 'Hopes and Prayers: Scott Patterson's Moran Prize photograph' by Andrew McMillen, July 2016

    A reverend, an imam and a freelance photographer walk into Brisbane’s second-oldest Anglican church. Outside on Ann Street, in Brisbane’s city centre, the midday traffic bustles incessantly. Inside the immense stone structure of St John’s Cathedral, the pews are vacant and the building almost empty but for a handful of hushed voices in a far corner. Six people stand before an altar, bathed in warm light beneath a rainbow of stained-glass windows. Leaning against the wall are handmade cardboard signs, which read: Bring them here. Let them stay. Close the camps. There is no punchline. The set-up is for a photograph.

    Though they deviate in their belief in higher powers, the handful of religious and community leaders who meet on this sunny Tuesday in late June all share the same views on how asylum seekers deserve to be treated. In the first week of February, St John’s Cathedral became one of 10 major Anglican churches across the country to open its doors to asylum seekers facing a return to Nauru. Dr Peter Catt, the Anglican Dean of Brisbane, became a national figurehead for invoking the historical idea of sanctuary, which is untested in modern Australia. “We had been talking the talk for a number of years,” he wrote in an article for The Melbourne Anglican, reflecting on his decision. “So now, faced with 267 people about to be removed to a place of harm, I felt it was time to put up or shut up.”

    For three years, Catt has been chairman of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, which has advocated for the closure of the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres. Sanctuary is always an action of last resort, Catt noted in his article, and the Anglican Church was careful to point out that its offer did not carry any legal protection. Centuries ago, people used church buildings to take shelter from oppressive civic authorities. Today, those who seek sanctuary might face five years’ imprisonment; those who offer it could face 10 years’.

    To read the full story, visit The Saturday Paper.

  • Matters Of Substance story: ‘The Snowball and the Avalanche: Medical Cannabis in Australia’, July 2016

    A feature story for the May 2016 issue of Matters Of Substance, the quarterly magazine published by the New Zealand Drug Foundation. Excerpt below.

    The Snowball and the Avalanche: Medical Cannabis in Australia

    Stories of personal suffering, where debilitating symptoms are eventually eased by medical cannabis, are appearing ever more frequently in the news. Andrew McMillen argues it is these sorts of stories that have engendered compassion in Australia, eroding the stigma around medical cannabis use and paving the way for science and more evidence- based legislation.

    Matters Of Substance story: 'The Snowball and the Avalanche: Medical Cannabis in Australia' by Andrew McMillen, July 2016

    The story of medical cannabis in Australia is much the same as in other countries around the world that have tiptoed this path before us. Here across the ditch, as in New Zealand, the United States and many other advanced economies, it is a situation where two strange bedfellows have been pitted against one another: stigma and science. For many years, because of their preconceived attitudes, staunch opponents of illicit drug use have remained wilfully blind to the benefits of medical cannabis experienced by sick people. Here, as elsewhere, this is not a campaign for the impatient. Change is slow, often painfully so, as it relies on a willingness for opponents to reconsider their positions in light of compelling evidence.

    In the last few years, though, the situation has appeared to change rather quickly and dramatically. The appropriate image is that of a single snowball rolling down a hill, gradually gaining mass and momentum until it forms an unstoppable avalanche. To this end, a raft of touching personal stories have been told in the national media. As a result, many state and federal politicians have sensed a shift in public sympathy towards sick people who are attempting to access medical cannabis without further complicating their lives by crossing paths with the criminal justice system.

    Support for plant-based medicine has gone mainstream, as evidenced by a July 2014 ReachTel poll that found that almost two-thirds of Australians believe cannabis should be made legal for medical purposes. It is telling that compassion is the driving emotion here, rather than fear – long-time advocates might well wish they had cottoned on to this tactic earlier.

    These personal stories don’t come more dramatic and heart-wrenching than Dan Haslam’s. In fact, his journey to accepting and using medical cannabis has become emblematic of changing attitudes to the drug across Australia. Dan was the snowball, and his descent down the hill began when he was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer in February 2010 while living in the regional New South Wales (NSW) city of Tamworth. There, the then 20-year-old eventually discovered that the only treatment that soothed his nausea and stimulated his appetite while undergoing chemotherapy was cannabis. His parents wished there was another way. The fact that his father was head of the Tamworth Police Drug Squad made this desperate decision even more ethically and legally tortured than usual.

    To read the full story, visit Matters Of Substance.

    Further reading: my book Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs, published by University of Queensland Press in 2014.

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Higher Calling: Lachlan Smart’, June 2016

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Magazine, published in the June 25-26 issue. Excerpt below.

    Higher Calling

    A small aircraft, a 45,000km journey, a dream to be the youngest person to circle the globe solo. Talk about ambition.

    twam_lachlan

    Visibility is zero inside this dense body of rain clouds as the four-seater plane tracks away from Sunshine Coast Airport and over coastal waters. Pockets of air within the grey mass buffet the plane unpredictably, as if a higher power is shaking the Cirrus SR22 like dice inside a giant fist. It’s the sort of uncomfortable ascent that would make the pilot’s mother worry.

    But on this Thursday afternoon in early June the fresh-faced, blue-eyed young man in the cockpit has absolute faith in the technology that powers his plane through this brief moment of turbulence and into clear air. He has faith in a higher purpose, too, and it has driven him to attempt to achieve something remarkable.

    Lachlan Smart, 18, is leaving home behind and striking out on his own. Next month, he will set off from this same airport towards Nadi, Fiji, a 10-hour trip. From there, it’s on to Christmas Island, then Hawaii, Iceland and France, followed by Egypt, Sri Lanka and Indonesia; 24 legs in all, on a journey that will circumnavigate the planet and – all going well – claim a world record.

    Smart’s only companion throughout the trip, covering almost 45,000km on five continents across seven weeks, will be Freddy the Teddy. The handsome bear wears a brown aviator’s jacket and goggles and sits on the dashboard facing the pilot, his mouth a single black line fixed in a smile. Underneath Freddy’s furry feet is an array of screens and instruments that all make perfect sense to this adventurous teenager.

    A fortnight ago, Smart clocked up 40 hours while heading west to Alice Springs, then southeast to Launceston before returning home. All up he has logged 210 flight hours, more than half of which were solo. If all goes to plan, his around-the world trip will roughly double that number by the time his wheels hit the tarmac in late August.

    ++

    Through gaps in the clouds, Smart can see the endless swell of the ocean and streaks in the aqua indicating sand bars off Stradbroke Island. Sometimes he can spot dugongs, but not today. There is, however, a full rainbow. To his right he can see the built-up areas of his home on the Sunshine Coast, then the state capital, and then the high-rises of Surfers Paradise bordered by white caps and a long, unbroken line of yellow sand.

    Through his headset, he hears the air-traffic controller at Gold Coast Airport tell another pilot there’s a Cirrus in the queue ahead of him. “He’s done pretty well,” says the fast-talking male voice, offering a rare compliment amid the businesslike call-and-response. Hearing this, Smart can’t help but crack a smile. “Thanks, mate,” he says.

    After touching down flawlessly in the wet conditions, he taxis his leased aircraft to a nearby hangar, where he drops into technical support centre Complete Avionics and banters with the owner about a minor issue with an instrument that appears to be malfunctioning, emitting a series of loud beeps whenever autopilot is disengaged. Service notes duly logged for the technicians’ attention, Smart heads back to the airstrip towards another Cirrus SR22 that’s almost identical to the one he flew. Its white-haired owner, Rodney Peachey, 69, offers the pilot’s seat to his young friend, who powers up the aircraft, submits a flight plan, gains clearance and takes off into what has become a beautiful early winter afternoon.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian. Above photo credit: Eddie Safarik.

  • Qweekend story: ‘School Of Hard Knocks: Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital School’, April 2016

    A feature story for Qweekend magazine, published in the April 9-10 issue. The full story appears below.

    School Of Hard Knocks

    Sick children need schooling too. At Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital School, learning proves positively infectious.

    Qweekend story: 'School Of Hard Knocks: Lady Cilento Children's Hospital School' by Andrew McMillen, April 2016

    ++

    In a light-filled corner room of a high-rise building overlooking inner-city Brisbane, a visiting local artist leads a class of six rowdy students. Aged between five and seven years old, they are tasked with creating artworks that illustrate their lives. A handful of the best drawings from this schoolwide project will be sent to China, where a school has a reciprocal arrangement. But it’s unlikely the Chinese students will be able to relate to the experience of these children – they are enrolled in a school very few families in Queensland choose to attend. This is the state’s only dedicated hospital school.

    Sam Cranstoun presents a cheerful front to the kids’ steady stream of questions and comments. The 28-year-old artist asks the four boys and two girls to use crayons to draw what they like to do. Camping, swimming, board games and PlayStation 4 rank highly, before one boy offers another option with a quizzical look. “School?” he asks, unsure of himself. He is testing the waters: is it cool to admit, at age seven, that you like school? “I’m sure your teacher will love hearing that!” says Sam, flashing a smile to the adults across the room. Gemma Rose-Holt, six, draws a swimming pool at the bottom of an enormous piece of paper, then a sun shining high in the sky. In the last couple of years, she has seen her father’s health rapidly decline for reasons she can’t quite fathom.

    Sam continues with the exercise by asking them to consider their place in the world. “Is China bigger than Gladstone?” asks one boy. They talk about their families and school. “Do you guys think about home?” asks the artist. “Yes!” they reply as one, before throwing their talents into happy drawings of the back yards and bedrooms they have left behind.

    “There’s an amazing view out the window,” says Sam, pointing behind the students. “Do you guys ever look out there?” At this, the six kids scamper to the windows, pressing their faces against the glass and pointing out the landmarks they can see from the eighth floor of the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in South Brisbane, which the Prep to Year 2 pupils are visiting for their art class. They can see Mount Coot-tha, the murky river, the Story Bridge in the distance. “I can see the cat-boat!” announces one boy, spying a blue, white and yellow ferry as it powers against the tide. “I can see bull sharks!” suggests another, prompting a laugh from the teaching staff. Not many schools have a helicopter pad on the roof, nor a giant pink bunny rabbit sculpture standing sentry near the entrance. Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital School (LCCHS) has both of these, and when its students are asked to sketch the school, these two features inevitably emerge on the page.

    For their final task, Sam turns these young minds toward imagining their future. “What do we want to be?” he asks them, prompting a flurry of ideas. Teacher? Doctor? Journalist? Soldier? McDonald’s worker? Power Ranger? “I don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up,” says Gemma. She draws a nurse standing beside a bed-bound patient wearing a big smile. That’s her father, Damien. He has no hair because the medicine took it away. “The medicine’s yuck, but he has to have it,” she tells Sam. Little Gemma lives with her mother near the RNA Showgrounds, away from her Sunshine Coast home in accommodation subsidised by the Leukaemia Foundation, while Damien receives treatment.

    The students who attend this school are bound by a common experience of illness: either their parents’, their siblings’, or their own. They are from Emerald, Cairns, Chinchilla, Bundaberg and Hervey Bay; from every corner of the state. For some of them, it is their first visit to Brisbane, and the circumstances are less than ideal. Entire families are uprooted from their normal lives and relocated to temporary housing reserved for people in crisis. Their parents have got so much on their plates when they come here that sometimes the last thing on their mind is phoning a school, notifying a teacher about what might become an extended absence from their normal classroom. These tasks fade from view when the spectre of death suddenly appears in sharp focus. Into the breach rush 24 hospital school teaching staff, a compassionate, capable bunch of professionals adept at crafting an individualised education that will define these stricken children.

    The school’s impact is wide-ranging, and it sees a diverse population. In 2015, Lady Cilento hospital had 3159 registered students, more than two-thirds of whom normally attended state schools. Of that number, the largest cohort of 21 per cent (663 students) presented with medical conditions; 17 per cent (538) were there for oncology; 13 per cent (410) attended the school because a member of their family was ill, and nine per cent (284) were patients with the Child and Youth Mental Health Service –  which is also located on level eight at the hospital – while the remainder found their way there for reasons related to the likes of surgery, diabetes, rehabilitation and heart disease.

    More often than not, the hospital teachers’ efforts work wonders for the children and their families. During a midweek excursion to the Gallery of Modern Art at nearby South Bank, Mitchell Cawthray, 12, cautiously approaches a teacher watching over the group of about two dozen students as they eat lunch. He wears a black T-shirt that reads “The Force is Strong In This One”, reflecting an indelible truth of this blue-eyed boy’s tough character. His light brown hair is shaved close to his scalp, and when he turns his head, you can see the scar on the back of his neck where the life-threatening medulloblastoma tumour was removed from the top of his spine almost a year ago. “Are you having a good day so far?” asks the teacher cheerfully. “Great day,” Mitchell replies, nodding. He pauses, weighing his words carefully, then looks around to make sure none of his peers overhear his next words. With a shy smile, he says, “I’ve never really said this before, but I think I like school now!”

    ++

    Most children go through childhood without great complications, and without seeing the insides of healthcare waiting rooms for longer than it takes to receive an immunisation jab, to set an accidental bone fracture in plaster, or to go through the motions of a doctor’s check-up. Mitchell, Gemma and their peers are the unlucky few, and the LCCH treats Queensland’s sickest of the sick. All of the “first-world problems”, as Mitchell’s mum, Janine Cawthray, puts it, fade into irrelevance when your child is diagnosed with brain cancer.

    In Mitchell’s case, he and Janine relocated to Brisbane at Easter time last year for his treatment, while his father stayed home in Hervey Bay, managing their small business and caring for Mitchell’s sister as she completed Year 12. “I take my hat off to the teachers,” says Janine. “They not only have to deal with normal academic requirements as per the curriculum; they have to deal with a multitude of personalities – from parents, medical staff – as well as medical requirements and children’s individual needs. They also have to report back to the children’s mainstream school. They’re juggling all of that, and that’s a hard call, but they manage it very, very well.”

    In the middle of the building, on level eight, is a place where a familiar timetable reigns between the hours of 9am and 3pm each weekday. It is a place of whiteboards and colouring-in; of assigned readings and class discussions. It is a place of boring adult words such as literacy, numeracy, curriculum, assessment and “personal learning plans”. For some families, the hospital school quickly becomes the only constant in a life now marked by endless blood tests, chemotherapy and invasive surgery, and – sometimes – dramatically shortened horizons.

    None of these horrible things happen on level eight, however, where the LCCHS middle and senior classrooms serve an ever-changing cohort of students from Years 5 to 12. Nor do horrible things happen on the ground-floor junior school next door, on Stanley Street inside the old Mater Hospital building, where Prep to Year 4 students are taught. In young lives that have suddenly been dropped into seas of anxiety, pain and uncertainty, these two campuses emerge as towering islands of normality.

    There are no school bells here. No uniform, and no rules, per se, only three expectations: be safe, be respectful, and be responsible. Teachers are not known by stuffy honorifics; the students are on a first-name basis with their educators and support staff from the first day. Though visits to these islands of normality are usually short-term matters, these two school campuses can easily act as a home base for months on end, depending on circumstances.

    This unique style of teaching has its roots in doctor-soldiers and military nurses returning from World War I in 1918 and concerning themselves with the rehabilitation, retraining and education of limbless soldiers. From that point, it took only a short leap of logic to twig that children ensconced in hospitals required special schooling, too. The Sick Children’s Provisional School opened at the Hospital for Sick Children in the bayside suburb of Shorncliffe on August 11, 1919; it was the nation’s first such educational institution. Since then, it has been relocated several times. A purpose-built school at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Herston opened in 1978; in 2009, it celebrated 90 years of service to more than 60,000 pupils.

    Vicki Sykes was the longest-serving principal of Mater Hospital Special School in South Brisbane, which opened in 1983.  Appointed in 1986, she served 23 years before retiring in 2009; today, the junior school playground is dedicated in her name with a handsome plaque. In 1986, Sykes described her workplace. “Students come to school from the wards in pyjamas and wheelchairs,” she wrote in an unpublished memoir. “Some are on crutches or have their arms or legs bandaged. During the day some students may need to go off for operations or medical treatment. Teachers don’t know from day to day how many students will be coming to school.”

    In that sense, little has changed since the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital School opened on December 1, 2014.  Its purpose is defined by Professor John Pearn in his 2009 history of Queensland’s hospital schools, To Teach The Sick. “Unrealised long-term educational potential has, in the past, been an under-acknowledged legacy of childhood illness,” wrote Pearn in the book’s introduction. “In the context of life’s fulfilment, such may be more serious than any medical after-effects.”

    ++

    The school’s average weekly enrolment is about 150 students, and the student-to-teacher ratio is about seven-to-one.  About half of the students are too ill to make it to either of the two campuses at Lady Cilento, so the teachers come to them, providing bedside tuition. They set daily assignments, and return regularly to check their progress. Depending on scheduling, these ward visits might only last 15 minutes if a teacher has a long list of inpatient appointments. But for the bed-bound students, they might also be the only minutes in a day where they are given a task and purpose that’s divorced from their unfortunate medical reality.

    When visiting a couple of beautiful sisters from Springfield Lakes who have been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a palpable sense of cabin fever permeates their immediate environment. Their world has shrunken to a cruel size. Little girls aged six and eight don’t belong in a small room separated by white curtains, behind a door that must remain closed at all times, and where visitors must wear gloves and gowns before entering to minimise the risk of transmitting infections.

    “Homework” is an imperfect word to describe the learning tasks set by these teachers, since the sisters’ entire lives are confined to this room. The hospital, for now, is both their home and classroom. Mid-lesson, a nurse enters to prick their fingers for a blood test. As the precious red liquid is squeezed from a tiny finger, the blonde girl calmly continues reading along to a picture book named Mr Gumpy’s Motor Car with her impromptu teacher, who leaves several worksheets for her to complete. She has long since been conditioned to something that would prompt tears from most other six year-olds.

    For these teachers, visiting inpatients on the wards requires a sense of persistence, positivity and optimism. Every day, these teachers see amazing and terrible things, such as degenerative neurological conditions that strip language and meaning from a young boy’s life with each passing week.

    From his bedside, it’s a short walk to visit a young girl in a wheelchair whose body hosts a flesh-eating viral infection that has left her face disfigured and her forearms resembling those of a burns victim, wrapped in plastic for her protection. Tourism is her passion, and so the ward teachers resolve to bring her homework that suits this interest.

    These teachers are not medical professionals. They cannot fix these problems or treat pain. They can, however, provide stimulation for young minds, if only for 15 minutes each day.

    ++

    After lunch on Thursday, the junior school students file into the flexi-room on level eight for school assembly.  Only Prep to Year 4 are in attendance, as the middle and senior grades are still on an all-day excursion to GoMA. Brianna Iszlaub, 11, with patchy tufts of blonde hair, couldn’t attend the latter as her blood count was down today. She stands beside a girl in a wheelchair as the two of them co-host the weekly event, beginning with an Acknowledgment of Country and an energetic, indigenous-flavoured rendition of the national anthem. “Thank you, please be seated,” says Brianna at its conclusion. School staff and a few parents are scattered around the edges of the dozens-strong group, while the students sit in chairs or on cushions.

    Once Brianna finishes reading from the prepared script, hospital school principal Michelle Bond says to her, “Good girl.” A short and energetic woman who radiates positivity, Michelle, 49, welcomes the younger students to stand up and present their handmade graphs based on a recent visit to a petting zoo downstairs. The principal – who led Royal Children’s Hospital School since April 24, 2006, and LCCHS since it opened – then presents a handful of awards: to an outstanding student who has shown consideration to his peers; to one who has overcome challenges; to one who has made a positive start after joining the school this week. The group sings happy birthday to a shy blonde girl. “Some of these kids would never be chosen to lead an assembly at their own school; they usually choose the school captains and the sporty kids,” Michelle tells Qweekend quietly. “I’ve had parents come and tell me that their child has never received an award before coming here. It’s lovely that we can do that for them.”

    The class’s guest for the day, University of Queensland PhD candidate Maddie Castles, cues a PowerPoint presentation loaded with photos from her recent visit to Namibia. The title slide shows a selfie of her grinning wildly into the camera while a giraffe munches on some leaves behind her. She tells the group about her job studying giraffe social interactions, or “who they’re friends with,” as she puts it. A teacher aide quietly brings a boy in a wheelchair into the room. He is barely conscious, his head held in place by brackets. As time passes, he shuts his eyes and dozes while his classmates leap up for a group photo with Maddie, who might be the first scientist they’ve ever met.

    Posted on the door inside Brianna’s Year 7/8 composite classroom is a photo of her before treatment. Her glorious, long locks are framed by a beaming face. The photo was taken when she first arrived at the school from Townsville in January, after being diagnosed with an aggressive lymphoma in late November. Her chemotherapy has stolen her hair and some of her energy. Sometimes she prefers to hide her changing scalp beneath a black beanie with devil horns. But none of this is discussed during school hours.

    Brianna’s teacher is Anna Bauer, 35, a bespectacled brunette with sparkling brown eyes who has worked in hospital schools for three years and now can’t imagine teaching anywhere else. “No one here will ask you a medical question,” she says of her classroom. “The kids are so tolerant … You can walk in with a nasal gastric tube and a drip tree, and that’s it. We might give the drip tree a name, like ‘Molly’, and then everybody gets on with what we’re doing. It’s what I wish the real world was like.” Working here sometimes demands that the adults develop coping strategies for their own emotional protection, too. “I have to believe that, when they walk out the door, they live happily ever after,” she says.

    In Anna’s current class, Brianna has cancer; the mother of a bubbly Bundaberg girl is being treated for leukaemia; and the fiercely intelligent girl who co-hosted assembly is temporarily in a wheelchair after two recent strokes. But the students she sees aren’t confined to physical illness. “I have so many kids with mental health issues who don’t look sick,” Anna says. “They walk around without baldness, or a nasal gastric tube, or a limp, or a drip tree. There’s no physical evidence, so there’s a real lack of recognition that there’s something wrong with your child. I’m not a parent yet, but oh my God – how awful must that be?”

    During Anna’s second week of teaching at the hospital, a student from the previous day didn’t arrive. When she asked a colleague about their sudden absence, she learnt they were being treated in the emergency department after attempting to end their life. “I took that quite badly,” says Anna quietly. That was when her happily-ever-after belief began to cement itself, as a self-protective measure.

    Some days are worse than others. “You’re on and lifting, all of the time,” says Anna. “But I find it quite humbling, and incredibly powerful, that it’s my job to make their lives feel normal. It can be sad sometimes, but most of the time, it is not; it is joyous, happy, friendly, loving and supportive. The children are sick, but I’m not a health worker. When I’m in here, and they’re so excited to see me, because I’m not a doctor or a nurse, there’s no time to be sad. You’ve got spelling and times tables to do, and we’re going to have fun while we do it.”

    Posted on the door inside Anna’s classroom, beneath the class photos of smiling children at eye level, is a laminated A4 page consisting of a paragraph of white text against a black background, framed by a pink border. I want a life that sizzles and pops, it begins. That first line popped into Anna’s head a little while ago, on a particularly bad day, when her class of six teenage girls were all in a low mood. “And I don’t want to get to the end, or tomorrow even, and realise that my life is a collection of Post-its and unwashed clothes, bad television and reports that no-one’s ever read,” it continues.

    The teacher was getting nothing out of them, that day, so she put the spelling lesson aside and assigned the girls a task: to write about what makes them feel better. Anna kicked them off with that first sentence, and encouraged them to fill the page. She did, too. “I want to see what I see through the lens of a camera and drink wine like it’s real grapes and wrap myself in warm towels that smell like my mum’s washing and dance to songs I don’t even like,” she wrote.

    The girls pasted the text into an online image editing program, fiddled with the design, printed the results and took them home to stick on their walls. These pages were intended to act as a reminder of all that is good in this world, especially on the blackest days. Anna stuck hers to the wall of a classroom where nobody will ask medical questions, in a building that none of the children particularly want to be in. Her paragraph concludes, “I want to wrap my hands around warm cups of tea with friends that will make me laugh so hard I wee a little bit, and I want every day to belly laugh with my people, glad and grateful, that I love the life I have.”