All posts tagged story

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Lockstep With Lockie: Santiago Velasquez and his guide dog’, November 2017

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

    Lockstep With Lockie

    This black labrador spends every waking moment by his owner’s side. He’s not just a faithful companion, but Santiago Velasquez’s eyes on the world.

    'Lockstep With Lockie: Santiago Velasquez and his guide dog' story by Andrew McMillen in The Weekend Australian Magazine, November 2017. Photo by Justine Walpole

    Their day begins soon after 6am with a series of movements so familiar they’re like clockwork. After rising from their beds, positioned side-by-side, Santiago Velasquez and his companion greet each other with affection and a leash is clipped to a collar. It’s a couple of dozen steps from their bedroom to the front door of the apartment, then down three floors in the lift to a small garden so that one of them can water the grass. “Quick quicks, Lockie,” says the young man, using the voice command for toileting. “Quick quicks.”

    After breakfast, Velasquez — known to all as “Santi” — leads Lockie to the balcony where he brushes the dog in the morning light, black wisps of fur falling to the floor. The guide dog stands docile, wagging his tail and panting happily. “It’s a good bonding exercise,” says Santi, a handsome 21-year-old with a swimmer’s strong build, a crown of black hair and sporty-looking glasses. In the ­distance is an extraordinary view of the ­Brisbane city skyline and surrounding hills but Santi cannot see it. Since birth, he has been blind in one eye with only three per cent vision in the other.

    It is a Wednesday in mid-October and they have a big day ahead. In an unpredictable, fast-paced world, Santi and Lockie rely on familiarity and routine as much as possible. Theirs is an intimacy of constant contact. “He’s very, very attached — that’s a massive understatement — because we spend pretty much every moment of our lives together,” says Santi, who takes almost an hour to groom his black labrador and then painstakingly shave his own facial hair by feel with an electric razor. “He takes a long time for everything,” says Santi’s mother Maria, laughing and rolling her eyes in mock exasperation. In truth, she and her husband Cesar are nothing less than patient, having taught their blind son that his only problem is that he cannot see, and that his blindness is no excuse for not doing the same household chores as his sighted brother, 18-year-old Camilo.

    Downstairs at 9am, Santi reattaches the leash and repeats his voice command, while Lockie walks in circles and sniffs the lawn. “Quick quicks, buddy,” he says, and he means it: they have a bus to catch. Santi slips a fluorescent yellow harness over the dog’s head. With this action, Lockie has been trained to recognise that he is now in work mode, and his focus narrows to the singular task of guiding Santi from home to university — and, much later, back again. The dog is now six years old but has been in training since he was a puppy to fulfil this role. Santi never knew him as a puppy: Lockie was three when they first met on a rainy day at the Guide Dogs Queensland head office. Since January 9, 2015 — a date seared into Santi’s memory — they have scarcely spent an hour apart.

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

  • Men’s Health story: ‘Jason Momoa: “There’s Too Much Shit I Want To Do”‘, November 2017

    A cover story for the December 2017 issue of Men’s Health. Excerpt below.

    Jason Momoa: “There’s Too Much Shit I Want To Do” 

    Jason Momoa put in the work to make it big in Hollywood, but his passion for being a husband, dad, friend, climber, surfer, and all-around rascal makes him the man he is today.

    Jason Momoa cover story in Men's Health, December 2017, by Andrew McMillen: "There's Too Much Shit I Want To Do". Photograph by Damian Bennett

    Glad for a few hours off from shooting Aquaman, Jason Momoa is shirtless and polishing off a bowl of chicken and peanut butter. A superhero physique requires that he ration his carbs to even enjoy Guinness. But as he’s quick to tell you, being Aquaman has its perks too.

    The meal over, the Hawaii-born actor, 38, stands beneath a custom-built indoor rock climbing wall that plays an integral role in his workout routine. In short order, he’s excitedly leading a tour of a man cave that has become an important refuge during his six months of filming here on Australia’s Gold Coast. Between filming commitments, this cavernous space offers the extensive gym and weight training machines Momoa needs in order to maintain his muscular, 230-odd-pound frame.

    Of even greater interest to Momoa than lifting heavy objects, though, are the musical instruments set up in a far corner of the space. “Look at this thing, man!” he says, strapping on a Fender bass. “This thing is so fuckin’ badass!” He plugs in, flicks on an amplifier, and gives a groovy demonstration of his new creative outlet. Using his thumb and fingers against four strings, Momoa plays in a pop-and-slap style that’d sound at home on a vintage Red Hot Chili Peppers record. “There’s a bunch of stuff I want to learn. Instead of waiting around on set all day, I’d rather be learning something cool.”

    The photographer approaches for a few candid shots, and Momoa rolls his eyes. “We’ll do it later,” Momoa says to him. “Let me get a shirt on.” To me, he says, “That’s all they want–me with my shirt off!” He laughs, plays a few more notes, gets lost in the music, and then reconsiders. “Ah, fuck it. You can take one. Momoa continues with the funky technique and then switches to a more intricate piece. “I just started learning this,” he says, eyes on the fretboard. “I just can’t sit still, man. There’s too much shit I want to do.”

    To read the full story, visit Men’s Health. Above photo credit: Damian Bennett.

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Mind The Gap: Training Queensland Rail train drivers’, November 2017

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Magazine, published in the November 11-12 issue. Excerpt below.

    Mind The Gap

    It took a “rail fail” to realise the network needed more train drivers. So what does it take to be one?

    'Mind The Gap: Training Queensland Rail train drivers' story by Andrew McMillen in The Weekend Australian Magazine, November 2017. Photo by Justine Walpole

    The passenger train slows as it approaches Grovely Station, 11 stops north of Brisbane Central, on a lovely winter’s Friday. At precisely 10.10am it comes to a stop and a bloke alights, pulls out a can of bourbon and cola and takes a swig as he passes the train driver’s cabin, occupied by tutor Chris Haag and his trainee, Matau Hohaia. They pay no heed. Hohaia pauses for a few moments and then presses a button on the console, triggering an automated announcement that’s heard throughout the carriages behind his ­comfortable seat. “Doors closing,” says a calm male voice. “Please stand clear.”

    At the end of the platform a few metres from the driver’s seat is a silver pole topped by a single yellow light. “Restricted signal,” says Hohaia, thinking aloud in a coded shorthand for the ­benefit of his tutor. “So our red will be the red starter at Keperra. We’re going to be taking the 60 for the 80 straight track sign, then 20 over the magnet, stopping at the six-car stop.”

    Hohaia reaches a top speed of 60km/h and slows to ease into Keperra Station, bringing the front cabin to a stop beside a mark on the platform that’s no bigger than a dinner plate. This black ­circle inside a yellow square denotes the proper finishing point for a six-car carriage, part of the Queensland Rail Citytrain service. “Beautiful. It’s surprising just how difficult that is — it takes a lot of practice,” says Haag. “Why thank you,” replies Hohaia with a grin. “I’ve been working on that!”

    “And I owe you a jelly bean,” says Haag, referring to the unofficial reward system for trainees who stick the landing at each platform. “You’ll make me a poor man from all those jelly beans!” At 29, Haag is eight years Hohaia’s junior, but the older apprentice has a great respect for the keen eyes and observations of the younger master, who is helping him to finish his training and become one of Queensland’s most precious resources: a qualified train driver.

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

  • Backchannel story: ‘The Social Network Doling Out Millions in Ephemeral Money: Steemit’, October 2017

    A feature story for Backchannel. Excerpt below.

    The Social Network Doling Out Millions in Ephemeral Money

    Steemit is a social network with the radical idea of paying users for their contributions. But in the crypto gold rush, it’s unclear who stands to profit.

    Backchannel story: 'The Social Network Doling Out Millions in Ephemeral Money: Steemit' by Andrew McMillen, October 2017. Illustration credit: Lauren Cierzan.

    Every time you log onto Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to share a photo or post an article, you give up a piece of yourself in exchange for entertainment. This is the way of the modern world: Smart companies build apps and websites that keep our eyeballs engaged, and we reward them with our data and attention, which benefit their bottom line.

    Steemit, a nascent social media platform, is trying to change all that by rewarding its users with cold, hard cash in the form of a cryptocurrency. Everything that you do on Steemit—every post, every comment, and every like—translates to a fraction of a digital currency called Steem. Over time, as Steem accumulates, it can be cashed out for normal currency. (Or held, if you think Steem is headed for a bright future.)

    The idea for Steemit began with a white paper, which quietly spread among a small community of techies when it was released in March 2016. The exhaustive 44-page overview wasn’t intended for a general audience, but the document contained a powerful message. User-generated content, the authors argued, had created billions of dollars of value for the shareholders of social media companies. Yet while moguls like Mark Zuckerberg got rich, the content creators who fueled networks like Facebook got nothing. Steemit’s creators outlined their intention to challenge that power imbalance by putting a value on contributions: “Steem is the first cryptocurrency that attempts to accurately and transparently reward…[the] individuals who make subjective contributions to its community.”

    A minuscule but dedicated audience rallied around Steemit, posting stories and experimenting with the form to discover what posts attracted the most votes and comments. When Steemit released its first payouts that July, three months after launch, things got serious.

    Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are only worth whatever value people ascribe to them, so there was no guarantee that the tokens dropping into Steemit accounts would ever be worth anything. Yet the Steem that rolled out to users translated to more than $1.2 million in American dollars. Overnight, the little-known currency spiked to a $350 million market capitalization—momentarily rocketing it into the rare company of Bitcoin and Ethereum, the world’s highest-valued cryptocurrencies.

    Today, Steem’s market capitalization has settled in the vicinity of $294 million. One Steem is worth slightly more than one United States Dollar, and the currency remains a regular presence at the edge of the top 20 most traded digital currencies.

    It’s a precipitous rise for a company that just 18 months ago existed only as an idea in the minds of its founders. More than $30 million worth of Steem has been distributed to over 50,000 users since its launch, according to company reports. It’s too early to know whether Steemit can hold onto its users’ interest and its market value. But its goal—upending a model built by social media giants over decades of use in favor of a more populist system—is significant in itself. By removing the middlemen and allowing users to profit directly from the networks they participate in, Steemit could provide a roadmap to a more equitable social network.

    Or users could get bored or distracted by something newer and shinier and abandon it. The possibility of a popped bubble looms over every cryptocurrency, and the bubbles are filled with both attention and speculative investment. Steemit’s value is based on money that its founders have virtually willed into existence. Fortunes could vanish at any moment, but someone stands to get rich in the process.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel. Above illustration credit: Lauren Cierzan.

  • Good Weekend story: ‘Risky Business: How a bad LSD trip taught one Sydney teenager to think twice about experimenting with drugs’, September 2017

    A feature story for Good Weekend, published in the September 30 issue. Excerpt below.

    Risky Business

    How a bad LSD trip taught one Sydney teenager to think twice about experimenting with drugs

    'Risky Business: How a bad LSD trip taught one Sydney teenager to think twice about experimenting with drugs' story by Andrew McMillen in Good Weekend, September 2017

    Tom* closes his eyes, settles back on his bed, breathes in the aromatherapy oil he’s burning and listens to psychedelic trance while waiting for the onset of the trip from the LSD he’s just swallowed. It’s 8pm on a Friday night this year, he’s home alone in the sanctuary of his bedroom and he tells himself that this is his reward for finishing his exams (except for business studies, which he doesn’t care about). Within moments, the 17-year-old’s heart rate goes up, butterflies flutter in his stomach and waves of colour dance across his field of vision, regardless of whether he closes or opens his eyes. This is the fifth time he’s taken the hallucinogen, the first four with no unpleasant side effects, so he’s trying a double dose to see whether the sensations become more intense.

    Tom takes precautions: he uses a drug-testing kit he bought from a “hippie store” near his house to make sure the drug is LSD rather than a more risky synthetic alternative. He cuts a tiny sliver from one of the tabs and drops it into a glass tube containing a small amount of liquid. He watches as the sample reacts to the chemicals, turning dark purple, indicating its purity. Satisfied, Tom eats four tiny pieces of LSD-soaked blotting paper known as “tabs”.

    The trip starts well, reaching an idyllic plateau, but the come-up keeps climbing – and with it, his anxiety. He doesn’t hear his dad Karl* unexpectedly arrive home and climb the stairs. Sitting at his desk, Tom is so shocked when his dad opens his bedroom door that he can barely speak and doesn’t make eye contact. So odd is his behaviour that his father imagines he’s walked in on his son masturbating. Embarrassed, he bids his son good night – he’s off to meet Tom’s mum Jasmine* at a fund-raising dinner across town – and closes the door.

    Tom is alone again, and the drug’s effects continue to intensify. Trying to counteract the restlessness he’s feeling, he walks onto the second-floor balcony off his bedroom and paces up and down. By now losing his sense of reality, Tom tries talking to himself in a bid to sort out the strange thoughts invading his mind. “Who’s doing this to you?” he asks, raising his voice. “Who’s doing this?”

    Neighbours hear this bizarre phrase ringing out from the balcony. At first, they don’t associate the deep voice with Tom: it sounds almost Satanic. In the darkness, they can faintly see a figure pacing back and forth. They call out, asking if he’s all right. Well-known as an early morning runner, and well-liked as a trusted babysitter to several families in this quiet, affluent neighbourhood in Sydney’s north where he’s spent most of his life, Tom is clearly not himself. The family cats are howling, too, apparently as disturbed by his behaviour as the onlookers.

    From the balcony, Tom scampers up onto the tiled roof, but loses his footing. A round, wooden table in the front yard breaks his fall not far from the edge of the swimming pool. The force of his weight smashes the furniture to pieces but he miraculously avoids serious injury. A concerned neighbour rings 000. Tom may be bleeding, but he’s still got the speed of a cross-country athlete and seemingly superhuman strength, despite his reed-thin frame. He rushes back inside his house, tracking blood through different rooms, before smashing a back fence then running onto the street again, tearing off his clothes.

    What happens over the next hour or so – Tom breaking a window of a neighbour’s house, neighbours chasing him, making him even more paranoid and fearful – is a blur. He winds up several streets from home, lying naked in the middle of the road, surrounded by people looking down at him, including two female police officers and paramedics. It takes a few of them to handcuff him.

    Hovering not far away is a television news crew, which has received a tip-off about the disturbance. Tom is at risk of having the worst moment of his life spread over the news, but the police are able to keep the media at bay because he’s a minor. All the while, Tom continues to ramble incoherently: “The universe is against us! The universe is against us!”

    At the fund-raising dinner which his parents are attending, Karl is perplexed when his phone begins to vibrate during a speech. Jasmine also grabs her phone, which is lighting up with messages from five different neighbours asking her to call them immediately. The couple hurriedly excuse themselves before Jasmine calls a trusted friend. “Tom’s all right,” she’s told. “But you need to go straight to the hospital.” On arrival around midnight, they’re greeted by a sight that haunts all parents: their teenage son unconscious in a hospital bed, covered in dried blood, with plastic tubes snaking out of his mouth and nose.

    To read the full story, visit Good Weekend. Above illustration credit: Clemens Habicht.

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Susan, Unbroken: After Dr Andrew Bryant’s suicide’, September 2017

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Magazine, published in the September 2-3 issue. Excerpt below.

    Susan, Unbroken

    Her husband’s suicide was devastating. But Susan Bryant was determined to call it out.

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'Susan, Unbroken: After Dr Andrew Bryant's suicide' by Andrew McMillen, September 2017. Photograph by Justine Walpole

    The last few days had been nightmarish and Susan Bryant was tired of explaining. She decided to write an email to try to explain the inexplicable. The words came to her in a rush, powered by grief, anger and frustration, as well as a desire for the cause of her husband’s death to be known, not covered up. It was a Saturday evening in early May and before she travelled across town for a family dinner, she sat in the study inside the beautiful home on the hill she had shared for 25 years with a brilliant gastroenterologist named Dr Andrew Bryant. Her first instinct was to say sorry.

    “I apologise for the group email but I wanted to thank those of you who have been so kind with your messages and thoughts over the last three days,” she typed. “Apologies also for the length of this email but it’s important to me to let you know the circumstances of Andrew’s death. Some of you may not yet know that Andrew took his own life, in his office, on Thursday morning.”

    The family’s beloved white dog lay on the floor beside her in the study, while a cat was curled near her feet. Andrew had not suffered from depression before, she wrote, but his mood had been flat during Easter and he had been sleeping poorly because he had been called in to see public hospital patients every night of the previous week. She wrote that because of these long hours — not unusual for an on-call specialist — he had missed every dinner at home that week, including one to celebrate his son’s birthday. “In retrospect, the signs were all there,” she wrote, then chided herself. “But I didn’t see it coming. He was a doctor; he was surrounded by health professionals every day; both his parents were psychiatrists; two of his brothers are doctors; his sister is a psychiatric nurse — and none of them saw it coming either.”

    Susan addressed the email to 15 colleagues at the law firm where she works in central Brisbane, and she hoped that it would help them understand why her daughter had phoned on Thursday morning to briefly explain why her mother would need some time off. “I don’t want it to be a secret that Andrew committed suicide,” she wrote. “If more people talked about what leads to suicide, if people didn’t talk about it as if it was shameful, if people understood how easily and quickly depression can take over, then there might be fewer deaths.”

    Together, they brought four children into this world and they all still live under the same roof. “His four children and I are not ashamed of how he died,” she wrote. Susan knew that her children felt this way, but she double-checked with them before she sent the email, and before the five of them left the family home to visit the Bryants in Paddington, a few ­suburbs over. One by one, her children came into the study and read the email over her shoulder. They saw no problem with it. She ended her letter with the spark of an idea; a glimmer of hope. “So please, forward this email on to anyone in the ­Wilston community who has asked how he died, anyone at all who might want to know, or anyone you think it may help.” It took her about five minutes to write. She sent it at 5.45pm on Saturday, May 6, and then she went to be with Andrew’s family.

    The next afternoon, Susan thought that a few of her close friends and neighbours might like to read the message. And so, at 2pm on the Sunday, she passed it on to another five people who live in the inner north suburb of Wilston. When two of her children asked if they could share the email on Facebook, she said yes, because she thought that it might help their friends understand what had happened, too.

    Within a few days, her words had been read by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Her email was republished and discussed online and off; both inside and outside the medical profession. It was as though she had shot a flare skyward on a dark night, and suddenly, she found herself surrounded by strangers who were drawn to the distress signal.

    People responded to her honesty with their own. They wrote to her with deep, dark secrets and confessions, some of which they dared not speak aloud. She gathered their letters and cards in a large basket that sits in the centre of her kitchen bench, while hundreds more notes piled into her email inbox. Writing to her helped them. She did not know it when she wrote the email, but they needed Susan Bryant then, and they need her now.

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

    For help if you are in Australia: Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; ­Lifeline 13 11 14, Survivors of Suicide Bereavement ­Support 1300 767 022.

    For help if you are outside of Australia, visit suicide.org’s list of international hotlines.

  • Backchannel story: ‘The Sleeper Autistic Hero Transforming Video Games: Symmetra and Overwatch’, July 2017

    A feature story for Backchannel. Excerpt below.

    The Sleeper Autistic Hero Transforming Video Games 

    With Symmetra, Overwatch is quietly taking on the stigma of autism – and for the fans, effort means everything.

    Backchannel story: 'The Sleeper Autistic Hero Transforming Video Games: Symmetra and Overwatch' by Andrew McMillen, July 2017

    For Samuel Hookham and his younger brother, Overwatch was an obsession that took root last spring. They played the fast-paced shooter video game almost every day, passing the PlayStation 4 controller back and forth across the couch in their family’s California home.

    Samuel was surprised to find himself selecting a female avatar. Overwatch offers two dozen characters of different genders and races, each with a richly drawn personality. But when Samuel played, he was almost always Symmetra, a slight but potent warrior. Her weapon of choice, a photon projector, locks onto enemies and swiftly depletes their energy. In the hands of a skilled player, she could be one of the most devious and deadly characters.

    As he played, Samuel began to notice that Symmetra’s behavior was sometimes strange. She often misunderstood social cues. When her teammate, Torbjörn, cracked a joke—“Hehe, there’s something on your dress!”—Symmetra would respond literally: “No, there isn’t.” She craved structure and got overwhelmed with too much stimulation. In the middle of tense battles, she would turn her back on the action in order to, say, rebuild defensive sentry turrets. In a voice clip, she told her teammates that she believed “the true enemy of humanity is disorder.”

    It was all a bit odd. But in Symmetra’s strangeness, Samuel saw himself. Near the end of 2016, he had been diagnosed with autism, and the label was helping him understand the ways his behavior was different. Like Symmetra, Samuel tended to take jokes literally and could get confused by social cues that others navigated with ease. Samuel began to wonder if his favorite Overwatch hero was autistic, too.

    So when his English teacher asked the class to write letters to public figures they admired, he saw an opening. While his peers sent dispatches to the Nintendo headquarters in Japan, In-N-Out Burger, and Prince William, Samuel wrote to Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s director and a well-known personality thanks to regular YouTube updates. It was a short note—just a dozen sentences— focused on the question that had been bugging him.

    “Dear Mr. Kaplan,” Samuel began, “My main question is about Symmetra. She’s my favorite character, hands down. I just wanted to clarify: Is Symmetra autistic? As an autistic person myself, I’d love to know.”

    He addressed the letter to Blizzard Entertainment’s offices in Irvine, California, expecting not to hear back. A month later, a letter arrived.

    “Dear Samuel,” wrote Kaplan, “I’m glad you asked about Symmetra. Symmetra is autistic. She is one of our most beloved heroes and we think she does a great job of representing just how awesome someone with autism can be.”

    With 30 million players, Overwatch is among the world’s most popular video games. Kids like Samuel spend hours immersed in games, even though the avatars they control rarely reflect themselves. Characters with disabilities, characters of different races, characters with different sexual orientations, characters with autism—all are rare in video games. That means that when kids are building their conceptions of what heroes look like, they are almost never people with autism.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel at its new home on wired.com.

  • Good Weekend story: ‘Trips To Remember: Psychedelic drug use and bad trips’, June 2017

    A story for Good Weekend magazine, published in the June 3 issue. Excerpt below.

    Trips To Remember

    They call themselves “psychonauts” – people who use drugs like LSD to embark on journeys of self-discovery and creativity. But how wise is it to go on a trip after life has taken a bad turn?

    Good Weekend story by Andrew McMillen: 'Trips To Remember: Psychedelic drug use and self-improvement', June 2017

    A few days before Christmas last year, two friends and I planned to take LSD together. We set a date and location: 10am Saturday morning, in a comfortable home, with a sober friend to keep a wary eye on us. The three of us are fit, healthy men in our late 20s; we are university graduates now employed in our respective fields. We have stable relationships, strong senses of self and a shared interest in occasionally ingesting substances that we know will twist our perceptions of the world in strange and fascinating ways.

    It would be a trip to remember. In my mind, I had already started rehearsing the day. The tiny cardboard squares of “blotter acid” would be removed from the freezer, carefully cut with scissors and placed beneath our tongues. The chemicals on the cardboard would be gradually metabolised by our bodies, before the pieces were chewed up and swallowed.

    For eight to 12 hours, the shared experience would further solidify our friendships. The LSD’s visual effects would make the walls and ceiling seem to bend and swoon. Colours would become intensified. It would inhibit our need to eat and drink and impair our sense of time.

    In conversation, our minds would make unexpected leaps between subjects, drawing inferences and relations that we might not have ordinarily seen. These leaps might make little sense to our sober friend, but perfect sense to us. In quieter moments, we would query the order and routine of our lives. Were there efficiencies to be made, or changes necessary?

    We would also laugh a lot – no doubt about that – and we would hear our favourite songs with ears attuned to different frequencies.

    Just a few days before the scheduled Saturday, however, I experienced a major professional disappointment. A writing project to which I had devoted more than a year of work would not be published. My self-confidence was shaken to its core, and despite unerringly good advice and support from those closest to me, I entered a period of mourning wherein I found myself questioning everything, even the wisdom of taking drugs that had been helpful before.

    To read the full story, visit Good Weekend.

  • 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.

  • Good Weekend story: ‘Shock Tactics: Preventing trauma in Australian teenagers’, November 2016

    A feature story for Good Weekend, published in the November 19 issue. Excerpt below.

    Shock Tactics

    As Schoolies Week kicks off around the country, emergency specialists are using hard-core methods – graphic dashcam videos, horrific injury images, emergency-room simulations – to deter adolescents from risk-taking behaviour.

    Good Weekend story: 'Shock Tactics: Preventing trauma in Australian teenagers' by Brisbane freelance journalist Andrew McMillen, November 2016

    It looks like a classroom, but today there’ll be no maths, English or history. It is a Wednesday towards the end of 2016’s final term, and no ordinary school day. Today’s curriculum will be taken largely from life experience, and the lessons will revolve around confronting simulations of what these students’ lives might be like if they don’t think before they act.

    This group of about 30 year 10 students from St Peters Lutheran College, in the inner-west Brisbane suburb of Indooroopilly, has travelled across the city to the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH), at Herston in the inner-north. All aged 15 or thereabouts, the boys wear short-sleeved white shirts with maroon ties, grey shorts and black shoes, while the girls wear long white dresses with vertical maroon stripes. Just like in any average high-school classroom, the front row of seats is empty – other than two teachers overseeing the group – and the back row is mostly occupied by boys, who provide a constant stream of whispered wisecracks to one another.

    Today, the hospital is hosting what’s known as the PARTY Program. The acronym stands for Prevent Alcohol and Risk-Related Trauma in Youth. It’s a concept licensed from an initiative that began 30 years ago at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, Canada, and now operates out of 15 sites across Australia, including every state and territory besides the Northern Territory. PARTY began at the RBWH in 2010, and since then, 51 schools and more than 3000 students have participated in a day-long, intensive itinerary of hands-on activities and talks designed to open these bright young eyes to some of the difficult situations and decisions they’ll be exposed to as they edge from adolescence into young adulthood.

    “Some of the things that you see, hear, feel and smell today may give you some feelings you haven’t had before,” says statewide program coordinator Jodie Ross. “It’s quite normal that you might feel a bit off at points. If you feel a bit ill, or feel that you might faint, please let us know, and don’t run away to the toilet. We have had a young boy who fainted in there, and it was really hard to get him out.” At this, she is met with a few chuckles. “Today, we want you to learn from other peoples’ poor choices, because we want to see you come back here as doctors, nurses or allied health people – but definitely not as patients.”‘

    Ross has worked here as a nurse since 1996, and still puts in the occasional shift with the trauma team when needed, but coordinating this program at hospitals and schools across Queensland is her full-time job. Laidback in nature, the 41-year-old mother of two marries a warm presence with a wry sense of humour, yet some of what she has seen inside this building across two decades has informed her own parenting. “I have a 13-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl, and they already know they’re never allowed to ride a motorbike, or even think about getting on one,” she says with a laugh. “I think I’ve scared them off, which is great.”

    The morning’s first guest speaker is Danielle Brown, a paramedic who has been with the Queensland Ambulance Service for more than a decade. She wears dark green cover-alls, pink lipstick and bright red fingernails. “I’m here to tell you about consequences,” she says, as the screen behind her flicks onto an image of a car wrapped around a pole, surrounded by emergency services workers. “If you ever do find yourself in a situation with us, please just know that we’re not here to make things worse for you, or get you in trouble. We’re here to look after you.”

    When she asks whether any of the students have visited the emergency department, a few of the boys raise their hands; all sporting injuries, as it turns out. Brown talks about alcohol and drug use, and about assault injuries. “Aggression isn’t cool,” she tells the group before she leaves. “For those guys out there trying to impress girls, can I just tell you – we’re really after the gentlemen, the funny guys. There’s no point in trying to impress someone by being ‘tough’.”

    Ross moves onto discussing sexually transmitted infections, and the kids crack up at how she frames the lifelong consequences that can come from a few minutes of fun, such as having to tell every sexual partner from that point on, “I’ve got a bit of herpes – hope you don’t mind!”

    Although none of these students have their learners’ licences yet, she dwells on the topic of road safety for some time – which makes sense, since the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads is the program’s primary funding source: in August, it provided an additional $1.54 million to keep the statewide initiative topped up for another three years. During this part of the presentation, the screen shows dashcam footage from cars where teenage drivers were distracted by their phones. These videos are horrifying to watch: the drivers’ eyes remain in their laps, even as the car veers outside the painted lines and towards needless trauma.

    To read the full story, visit Good Weekend‘s website, where you can also see a short film by photographer Paul Harris that was recorded on the day we attended the P.A.R.T.Y. program. For more about the program, visit its website.