All posts tagged story

  • 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 A writing project to which I had devoted more than a year of work would not be published.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.

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

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

    The Other Worlds Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • 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.”

     

  • The Weekend Australian Review story: ‘In From The Cold: Vivica Genaux’, April 2016

    A story for The Weekend Australian Review, which appeared on the cover of the April 2-3 issue. Excerpt below.

    In From The Cold

    Vivica Genaux: from an Alaskan log cabin to the world stage

    ++

    The Weekend Australian Review cover story: 'In From The Cold: Vivica Genaux' by Andrew McMillen, April 2016For a girl raised in Alaska, traditional gender stereotypes tended to be trumped by practicality. Jewellery, make-up and flashy clothing are much less important than staying warm or, say, learning how to quickly change a car tyre during a nine-month winter. It’s a harsh environment that demands self-reliance and resilience from its inhabitants. So it was for Vivica Genaux, one of the world’s leading mezzosopranos, who spent her first 17 years living in a log cabin in a valley outside the town of Fairbanks.

    Today home to a metro population of 97,000, Fairbanks is commonly known as America’s coldest city, where temperatures sometimes drop below minus 50C. “Growing up in Alaska, you had to be useful and functional, more than masculine or feminine,” she says. “You had to be strong and capable of confronting difficult environmental situations.” Old habits die hard: despite a successful and acclaimed career in the performing arts, Genaux still prides herself on an ability to solve problems and fix things — “Duct tape is a big thing in Alaska!” — and carrying a Swiss Army knife everywhere, just in case. Except when carrying luggage on to an aircraft, of course.

    Her home-town climate meant the young girl had to become comfortable with spending most of her time indoors, encased within the warmth of four walls. Genaux was drawn to artistic expression from a young age: she experimented with dance, pottery, stained glass-making, ballet, orchestra and jazz choir. Big band practice was scheduled before school. While some of her friends missed class for days on end due to being snowed in, Genaux’s mother taught high-school English and foreign languages, so absenteeism was never an option. “My mum had to be at school at 7am anyway, so I might as well do something,” she recalls with a laugh. “I’d get up at six o’clock, and there was Orion — which has always been my favourite constellation — smack-dab in front of me as I walked out into the 40-below.”

    One art form that didn’t take with the young performer was opera. She was no stranger to classical music; she played violin for nine years in the school orchestra, and her father — a biochemistry professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks — would listen to symphonies as he graded papers. Opera was where she drew the line, though: Genaux’s vacuuming duties not-so-coincidentally overlapped with her mother tuning into Met Opera broadcasts. “I hated it!” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t know anything about opera. I always completely avoided it when I was growing up. But when I started singing, I learned that it was so much fun as a form of expression. I just loved it. There was an opportunity for expressing anything, and as a nervous, timid, shy girl, I found that I could really get my guts into it.”

    Call it fate or fortune but the music worked its way into Genaux’s heart, and this happy pairing has been humanity’s gain. She studied at Indiana University, where she received a bachelors degree in vocal performance, before spending five summers in Italy with the Ezio Pinza Council for American Singers of Opera. Her career as a recording and performing artist began at age 24, and more than two decades later, this voice from the cold has built an extraordinary repertoire of baroque and bel canto music. She has inspired words such as these from The New York Times in 2006: “Her voice is as striking as her looks: less striking, even, for the light, free upper notes or rich chocolatey lower ones than for the runs of coloratura that she releases with jackhammer speed, gunfire precision and the limpid continuity of spring raindrops.”

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

  • 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.

  • Qweekend story: ‘View To A Kill: Brisbane tree vandalism’, June 2015

    A story for the June 20-21 issue of Qweekend magazine. Excerpt below.

    View To A Kill

    The poisoning of five trees in a Brisbane suburb is symptomatic of a wider problem of property outlooks trumping nature, but are councils’ reactions justified?

    Qweekend story: 'View To A Kill: Brisbane tree vandalism' by Andrew McMillen, June 2015. Photograph by Russell Shakespeare

    On a windy Friday, Andrew Stovell stares skyward, sizing up an eye-catching addition to a collection of tall trees in the inner-north Brisbane suburb of Ascot. What he sees is part art installation, part social experiment, yet its message is difficult to misinterpret. Stretched between two dead trunks is a large blue banner whose bold type reads: Tree vandalism is a serious offence.

    In sum, five trees of the Eucalyptus and Corymbia genera that stood beside the busy thoroughfare of Crosby Road were poisoned last year: two tallowwoods planted on the traffic island that divides the road, and three bloodwoods that neighbour a small park area, including a public barbecue and picnic table. From a certain angle high above Crosby Rd, the gap in the foliage offers impressive views of the city. It all adds up to a suburban whodunnit in which the culprit or culprits have not been charged, for lack of evidence.

    Stovell, 49, is a tall, affable arborist of 20 years’ experience who owns Redlands Tree Service. He is quietened by the sight of the dead trees, and by the strong measures Brisbane City Council has taken to address the matter. In addition to the bold blue banner and nearby corflute signage informing passers-by that the incident is being investigated, dozens of metre-wide shadecloth drapes have been affixed to the trees’ thick upper limbs.

    “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” says Stovell, looking up. “I understand what they’re trying to do: ‘Okay, you didn’t have a view beforehand. You’re still not going to have a view, and you shouldn’t have poisoned the trees’.”

    While poking around in the long grass at the base of the three trees by the footpath that runs parallel to Crosby Rd, Stovell uncovers ten fallen limbs, each around a metre in length, which are weighty enough to have potentially caused injury. Walking underneath the structure feels risky and somewhat foolish on this windy afternoon, as the banner and shadecloths contort in the breeze. When a mother pushing a pram on the footpath alongside her young son sees Stovell studying the scene, dressed in jeans, a blue polo shirt and work boots, she stops and calls down to him, worried: “Is it safe to walk past here now?”

    Archival photographs taken by Google’s Street View car from 2007 onwards show the towering trees with healthy canopies providing shade to the footpath and nearby park area. The most recent Google image, from October 2013, is in stark contrast to what happened here in April 2014, when residents noticed that the five healthy, mature trees had mysteriously become ill overnight thanks to a generous application of agricultural poison.

    Brisbane City Council officers undertook a letterbox drop and also doorknocked nearby residents in an effort to gather information about who might have been responsible for the poisoning but, without conclusive evidence, they were unable to enforce fines of up to $55,000 per vandalised tree.

    David McLachlan is the councillor in Hamilton Ward, and it was on his watch that the shadecloth drapes and signage were installed in late January this year. While sitting at the park table in the shadow of the deadwood on a mild Wednesday morning, he says the council spent $14,000 on the installation, which was carried out by a contractor, Enspec. On advice from Enspec’s arborists, the trees and their attachments are to stay in place for two years, until the poison has leached from the soil.

    The community response has been largely supportive of his actions. “We’ve had brickbats and bouquets; it’s probably running at 20 per cent to 80 per cent,” says McLachlan. “It makes me cross, angry and sad that people want to do this, but when it comes to improving property values, people lose sight of the broader community in which they live. The alternative was to leave the trees bare, and for people to continually ask, ‘What’s happened here? Why aren’t you doing something about it?’ Or to remove the trees, which would be the ultimate [act of] tapping the mat.”

    Qweekend story: 'View To A Kill: Brisbane tree vandalism' by Andrew McMillen, June 2015. Photograph of Steven Mann by Russell Shakespeare

    To read the full story, visit The Courier-Mail. Photography by Russell Shakespeare.

  • Qweekend story: ‘The Player: John Collins and The Triffid’, November 2014

    A story for the November 1-2 issue of Qweekend magazine. The full story appears below.

    The Player

    Making it as a muso is a hard act to follow, but ex-Powderfinger bassist John Collins is rolling the dice with his new gig in venue management.

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David Kelly

    by Andrew McMillen / Photography by David Kelly

    ++

    For now, the only music heard in this room comes from a dust-coated radio audible in intermittent bursts between a dissonant symphony of hammering, grinding and sawing. Shortly, though, this formerly vacant hangar in Newstead, in Brisbane’s inner-north, will come alive with the sounds of live music. On this midweek morning in early October, John “JC” Collins wears a blue hard hat and bright yellow high-visibility vest atop a black dress shirt and blue jeans. Transforming this building from a forgotten shell into what Collins hopes will become a shining light in Brisbane’s sparkling live music scene has occupied much of the past two years of his life.

    Thick, black electrical cables snake down from the curved ceiling. At the far end of the hangar, a hip-high raised stage sits at the foot of a brick wall painted bright green. Its sizeable main hall and mezzanine will accommodate up to 800 guests. It will be the first significant venue to open in the inner city since West End’s 1200 capacity Hi-Fi debuted in 2009.

    Outside, in the beer garden, a temporary worksite office is stacked atop shipping containers that will function as bars and a kitchen. In the adjacent “band garden”, green astroturf leads through to a stage door being painted grey. As Collins tours the construction site while consulting with a squad of architects, acoustic engineers and insulation specialists, The Triffid’s distinctive look and feel is slowly taking shape all around him. What began as an aspiration is very nearly a live, loud reality.

    From the mezzanine vantage point, the team of hard-hats inspects the original rainwater-tank roof. It’s been kept intact, but perforated with thousands of finger-sized holes and stacked with several layers of insulation in order to absorb the venue’s maximum volume of 110 decibels – and, hopefully, to stop future nearby residents from complaining about the noise. The former industrial hub of Newstead is on the cusp of a property boom set to rival neighbouring Teneriffe and New Farm; across from the venue, five residential towers comprising 900 apartments will soon sprout.

    Tapping the 60-year-old ribbed roof, lead architect Mick Hellen says with a smile: “This was JC’s bright idea, but it’s the worst possible shape for a music venue.” Collins laughs, and shoots back: “It’s still better than a square box, though. Hey, it worked for The Beatles at the Cavern Club,” he says, referring to the Liverpool venue where Beatlemania was born. Who knows what The Triffid will mean in time to emerging Brisbane acts?

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David Kelly

    ++

    When The Triffid opens its steel doors next Saturday, it will be almost four years to the day since the former Powderfinger bassist joined his bandmates for their final public performance at Brisbane Riverstage. The intervening years have not been particularly relaxing for Collins, 44, a restless soul who searched high and low for a project in which to invest his energy. After a two-decade career in which his identity was synonymous with four fellow musicians united under what became a household name, Collins initially struggled to find his own way.

    In the two years following the band’s November 2010 finale, Collins hired a desk at a friend’s business in inner-north Bowen Hills with the intention of giving his days structure and purpose, and separating his work aspirations from his home life at Morningside, in the city’s east. There were protracted investigations into business ventures in race cars and printing companies, as well as extended travels with his wife of 14 years, Tara, and their children, 10-year-old twins Grace and Rosie and Scarlett, 7.

    Eventually, he threw his weight behind the idea of a live music venue and after months of location scouting in the surrounding suburbs, he found the empty hangar on Stratton Street. Collins met with its owner in February 2013 and spent almost a year working through proposals, budgets and designs. “It was a tough year, because I felt like we had a good idea between us,” he says now. “I felt really strongly about it; I hadn’t felt this strongly since the ‘Fingers started. It was a gut feeling.”

    Born in Murgon, 250km north-west of Brisbane, on April 27, 1970, Collins grew up in the town of Kerry near Beaudesert, 85km south of the capital. While attending boarding school at Brisbane Grammar in inner-city Spring Hill, he met fellow boarder Steven Bishop, with whom he shared a love for music. The pair began playing with another student, Ian Haug, after the budding guitarist noticed Collins wearing a handmade shirt that advertised Sydney band Sunnyboys. The trio formed the first iteration of Powderfinger in late 1988, and while Bishop vacated the drum kit in 1991, the three men occasionally play together in a band called the Predators, whose debut EP, Pick Up The Pace, was released in 2006.

    “Powderfinger was an awesome thing. I loved it,” says Collins. “I don’t expect it to ever happen again with music, but I’ve always wanted to do something else. That was part of the decision to stop [in 2010], because if we’d stopped in our fifties, things would have been tougher; we worked through half our working lives.” In the intervening four years, singer Bernard Fanning and guitarist Darren Middleton have proceeded with solo careers, drummer Jon Coghill has pursued a career in journalism, and Haug has been recording at his home studio and joined Australian rock institution The Church. “It’s taken me three years to get that next act going,” says Collins.

    ++

    Its name is rooted in both literary and musical references; not just John Wyndham’s 1951 science fiction novel The Day of the Triffids, but more appropriately, the Triffids were a seminal Australian band based in Perth during the 1980s. “A few people have said to me, ‘Why didn’t you call it The Hangar?’” says Collins, who is one of several partners in the venture. “But that sounds more like a beer barn to me. I wanted to make sure people understood it’s a creative space, not just a place to come and skol piss. If you’re in a band, and you ask ‘Where are we playing?’ and the manager says ‘There’s this new venue in Brisbane called ‘The Triffid’, automatically you’re more inclined to think, well, okay, they must be at least a bit creative…”

    Beside the bar on the mezzanine level is an office that overlooks the lobby through glass salvaged from Powderfinger’s rehearsal space in Albion, in the city’s inner north, which was flooded a few years ago. To complete the fit-out, Collins is in the process of sourcing historic gig posters that will illustrate Brisbane’s rich musical heritage. The venue will fill a gap between The Zoo (capacity 500) and The Tivoli (1500) in Fortitude Valley, as well as The Hi-Fi on the other side of the river. “We definitely didn’t want to come in and tread on anyone’s toes,” says Collins. “Places like The Zoo, The Hi-Fi and The Tivoli are really important. We want to make the pie bigger, not take somebody’s slice.”

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David KellyAs we walk downstairs, I ask Collins what’s at stake here. “My reputation,” he replies. “And a bit of money. I’ve willingly put my name and my hand up to back this project. If it doesn’t work, my partners can walk and do another one, whereas I’ll go down with the ship. Obviously I’ve put a lot of time, energy and passion in, and I’d like it to work financially, too.”

    Haug is confident his friend and bandmate has bet on the right horse, as it were. “We’ve played so many venues around the world; he knows how to do it, so the musicians will be happy with how it’s all set out,” says Haug of Collins. “He’s surrounded himself with the best people to do sound and lighting. He didn’t think it was going to be easy, but he probably didn’t realise it would be this hard to build it from the ground up.”

    With a laugh, Haug adds: “He’ll be glad when it’s open, that’s for sure.”

    The Triffid opens on Saturday, 8 November with a line-up that includes Saskwatch, The Creases and MT Warning. thetriffid.com.au

  • Good Weekend story: ‘The Whistleblowers: Australian football referees’, July 2014

    A feature for Good Weekend, the colour magazine published with the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age each Saturday. This is my first story for the magazine. Excerpt below.

    The Whistleblowers

    Good Weekend story: 'The Whistleblowers: Australian football referees', by Andrew McMillen, July 2014

    Who’d want to be a referee – the man everybody loves to hate? Andrew McMillen talks to those prepared to make the tough calls.

    ++

    North Queensland Cowboys co-captain Johnathan Thurston has had enough. It’s an hour into a rugby league game at Sydney’s Parramatta Stadium one Friday evening in June and Thurston’s team is menacing Parramatta’s defensive line when they make a mistake, which prompts tall, muscular referee Ben Cummins to blow his whistle in favour of the home side. Thurston explodes. His team is down six points to 18 before a stridently partisan crowd of 10,142 seething Eels supporters. Beneath his trademark white headgear, the Cowboys captain is viciously mouthing off at the official. He, too, has had enough, and raises both hands skyward as a signal to stop the clock.

    “Okay, Johnathan,” begins Cummins, in a measured tone not dissimilar to a headmaster disciplining an unruly pupil. He states his reason for the stoppage: “It’s the way you’re talking.” Thurston is furious. He’s not listening. His ears are shut but his mouth continues firing. The crowd responds to this conflict between match official and enemy captain by jeering enthusiastically; their team is winning and Thurston is losing his head. The ref has heard enough.

    “Johnathan, I’m talking here,” Cummins says. “It’s the way you’re talking to me. Talk like that again and I’ll penalise you.” Having poured cold water on Thurston’s fire, Cummins blows his whistle and the game continues.

    In the tunnel between team dressing rooms prior to kick-off, it was a different story. Cummins met Thurston and Eels captain Jarryd Hayne for the ritual coin toss. The trio traded easy smiles and handshakes. After the referee introduced me to Thurston, I asked the Cowboys captain whether he’s a Ben Cummins fan. His reply came with a laugh: “I’m a referee fan, mate!”

    Prior to the Parramatta game, I meet former NRL official Tim Mander at his office in Everton Park, in Brisbane’s inner-north. Mander, 52, called time on his on-field role in 2005, then worked part-time as a video referee for another six years. He is now the Member for Everton and Queensland’s Minister for Housing and Public Works. A framed photograph of a referee sin-binning Queensland league legend Wally Lewis is mounted on his wall.

    “I was involved with first-grade football for more than 20 years,” says Mander. “Every year, the same story would break, that the referees were ‘in crisis’. [The National Rugby League] has done everything you could possibly do to improve refereeing standards.” He counts them off on his fingers: they became full-time professionals, they adopted two referees per match, and they introduced the video replay system, among other changes. “What else can they possibly do?” he asks. “They can’t do anything else. The issue is that, unfortunately, the selection of referees is contained to people of the human race.”

    Few of us hold jobs in which our momentary lapses in concentration take place before televised audiences numbering into the millions. A mistake made by a referee can shift a sporting world on its axis; a decision to award a penalty or not in the final moments of a tight contest can end careers – of players, coaches and staff. It takes a certain kind of mind to embrace this role with confidence.

    As kick-off approaches at Parramatta Stadium, Cummins – a primary school physical education teacher who enjoys any chance to return to the classroom should his schedule permit – changes into his pink uniform and weighs himself. He’s 89 kilograms, but will drop two kilos in the ensuing 80 minutes. Every top-level sports official is a picture of health; NRL referees run nine kilometres each match, on average, while their AFL counterparts run 12.

    At the age of 40, Cummins looks strong and fit enough to be running with either team tonight, as does his slightly shorter assistant, Gavin Reynolds. The referees’ dressing room is a cosy four-by-five-metre box that contains an adjoining room with showers and a massage table. The jocular mood in the room belies the seriousness of the role; after all, there is security posted outside the door, and they’ll be accompanied to their cars at night’s end.

    “It’s a requirement that we’re escorted back to our cars,” says Cummins. “Generally, nothing happens. There are some games where the crowd gets quite heated, and you make sure you have security. If you give the game 30 to 60 minutes, most people have headed off by then. Most people take out their frustrations on forums or social media these days.”

    To read the full story, visit the Sydney Morning Herald.