All posts tagged Journalism

  • 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.

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Roll On, Robot: Self-driving cars’, June 2016

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Magazine, published in the June 18-19 issue. Excerpt below.

    Roll On, Robot

    Self-driving cars are fun, and they might improve safety, but are the regulators ready for them?

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'Roll On, Robot: Self-driving cars' by Andrew McMillen, June 2016. Photo by Eddie Safarik

    On a midweek afternoon I’m standing on a busy street in inner-city Brisbane, watching traffic. The clock has just struck three, which means that school pick-ups are coinciding with tradies knocking off for the day from nearby construction sites. In a few minutes I’m passed by dust-flecked utes, sedans with baby boosters in the backseat, four-wheel drives, council buses, vans, motorcycles and hatchbacks. In control of each vehicle is a regular human driver – a fallible, distraction-prone entity with a limited field of vision.

    It could be any day, anywhere in Australia. But then a sleek grey car glides up to where I’m standing. If I wasn’t expecting it, I wouldn’t have heard it: the Tesla Model S is practically silent, powered by electricity stored in lithium-ion batteries rather than petrol. Its best trick, however, is hidden within the array of computer systems behind the dashboard, and it’s a feature that’s likely to change the nature of personal transport. In contrast to the other vehicles that have passed me this afternoon, this one has the ability to drive itself.

    The car’s owner, Jon Atherton, loves Tesla’s Autopilot feature. He recently engaged it at 4am one Saturday, soon after leaving his inner Brisbane home and merging onto the near-empty M1 motorway. For 75km or so, all the way to the Gold Coast, the car drove itself and its human cargo – Atherton and his 16-year old daughter, Minna – to swimming practice. From the driver’s seat he recorded a short video of the trip showing the car holding firm in a central lane and taking a slight corner at a steady speed of 103km/h. The steering wheel turns without Atherton’s touch. The footage, posted on Facebook, is at once eerie, futuristic and hair-raising.

    This technological shift towards automation presents a raft of challenging and complex issues for state and federal regulators. Adding to the complexity is the fact that Atherton woke up one morning late last year to find that the software system had automatically updated itself. Suddenly, Autopilot became a standard feature for tens of thousands of Tesla Model S owners across the world. How can state and federal governments regulate that kind of overnight innovation?

    ++

    I hop in the Tesla with Atherton that midweek afternoon and as we head north towards the airport he engages Autopilot with a subtle double-pull of the cruise control stalk located behind the wheel. In that moment, the trip shifts from test drive to joyride. It’s not until I witness his car driving itself, with my own fallible optical sensors, that the possibilities of this technology unlock in my mind.

    As we pass through the AirportLink tunnel at 80km/h, Atherton says, “It’s doing a pretty good job of keeping us safe, and balancing the distance between all of the things around us.” Just as a human would, I note. “The thing is, this computer is not distracted, or distractible,” he replies, looking me in the eye, hands off the wheel. “Even if somebody comes screaming up beside us, it’ll try to keep us out of trouble. If you started to show me a message on your phone, I could get distracted and veer off the road. But the car’s less likely to do that.”

    When Autopilot was first released, Atherton – a tanned, 50-year-old mobile app developer and entrepreneur – compared the feeling of handing over control to the software to relinquishing the driver’s seat to a learner driver. “I didn’t feel 100 per cent comfortable with something else being in charge,” he says. His anxiety soon passed when he saw how well the technology worked. That 4am trip to the Gold Coast in January is a perfect example. “It drove the whole way, and I didn’t touch the steering wheel or change the speed,” he says. “A couple of times cars pulled in front of us and it just slowed down, sat in the middle lane and cruised along.”

    At this stage, Tesla’s Autopilot cannot wholly replace a human driver: it requires well-painted line markings to locate the lane, its cameras can’t tell the difference between green and red traffic lights and it won’t obey stop signs – that’s still up to the human behind the wheel. Tesla advises against total hands-free driving and if a driver removes their hands, a display near the dash shows the message: “Please keep your hands on the wheel”. But essentially, the responsibility lies with the driver as to whether or not they do so.

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

  • The Kernel story: ‘The Unending Quest of the Hoax Slayer, Brett Christensen’, May 2016

    A story for The Kernel, published in May 2016. Excerpt below.

    The Unending Quest of the Hoax Slayer

    Thirteen years ago, Brett Christensen was the victim of an email hoax. Since then, he’s dedicated himself to preventing the same fate for others.

    The Kernel story: 'The Unending Quest of the Hoax Slayer' by Andrew McMillen, May 2016. Illustration by J. Longo

    For 13 years, Brett Christensen has been a committed professional debunker. This balding, bearded, soft-spoken, and serious man of 53 years has devoted himself to fighting the tide of online misinformation—the kind of scams, frauds, and hoaxes that used to spread from one inbox to the next but today move with alarming speed across social media. He assures readers that no, Mr. T is not dead (actually a like-farming scam); combining Mentos and Pepsi won’t lead to cyanide poisoning; and the sun won’t be going dark for eight days in June, no matter what that Facebook post quotes NASA as saying.

    In short, Christensen tries to bring his readers the facts, even as lies and mistruth swirl all around him. Way back in 2003, when he began his quest, he gave his website the suitably ambitious name, Hoax-Slayer. Its white, red, and black design favors practicality over aesthetics; while not particularly pretty to look at, the site is one of the Web’s largest archives of falsehoods. Christensen claims around 1 million visits per month, three-quarters of which arrive from search engines.

    The Hoax Slayer himself lives in a house hidden by trees on a busy street in Bundaberg, Australia, a city of about 55,000 people situated in Queensland, the country’s third most populous state. His home office is a minimally appointed room with an adjustable desk, a copy machine, a single computer monitor, and plenty of unused space. One of the walls is painted blue, and on either side of the monitor hangs a calendar and a framed assortment of Christensen family photos.

    As we talk, Christensen clicks onto Google Analytics, showing 50 people from around the world are currently browsing the site. Its social media presence is significant, too, with more than 202,000 Facebook fans and 5,300 Twitter followers.

    For a time, the site operated as a family business: At the peak of online advertising revenue a few years ago, he could afford to hire two sons from his previous marriage to help him with Web development and maintenance. “If you’d told me back in 2004 that I’d been making a living out of it, I would’ve laughed at you,” he says.

    Christensen’s wife, Deborah, also joined her husband in working on the site full-time for a few years but recently decided to return to her job as a probation and parole officer, managing the cases of criminal offenders. Today, about 80 percent of Christensen’s workweek is spent on managing Hoax Slayer, a site whose mission statement is “to help make the Internet a safer, more pleasant and more productive environment.”

    It’s a quest that started with a hoax. Nothing too terrible; in fact, just a bit of mild embarrassment. Back in the early 2000s, when Christensen was still new to the World Wide Web, he received an email informing him not to download a Budweiser Frogs screensaver, as it contained a dangerous computer virus. He hurriedly forwarded it to his contacts. He thought he’d done the right thing by warning his friends and family away from harm—until he received a reply that it was a hoax. Stunned and chastened, he was also intrigued by how he’d become a victim. Rather than simply chalking it up to experience and moving on, he burrowed in.

    To read the full story, visit The Kernel. Above illustration credit: J. Longo.

  • 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.”

     

  • GQ Australia story: ‘Does Australia Care About Saving The Great Barrier Reef?’, January 2016

    A story for GQ Australia, published in January 2016. Excerpt below.

    Does Australia Care About Saving The Great Barrier Reef?

    Australia’s most valuable tourist asset grows weaker each year. What’s being done to save the Great Barrier Reef?

    GQ Australia story: 'Does Australia Care About Saving The Great Barrier Reef?' by Andrew McMillen, January 2016

    “Daddy, is the reef dying?”

    Hearing those five words from the mouth of his five year-old son was enough to bring Professor Justin Marshall to tears. Silver-haired, bespectacled and the owner of tanned skin that exhibits his enthusiasm for the outdoors, the 54 year-old is a neuroscientist who specialises in animal vision.

    The son of two marine biologists, Marshall knows the Great Barrier Reef better than most, which is why he had to tell his own son the truth when he was asked this question seven years ago.

    “Yes, Ben, it is,” he replied, eyes welling.

    “Why?” asked Ben, mystified.

    Seeing no point in sugar-coating his answer, Marshall said, “It’s dying because we’ve been poor guardians of it, and we keep doing the wrong thing.”

    A slightly more detailed way of putting it is that rising global sea temperatures are killing the billions of individual corals that comprise the reef. The chief cause? Man-made global warming.

    Or to get a little more technical: it’s dying because of a process called ‘coral bleaching’, in conjunction with complicating factors such as pollution runoff from Queensland’s farmlands, shipping channel activity linked to the state’s coal mining exports, and the proliferation of a tough, hardy critter named the crown of thorns starfish, which eats stony coral polyps and thrives in warmer water climates – such as those linked to the carbon emissions of human industry.

    None of these complicating factors is making the Great Barrier Reef healthier, by any stretch of the imagination, which means that Marshall’s son, now 12 years old, will bear witness to the continual decline of Australia’s greatest natural tourist attraction during his lifetime.

    In 2001, Marshall co-founded a non-profit citizen science project at the University of Queensland named CoralWatch. This program allows visitors to the reef to use the colour of coral as an indicator of its health, and report their findings.

    Equipped with a waterproof chart developed by Marshall and his colleagues, divers and snorkelers can inspect the creatures – which, together, form the planet’s biggest single structure made by living organisms – up close, in order to provide meaningful data on the extent of bleaching.

    In turn, this information is fed back to researchers at the University of Queensland and elsewhere, for the program is used to gather reef data not just in Australia, but in 70 countries.

    Like all citizen science projects, from bird-watching to mapping freshwater turtle activity, CoralWatch is founded on a simple principle of inclusivity. Its ethos is based on a memorable concept: tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I will learn.

    By handing the average punter a simple mechanism to evaluate coral health while diving, then allowing them to upload their findings to a centralised server via website orsmartphone app, the effect is one of empowerment. Rather than the Great Barrier Reef being a faraway, abstract notion that occasionally flashes across our screens before disappearing again, for those involved with CoralWatch, it becomes a three-dimensional, concrete concept.

    Importantly, it becomes something they’ll discuss passionately with those closest to them.

    To read the full story, visit GQ Australia.

  • GQ Australia columns, December 2015: Fear, climate, guns, suicide and cannabis

    In July 2015, I was invited to write occasional online columns for GQ Australia. I’ve collected these five columns as excerpts below, with the publication date noted in brackets beside the title.

    Are We Living In An Australia Led By Fear? (July)

    An increase in national surveillance powers has an equal and opposite reaction of a decline in civil liberties – writes Andrew McMillen

    'Are We Living In An Australia Led By Fear?' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    One particular sentence on nationalsecurity.gov.au catches the eye: “Protecting all Australians from terrorism and violent extremism is the Australian Government’s top priority,” it reads.

    This sentence appears on a website which is home to the National Terrorism Public Alert System, among other cracking reads such as a list of ‘foiled Australian attacks’ (four incidents) and ‘overseas terrorist attacks’ (six).

    The National Terrorism Public Alert System informs us that the nation is currently at a ‘high’ level of alert, indicating that a terrorist attack “is likely”. This is just one step down from ‘extreme’ – where a terrorist attack “is imminent or has occurred” – but a step above the previous ranking of ‘medium’, which warned that a terrorist attack “could occur”.

    It was in mid-September 2014 that the alert rating changed from ‘medium’ to ‘high’. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine captured the change, between September 12 and September 18.

    The switch-over itself was pretty simple stuff, really: the web copy is practically identical, and a blue map of Australia with an ugly black font in the centre was replaced by a white diagram ringed by blue.

    To read the full column, click here.

    Why Australia Is Headed For An Avoidable Climate Calamity (August)

    Climate change is the iceberg of our times and Australia is steering straight into it – writes Andrew McMillen.

    'Why Australia Is Headed For An Avoidable Climate Calamity' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    One of mankind’s greatest achievements is the discovery that the energy from coal – ancient sunlight buried in the ground – could be used to drive our technological progress.

    In 2015, we continue to reap the rewards of that discovery, yet most of us acknowledge that coal, like oil and gas, is a finite resource: there’s only so much of it beneath our feet, and sooner or later, the supply will be exhausted.

    There is a simple logic behind this problem. When one generation selfishly chooses to use as much coal, oil and gas as humanly possible, the next generation will suffer the supply shocks, as well as the environmental effects: burning these fossil fuels adds a toxic combination of pollutants to the atmosphere, increasing the speed at which the planet warms.

    Intelligent governance acknowledges this as a fact, and a problem to be solved swiftly, lest future generations suffer for our inaction. For a time, Australia led the developed world in this regard, when then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced in 2007 that climate change was “the great moral, environmental and economic challenge of our age”.

    These were sage words from a leader who ultimately failed to install an effective mechanism to solve that challenge. Politics got in the way of true progress, cruelling an admirable long-term vision.

    To read the full column, click here.

    Why Encouraging More Guns Into Australia Is A Terrible Idea (August)

    In the wake of the Martin Place siege, Australia’s relationship with its long-standing gun laws might be about to change and that’s a very scary thought – writes Andrew McMillen.

    'Why Encouraging More Guns Into Australia Is A Terrible Idea' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    A gunman named Martin Bryant forever changed Australia on 28 April 1996, when he used a semi-automatic rifle to kill 35 people at a cafe in the Tasmanian town of Port Arthur.

    Within twelve weeks, John Howard’s government had devised, drafted, debated and implemented legislation which saw the banning of semi-automatic weapons and shotguns, and triggered a compulsory gun buyback scheme. As a result, the ownership and storage of other firearms were tightly restricted, too.

    The Australian approach to gun control was shown in stark contrast to the United States in September 2013, when John Oliver’s brilliant threepart series on The Daily Show neatly skewered gun-mad Americans who mindlessly oppose any change to gun laws.

    “Obviously, gun control doesn’t work. It can’t work. It will never work. So how was your scheme a failure?” Oliver asked a bemused John Howard, who replied, “Well, my scheme was not a failure. We had a massacre at a place called Port Arthur 17 years ago, and there have been none since.” Australia’s rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people was 1.03, compared with 10.69 in the U.S., according to 2012 figures from gunpolicy.org.

    In the 18 years prior to the Port Arthur massacre, there had been 13 mass shooting incidents , where five or more people were killed by a firearm. The gunman’s destructive actions so shocked and appalled the electorate that Howard’s sweeping changes to gun ownership laws were widely supported in the community.

    To read the full column, click here.

    Why Australian Men Need To Talk More About Suicide (September)

    Too many Australians die of suicide – around 2,500 per year, or 48 per week – and too few talk about it, or its surrounding issues – writes Andrew McMillen

    'Why Australian Men Need To Talk More About Suicide' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    The numbers are shockingly high: suicide is the leading cause of death for Australian men and woman aged between 15 and 44.

    I’m a member of this demographic, but stating sad facts such as these in plain black-and-white can have a numbing effect. Though mentally healthy myself, I have seen the devastating effects of severe depression up close with someone I love, which is one of the reasons why I’ve made a few attempts as a journalist to uncover stories about Australians who have faced mental illness with courage and openness.

    The first was an article for Australian Penthouse in 2012, The Low Down, about an online campaign named Soften The Fuck Up, which seeks to challenge the low levels of mental health literacy recognised by its founder, Ehon Chan, after he moved to Australia from Malaysia.

    “What’s the most common thing that Australian men get when they talk about any kind of weaknesses?” he asked me during our interview. “The response is generally, ‘Harden the fuck up.’ There’s no equivalent phrase for that in Malaysian!” he said with a laugh. Soften The Fuck Up aims to encourage offline conversations, by equipping young people – in particular, men – with ideas of how to recognise signs and symptoms of mental health issues among their peers.

    My most recent story on this topic, Over Troubled Water, was published in The Weekend Australian Magazine in early September 2015, ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10. This article explored the topic of suicide prevention at an iconic location in inner-city Brisbane: the Story Bridge, which is the site of at least four suicides per year, on average. Counterintuitive though it might seem, installing anti-jump barriers on high bridges has been shown to greatly reduce the incidence of suicide, and the problem is not simply shifted to another location.

    To read the full column, click here.

    How We Could All Benefit From Cannabis Regulation (October)

    The potential benefit of legalising cannabis means drug reform in Australia should be taken seriously – argues Andrew McMillen.

    'How We Could All Benefit From Cannabis Regulation' by Andrew McMillen for GQ Australia, 2015

    A few years from today, once other Australian states have followed the lead set by Victoriain early October 2015 to move toward the legalisation of cultivating cannabis for medicinal purposes, the nation might finally be ready to have a conversation that needs to be had. Namely: why don’t we regulate and tax the recreational use of cannabis, our most popular illicit drug?

    At least 1.9 million Australians use cannabis each year, according to the most recent data from the United Nations 2014 World Drug Report. This is a huge proportion of Australians, and it’s significant for a couple of reasons. First, that’s a lot of adults of voting age, who’d probably be keen to support political parties that provide reasonable alternatives to the tired, ineffective tough-on-drugs approach we’ve seen in this country for generations.

    And second, this number represents an enormous amount of disposable income that’s leaking from the national economy into an unregulated market, far beyond the reach of the Australian Taxation Office.

    Given that recreational cannabis use is illegal, the only way to obtain the drug in 2015 is to associate with people who are, by definition, criminals. Once that transaction has been made, and you hand over your cash in exchange for the product, you’ve become a criminal, too. If caught by police, you will face charges of possession which may result in fines or, at the extreme end of the spectrum, imprisonment.

    This reality is known, understood and accepted by most Australians who choose to interface with illicit drug use. Perhaps a small minority of particularly inflammatory cannabis users get a kick out of breaking the law in this way, but most would probably much rather avoid the hassle of potentially being exposed to the criminal justice system purely because of their desire to use a drug that’s increasingly being legalised by state and federal governments throughout the world.

    To read the full column, click here.

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘The Bone Collector: Dr Carl Stephan’, October 2015

    A story for the October 24 issue of The Weekend Australian Magazine. Excerpt below.

    The Bone Collector

    Carl Stephan is building Australia’s first modern skeleton library – with a little help from an army of flesh-eating bugs.

    'The Bone Collector: Dr Carl Stephan' by Andrew McMillen in The Weekend Australian Magazine, October 2015. Photo by Eddie Safarik

    It is dark inside the skeletisation room, which is just how the hide beetles like it. It’s dark beneath the soil, too, which is where they are more commonly found. Down there, the purpose of their existence is to seek and consume the soft tissues attached to bones, which they do methodically, stripping off every last molecule of flesh while leaving the bones intact. Here in the laboratory it’s quiet, too, with only the gentle drone of a fume hood providing the soundtrack. This is their home, above a bed of coco peat and beneath layers of torn cardboard and paper towel that’s occasionally sprayed with water. Here, they are well-fed on the soft tissues of Queenslanders who have chosen to donate their bodies to science.

    These native beetles have a key role in an Australian-first project whose educational benefits will echo through these halls for generations. They’ve travelled 1700km via air freight to the University of Queensland, where a kindly forensic anthropologist named Dr Carl Stephan ensures they’re never hungry. Inside large plastic tubs in this secure, well-hidden room in the School of Biomedical Sciences, they are thriving in thousands-strong colonies.

    Stephan removes the lid of one tub and a new odour fills the room – not unpleasant, exactly, but certainly strange and distinct. Inside the tub on this Wednesday in early May are the tarsal bones of a human foot. Noticing my ­reaction, Stephan says, “That smell you’re ­getting – not very much of that is bone. Most of that is the natural smell the beetles have: it’s an ammonia-type smell, kind of like Windex, so it’s sharp on your nose.”

    While he’s here, Stephan has brought some fresh material for the beetles to feed on. He produces a few sealed plastic bags containing small bones from five digits of a right hand. Before proceeding, he looks me in the eye through his plastic goggles. “If you feel like you’re hot in the feet, and that heat grows up your legs, just let me know, so I can catch you before you hit the ground,” he says. I thank him for his concern, but this isn’t my first exposure to a cadaver: that happened a few months earlier, when I began observing first-year medical students while they dissected donor materials in anatomy classes.

    As he opens the first bag, out leaks an unmistakeable waft. “This material hasn’t been embalmed,” he says. “But it’s been dissected down as much as it needs to be.” The finger bones are cool, having been recently removed from a freezer. Their owner once used them for writing, waving, typing, texting and shaking hands; small, routine gestures that we take for granted, yet help define a life and make us human. “You can see that we have them labelled. There’s a reason for that, so that we know precisely which digit these bones come from, after they’re cleaned. That way, there’s no chance they can be mixed up.”

    He reaches into the tub and pulls back a layer of cardboard, revealing a few dozen adult beetles and some hairy juveniles attempting to hide from the light. “We try to keep them nice and healthy, and happy,” he says with a smile. He gently places the new bones beneath the cardboard and closes the lid.

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

  • The Weekend Australian Review story: ‘Artistic Insight: Stephen Nothling’, October 2015

    A story for the October 24 issue of The Weekend Australian Review. Excerpt below.

    Artistic Insight 

    A visually impaired Brisbane painter turns ordinary street scenes into extraordinary works of art.

    'Artistic Insight: Stephen Nothling' by Andrew McMillen in The Weekend Australian Review, October 2015. Photo by Glenn Hunt

    The house on the corner of Louisa Street is designed to catch the eye. It is painted pink, with purple gutters, for the simple reason that he always wanted to live in a pink house, though shocking the neighbours was a pleasant side effect, too. Though largely hidden by greenery, his friends like to refer to it as “the jewel of Highgate Hill”. He walks out the front gate, pausing to shut it so that his two small dogs are confined to roaming the yard and barking at passers-by. Held in his left hand is a white cylinder that he periodically consults while climbing the footpath as it rises to a crest, revealing the skyscrapers and construction cranes of Brisbane in the distance. Since buying the house on the corner in 2001, walking this route has been an entrenched part of Stephen Nothling’s daily routine. Now, this route has become art.

    When unfurled, the cylinder becomes a long sheet of paper that details the gallery layout of the artworks that comprise his upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Brisbane. The star of the show is this unremarkable street in the city’s inner-south. On a map, Louisa Street lies at the edge of two suburbs, which is why Nothling has chosen to name it The Last Street in Highgate Hill. The museum exists to capture the people, places and stories of its inhabitants, and when director Peter Denham approached Nothling to present an idea for its ongoing Document series, the artist replied that what he’d really like to do is head out the front gate and paint the street he walks up and down every day.

    Nothling, 53, carves a striking figure as he strides up a street he knows better than anyone on the planet. Tall, blond and pale, a white shirt hangs loosely from his thin frame atop blue jeans and scruffy black shoes. Between June 2014 and June 2015, Nothling worked most days on this collection of paintings, which depict the beautiful minutiae of Queensland urban life. With a camera, he captured every house on the street, then used those images as reference points to work from, occasionally dashing back out to inspect smaller details — such as particular colours and materials — from up close, with his own eyes.

    His work reveals a forensic attention to detail, a point influenced by the fact Nothling’s eyes are different than most. He was born with oculocutaneous albinism, a genetically inherited condition that affects around one in 20,000 people worldwide. The vision in his right eye operates at about 10 per cent functionality, thanks to a cataract and deformed nerve endings at the back of the lens, while missing parts of the cellular structure in his left eye means he has a significant blind spot, which he describes as a “black hole of nothingness”. His visual impairment resulted in social isolation while growing up in the seaside Queensland city of Redcliffe; as a child, he was never picked for team sports. “When you can’t be a player, you become introspective,” he says.

    He also wore thick, Coke-bottle glasses in an attempt to correct his vision. It didn’t work. An eye specialist once told him that if he truly knew how other people see the world, he’d be crushed by depression. It is ironic, then, that for three decades Nothling has built a career out of looking at things and painting what he sees.

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