All posts tagged the weekend australian magazine

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

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

    Dying Wish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Saving Face: Brenton Cadd’, October 2016

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Magazine, published in the October 22-23 issue. Excerpt below.

    Saving Face

    Need a new nose, eye or ear? Meet the ‘spare parts’ man changing lives

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'Saving Face: Brenton Cadd' by Andrew McMillen, October 2016. Photo by Julian Kingma

    In January 1970, a young man joined the facial prosthetics department at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. As an apprentice ­dental technician, Brenton Cadd, 17, began learning on the job how to fix people with ­disfigurement so that they might be freed of shame or embarrassment. His mentor in the four-man department was Cliff Wellington, a ­signwriter by trade who’d served in the army as a dental technician. He had a painter’s eye for detail, and in 1945 he’d transitioned into the nascent field of facial prosthetics. Returned servicemen missing ears, eyes and noses were in dire need of some form of camouflage to help them blend into a crowd. Through a peculiar mix of technical ability and artistry, Wellington was an Australian pioneer who passed onto his young charge his aptitude for working on small, intimate canvases.

    Today, a framed photo of a smiling Wellington sits prominently on a shelf near the door that leads into a workshop managed by Brenton Cadd. For 46 years he has devoted his life to a single workplace and this single task. Through the use of silicon, empathy, paint, patience, titanium, plaster and good humour, he is a leader in a highly ­specialised field that employs only a handful of people across the country. He is a quiet achiever whose work takes time, and whose time at the Royal Melbourne Hospital is much nearer its end than its beginning. What will happen after he sees his last patient is unclear, for what he does for them is nothing less than life-changing.

    You could pass Cadd in a crowd without a ­second glance. If you are a long-time fan of the Hawthorn Football Club, you are likely to have done just that at a home game. He does not invest too much time in his appearance and wears polo shirts with a breast pocket in which he keeps a small notebook he calls “the brain” . It helps him remember his many pressing tasks. He is bearded, with kindly blue eyes that have looked upon thousands of patients who, whether they are able to articulate it or not, are relying on him to co-create a new identity for lives riven by the trauma of looking different from everyone else.

    Here he is, on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-August, looking squarely at a patient whose left eye was removed due to cancer. Geelong retiree Pamela Flatt, 68, sits on a high-backed ­dentist’s chair while her husband and daughter perch nearby. Flatt’s left eye socket is now covered by a skin graft and her disguise is a pair of thick-framed spectacles, with the left eye coloured solid white. In the near future she will no longer have a use for these glasses as a transformation led by Cadd is slowly taking place. Around the edge of her eye socket, screwed into bone, are three abutments made of pure titanium. Soon, a silicon-based ­prosthesis will be clipped into place with magnets.

    Flatt is a grandmother of six and a great-grandmother of three. Since her nine-hour operation to remove the cancer over a year ago, she has hardly locked herself away from the public eye: in fact, she has just returned from a trip to Thailand with a girlfriend, where she rode on an elephant. “Why not?” she reasons. “Life’s too short.”

    Despite her positive outlook, the metal implants have drawn attention. “Kids are looking at me like I’m an alien or something: ‘That lady’s got funny things in her head!’ ” she says. “They weren’t bothered until I had those things put in.” Nerve damage means that she can’t feel the ­titanium plate behind her skin, nor Cadd’s hands as he uses a small torque screwdriver to tighten the abutments. He then covers her eye socket with two layers of a rubber-like material for making a cast and lets it set on her face for a couple of minutes. Just like having a wax job, she quips.

    While she sits still and silent, Flatt’s daughter steps in to take a snapshot for posterity. “Someone usually takes a photo,” Cadd says, smiling. With care, he removes the cast, which will later be used for a custom-made mould that fits the exact contours of her eye socket. He excuses himself to retrieve from next door a beautifully hand-crafted eye prosthesis for a younger woman, complete with thick lashes, a realistic brown eye and dark eyeliner. It’s a work of art. “That’s what we’re aiming for,” Cadd says. “But we’re still about five visits off something like that.”

    The appointment concludes after an hour, but before Flatt heads back to Geelong she turns to Cadd and jokes: “I can’t be a one-eyed Cats ­supporter then, can I?”

    To read the full story, visit The Australian. Above photo credit: Julian Kingma.

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

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

    Higher Calling

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

    twam_lachlan

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

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

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

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

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

    ++

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Roll On, Robot

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ++

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Different Strokes: Anthony Lister’, April 2016

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Magazine, published in the April 9-10 issue. Excerpt below.

    Different Strokes

    Renowned street artist Anthony Lister was paid to beautify public spaces – then he was arrested for it.The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'Different Strokes: Anthony Lister' by Andrew McMillen, April 2016

    One of Australia’s great modern artists traipses up and down the inner-city streets of his home town wearing a high-visibility yellow vest atop a white polo shirt and shorts. His tool today is not charcoal, paintbrush or aerosol can but an extendable claw that he uses to pick up rubbish from the footpaths and gutters of Spring Hill, Brisbane. On this gloomy Saturday morning in mid-February, Anthony Lister is ­performing community service because two weeks earlier a magistrate found him guilty of ­wilful damage by graffiti in a case brought by Brisbane City Council – which first encouraged Lister to paint its traffic signal boxes in 1999.

    The irony of this situation is not lost on a man who rejects the label “artist” in favour of “adventure painter”. Lister donated his time for that council initiative, painting 120 boxes in total. In the years that followed he was paid to paint more of them by the Department of Main Roads, earning him enough to set out on the path to international renown. Yet in an abrupt about-face several years ago, BCC endeavoured to make an example of the artist whose work they once encouraged. This morning, a man whose artistic ethos is to beautify degraded ­public spaces with paint is now tasked with beautifying them by picking up rubbish.

    A middle-aged Queensland Government worker meets the crew, comprising Lister and three fellow ­community servants, at a Corrective Services building on Little Edward Street at 9am and chaperones them on a winding route through the neighbourhood. Had the government worker typed Lister’s name into Google, he would have found recent news articles which note that ­Lister’s bold, provocative works hang in the homes of Hugh Jackman, Geoffrey Rush and the musician Pink. He would have seen that Lister’s individual paintings can sell for up to $20,000, that Art Collector magazine has listed him as one of Australia’s most collectable artists, that ­Complex named him among the most influential street artists of all time and that luxury brand Hermès gave over its window in Collins Street, Melbourne, to a Lister installation last year.

    As the community servants pass the Australian Federal Police headquarters and St Andrew’s War Memorial hospital, their black plastic bags grow heavier with each squashed aluminium can and discarded plastic bottle they snatch with their extendable claws. Lister, a boyish 36-year-old and father of three, smiles often and ­presents an air of playful charisma that infects those around him. He speaks quickly, at a near-manic pace. He is an idealist and an optimist who, in recent years, has taken it upon himself to act as a mouthpiece for street artists.

    Past Brisbane Grammar School and the ­bustling Roma Street railyards they walk, noting the dearth of tagged graffiti that once coloured the walls neighbouring the carriages and train lines; they are now painted a uniform grey. The group tramps past six signal boxes that Lister painted around the turn of the century. They have since been refreshed with other artists’ work, but he remembers them well. There are around 1000 of these throughout Brisbane, and after painting 120 of them for BCC for free, an agreement with the Department of Main Roads allowed Lister to charge $250 a piece for 40 of these paintings, earning him his first $10,000 as an artist and setting him on the path to financial independence.

    “He did a tremendous job with the signal boxes and should be commended for it,” says David Hinchliffe, Brisbane’s former deputy mayor, who first commissioned Lister’s work on the BCC boxes in 1999. “He should be given the keys to the city in my opinion.” All up, Lister left his mark and his surname on about 160 signal boxes, turning drab, utilitarian electrical cabinets into unique canvases that added colour and personality to the days of thousands of drivers idling at red lights throughout the city.

    In court, Lister admitted that he painted two Fortitude Valley walls, a Paddington skateboard park wall, a city firehose box and a steel garage door in Elizabeth Street. He says that of the five sites, two were painted with the permission of the buildings’ owners, while two were additions to other artists’ works. The charge that stuck related to one of Lister’s iconic faces, drawn on a firehose box in January 2014 in black Sharpie and tagged with his name. The police complaint and restitution reports for each of the five incidents, recorded between 2010 and 2014, show that none was deemed offensive. “If I’d been more criminally minded, maybe I wouldn’t have written my name on the wall,” Lister notes.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian. Above photo credit: Jonathan Camí.

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

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

    The Bone Collector

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Over Troubled Water: Suicide at Brisbane’s Story Bridge’, September 2015

    A story for the September 5 issue of The Weekend Australian Magazine. Excerpt below.

    Over Troubled Water

    The Story Bridge is a beautiful Brisbane landmark – but it’s also a site of untold misery

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Over Troubled Water: Suicide at Brisbane's Story Bridge' by Andrew McMillen, September 2015

    It was raining on the morning that Troy Aggett decided to end his life. Shirtless and ­shoeless, the 39-year-old drove from Logan, 25km south of Brisbane, to the Story Bridge, the city’s key visual icon linking the suburbs of Fortitude Valley and Kangaroo Point. He obeyed the speed limit and all traffic signals on the way there. “There was no urgency to what I was doing,” he says. “There was no rush.” He hadn’t slept the night before. It was March 22, 2012, a Thursday, when he parked near the bridge at around 6.30am and hastily wrote an apology note to a long-lost friend: “Sorry I couldn’t catch up.” Helpfully, he placed his driver’s licence inside the note, so that police could identify him.

    While the rain fell steadily, Aggett strolled up to the 1072m-long bridge, which is traversed by 30 million vehicles annually. Though scared of heights, he paused every now and then to look over the edge. When he found the highest point over a pathway in Captain Burke Park below, he stopped and checked out the drop: 30m onto a hard surface. He didn’t want to land in the ­Brisbane River, as people have been known to survive the watery impact. All that stood between his troubled life and his certain death that morning was a 138cm-high fence.

    Aggett had reached this point of despair after 19 months of sick leave from his job as an ­Australian Federal Police officer, where he had turned whistleblower against what he perceived to be a poisonous and corrupt culture, triggering a drawn-out court action which he ultimately won. He was near rock bottom, having lost everything he cared about. “It was just a private moment; I wasn’t trying to cause a scene, I wasn’t trying to get people involved,” he says. What he didn’t count on was that a passerby – an off-duty member of the Royal Australian Air Force – was quick enough to grab his arm as he swung over the barrier, locked elbows so that Aggett couldn’t drop, and began a conversation. Soon, two police officers were on the scene to hear his final wish: “Just bury me when I’m done. A pauper’s funeral; I don’t care. Just scrape me up nicely, and put me in a box. That’s enough.”

    This story has a happy ending. After three hours of negotiation – most of which took place while Aggett stood holding on to the outside of the railing with three fingers of his right hand, near-naked and shivering – he gave permission to be strapped into a bright red firefighter’s ­harness and brought back over the railing. Within moments he was covered with a fluorescent yellow raincoat to shield him from the cold. Spent from the exertion of holding himself in a precarious position all that time, he dropped to the bitumen. A policeman leaned down and pressed his head against Aggett’s, while nearby officers comforted him with pats on the back. A female officer lent over the barrier and gave the thumbs-up signal to paramedics who had gathered beneath a tree in the park below to shelter from the steady rainfall, stretcher at the ready. A fire engine with its cherry picker ladder extension that had been waiting out of sight, in the shadow of the Story Bridge, was no longer needed. Raincoat-clad police officers waiting nearby were at last able to breathe a sigh of relief.

    On that morning, some two dozen emergency services staff were focused solely on bringing Aggett back from the brink. His life was all that mattered. What’s remarkable about the scene, however, is that its final minutes were captured by a member of the public who happened to be filming from a high-rise apartment across the Brisbane River, on the outskirts of the CBD. A zoom lens framed the scene in extraordinary detail as the amateur director shakily panned to ensure that every emotion was writ in high definition. The care and compassion on display in the four-minute video is humbling. It was uploaded to YouTube on the day of the incident, tagged: “Australian trying to commit suicide”.

    Aggett found the footage around two years later. He has watched the video of this low moment in his life several times, enthralled and a little embarrassed. Today he’s 43, healthy, married, running his own flooring business, and able to speak frankly about that day on the bridge. “I keep an eye out for people who do jump: where they jumped, how many jumped, whether it was successful or not,” he says between sips of a cool drink at a Brisbane cafe, his wife by his side. “It’s just curiosity, I think. It’s hard to explain, but it feels like I’ve got a connection to these people now. I know what they’re going through, inside.”

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

    World Suicide Prevention Day coincided with RUOK? Day on September 10 2015; details at wspd.org.au. For help, contact: Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467, Lifeline 13 11 14, Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800, Headspace 1800 650 890, Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636, Survivors of Suicide Bereavement Support 1300 767 022.

  • Announcing ‘Penmanship’, my podcast about Australian writing culture, May 2015

    Logo for 'Penmanship', Andrew McMillen's podcast about Australian writing culture, launched in May 2015. Logo design by Stuart McMillenI’m proud to announce the launch of Penmanship, my podcast about Australian writing culture.

    Penmanship will feature interviews with Australians who earn a living from working with words: writers, editors and publishers, among others.

    Each episode consists of an in-depth, one-on-one conversation about the guest’s career, craft and inner life. The show’s goal is to provide unique insights into the creative process, mechanics and skills behind the best writing in the country. The podcast exists to explore the diversity and complexity of Australian storytelling by speaking directly with leading contributors to the field.

    The written description and embedded audio for the first episode are included below.

    Penmanship podcast episode 1: Trent Dalton, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2015Penmanship Episode 1: Trent Dalton

    Trent Dalton is a staff writer at The Weekend Australian Magazine.

    He’s one of the most influential journalists in my life, and I’m honoured that he’s my first guest on Penmanship.

    Trent’s writing moves and inspires me with shocking regularity. Judging by the volume of praise-filled letters to the editor published in The Weekend Australian Magazine following each of his stories, I’m not the only one.

    Our interview touches on Trent’s upbringing in Bracken Ridge, Brisbane; his early interest in magazine journalism; working at an auto-electrical parts supplier for a year after finishing high school; studying creative writing at university; his first writing job at Brisbane News on a salary of $26,000; his pre-interview tactic of looking in the bathroom mirror and reciting a mantra misquoted from Reservoir Dogs; and his transition to writing feature stories with great emotional depth.

    Previously, Trent was a staff writer at Qweekend and an assistant editor of The Courier-Mail. He has won a Walkley Award for excellence in journalism, been a three-time winner of the national News Awards Feature Journalist of the Year Award, and was named Queensland Journalist of the Year at the 2011 Clarion Awards for excellence in Queensland media. His journalism has twice been nominated for a United Nations of Australia Media Peace Award.

    Trent Dalton on Twitter: @TrentDalton

    Direct download          iTunes          libsyn

    Click here to read the show notes for this episode.

    To learn more about Penmanship, head over to its standalone website, and subscribe via iTunes or your preferred method of podcast consumption.

    The show’s logo and header image was designed and illustrated by Canberra-based cartoonist Stuart McMillen; click the below image for a closer look at the full desk scene.

    Desk scene logo for 'Penmanship', Andrew McMillen's podcast about Australian writing culture, launched in May 2015. Logo design by Stuart McMillen

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Tall Poppies: Tasmanian opiates’, March 2015

    A story for the March 7 issue of The Weekend Australian Magazine. Excerpt below.

    Tall Poppies

    It supplies up to half the world’s legal opiates, but Tasmania’s poppy industry sees danger ahead.

     The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'Tall Poppies: Tasmanian opiates' by Andrew McMillen, March 2015

    Perched in a corner of Keith Rice’s office, atop a cupboard and behind a bright yellow hard-hat, sits an old white sign that warns of grave peril.DANGER. Prohibited area. KEEP OUT. Trespassers ­prosecuted.

    In front of it, an updated version includes a skull-and-crossbones captioned POISON. In bold red text, the bottom of the new sign reads: ILLEGAL use of crop has caused DEATH. This recent shift in tense — “may cause” to “has caused” — came after three deaths from poppy misuse in the last three years here in Tasmania. Clearly, something had to change, beginning with the signage that borders roadside poppy crops.

    Rice, chief executive of Poppy Growers ­Tasmania, keeps glancing at the sign as we chat over coffee on a cool Launceston morning. A tall 66-year-old with tanned features and thinning white hair, he’s talking me through the complex web of politics, painkillers and, more recently, protectionism in which he has been involved for nearly 30 years.

    Above Rice’s desk hangs a wall calendar ­bearing a colour photograph of green countryside flanked by snowy mountaintops, as well as the name of Tasmanian Alkaloids, one of two pharmaceutical companies to have invested heavily in the poppy industry. It has been a big earner for the state, which grows up to 50 per cent of the planet’s legal ­opiates — from which morphine, codeine and thebaine can be extracted — that relieve the pain of humans throughout the world in the form of medicines such as OxyContin and Nurofen Plus. The warning signs are required by law to be displayed on all ­roadside paddocks to deter would-be drug experimenters from picking poppy heads and brewing the ill-gotten plants into a tea. “It’s a dangerous crop because you don’t know the alkaloid content,” says Rice. “Thebaine is like strychnine in your system.”

    Tasmania produces around 90 per cent of the world’s thebaine, which causes convulsions in humans at high doses. In the past two decades thebaine production has eclipsed the old fav­ourite, morphine. A more effective painkiller, ­thebaine is also much more dangerous, as two Danish backpackers found last February after stealing 40 poppy heads from a farm near ­Oatlands, in the centre of the state. The pair brewed the plant into a tea; one of the drinkers, a 26-year-old male, fell asleep and never awoke. In November 2012, morphine toxicity also killed a 17-year-old who stole five kilograms of poppy capsules from a farm at Lewisham, near Hobart, and consumed a poppy tea. In February 2011, a 50-year old man died in similar circumstances in the Launceston suburb of Ravenswood.

    Tasmania’s $100 million dollar poppy ­industry is hidden in plain sight: drive north from Hobart towards Launceston in the ­summer and rolling fields of white, pink and purple flowers dot the landscape. At its peak a few years ago, 30,000ha of poppies were planted in a season; that number is now closer to 20,000ha per year due to a dip in world demand following changes in US prescription policies arising from drug abuse.

    The pharmaceutical companies who pay farmers to grow their products have a long ­history on the island, but mainland state ­governments have been paying attention to the economic consistency of Tasmania’s poppy crop, too. Last September, then federal health minister Peter Dutton wrote to his state and ­territory counterparts asking them to revise a 43-year-old agreement that has restricted poppy production to the island. Soon after, legislation was passed in Victoria and the Northern ­Territory that allowed the narcotics to be grown under strict licensing conditions following small-scale commercial trials during the 2013-14 season.

    It’s a worrying development for Tasmanian farmers who for more than four decades had cornered a secure and lucrative market. The path of Tasmania’s poppy industry so far has been one of prosperity and productivity, with the occasional pothole when misuse of the crop has caused death, or when heavy rains have ruined crops or a mildew outbreak occurs, as it did last November. The great unknown is how big a pothole the mainland expansion will be in the state’s proud history of painkiller production.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘The Cottonwool Kid: Dean Clifford’, November 2013

    A story for The Weekend Australian Magazine – my first for that publication. This story originally appeared in the November 30 2013 issue of the magazine; the full text appears underneath.

    The Cottonwool Kid

    He’s an inspiration to his beloved Broncos; a motivational speaker; a weightlifter who keeps raising the bar. But it’s a miracle Dean Clifford is even alive.

    by Andrew McMillen / Photos by Eddie Safarik

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'The Cottonwool Kid: Dean Clifford' by Andrew McMillen, November 2013. Photo by Eddie Safarik

    Within metres of the halfway line, a Brisbane Broncos fan cheers from a plastic chair in the first row of Suncorp Stadium’s western grandstand. He isn’t a big man, but he might be stronger than any of the 31,199 people here this Sunday afternoon, including the 26 players on the paddock.

    Underneath his Broncos jersey, shoulders and biceps strain against too-tight skin. He shows his appreciation by nodding and clapping his bandaged right hand against his left shoulder, where the flesh is strong.

    This is the fan who motivated the Brisbane Broncos to win the 1992 grand final. He has watched more rugby league games in his 33 years than most people will witness in a lifetime but he hasn’t kicked a full-size football since he was a child. He last felt grass under his bare feet at the age of three.

    After the final siren, happy that his team has prevailed, he unlatches a gate and heads towards the team dressing rooms, shiny gold walking stick in hand. Nobody stops his slow, steady progress. A black-and-red cap hides a blotchy scalp where hair grows in random patches. His brown eyes, framed by fleshy circles frequently dampened by overactive tear ducts, appear sunken in the absence of eyelids. He can’t blink, so he seems to stare at the Broncos’ captain, Sam Thaiday, who gives him a quick wave and a thumbs-up while leading his team off the field.

    Taking up his usual spot against a wall in a warm-up room swarming with fans, reporters and television cameraman, he chats with security staff before he’s welcomed into the home team’s dressing room. A trio of giant younger Broncos stops in the doorway, glancing down to admire his improbably strong frame. One player asks him about his weightlifting training. “I’m aiming for next weekend – another record attempt,” he says. “Make sure you video it, mate,” replies another, impressed. Thaiday stops to greet him with a warm handshake and they share a joke about the game before the fan takes his leave.

    Ten minutes later, he arrives at Christ Church on nearby Chippendall Street, where the Sunday evening service is in session. Clad in a maroon polo shirt, Bill Hunter – a thin, handsome former policeman who is the Broncos’ team chaplain – is standing before 40 people of all ages who line the first few rows of pews. “I want to introduce a good friend of mine, Dean Clifford.” Applause echoes from the high ceiling as Dean makes his way down the aisle for an impromptu interview.

    “Dean, you were born with a very rare skin disease,” Hunter says. “Basically, your parents were told, ‘Take him home, let him die’, because you weren’t going to live past two.”

    “They were told, ‘Hope for the best’,” Dean replies, in a high, slightly nasal voice brought about by his lack of nostrils.

    “And how old are you now?” Hunter asks.

    “I’m 33 now,” he says, leaning against his gold walking stick, microphone in hand. “I’m in the best health of my life. I’m planning to be around for a long period to come.”

    It’s an unassuming, low-key sort of speech that the audience takes in while nodding and murmuring in admiration. He doesn’t mention the fact that, each morning, the blistered and ulcerated skin that covers his feet, knees, elbows, shoulders and hands requires four hours of scrupulous care and attention; that he has to get up at 4.30am just to make a 9am meeting. To Dean, this morning ritual of bathing and bandaging is an accepted fact of life.

    “He’s also a guy who can bench-press 142-and-a-half kilograms,” says Hunter, to a few gasps and exclamations from the audience. “And how heavy are you, Dean?”

    “I’ve just turned 70 kilos,” he replies.

    “So what percentage of your body weight is that?”

    “You’re looking at about 203 per cent of my body weight,” he smiles, waiting a beat for the crowd murmur to die down. “Next week, I’ll be aiming for a new record of 145 kilos.”

    ++

    “He was born perfect,” says Jenny Clifford, 58. “Then, 12 hours later, he started getting a little blister on his bottom.” This blemish spread to the size of an egg yolk; another appeared on the opposite cheek. After three days he was put in isolation; the medical staff were mystified at what was happening to his skin. The doctor who’d delivered Dean visited two days later and gave Jenny some bad news: he suspected epidermolysis bullosa (EB), a condition he’d only seen once before, when training in England. That child had lived for 10 days.

    Children with EB are colloquially known as “cotton wool babies” because of the need to wrap their bodies in bandages lest the slightest pressure or contact tear off layers of skin. Dr Dedee Murrell, professor of dermatology at the University of NSW’s Faculty of Medicine, describes EB as “a genetic condition where some of the glue holding your skin together is missing”. There are at least 18 variations of the condition. Dean’s type, junctional EB, is severe and rare – only an estimated 1000 Australians live with the condition today – and life expectancies are short. With junctional EB, most patients die of infection before they’re a year old, says Murrell. How, then, did this boy survive? “He got very good care,” she replies.

    Inside the front door of Peter and Jenny Clifford’s home in Albany Creek, northwest of Brisbane, is a sign listing 14 house rules. Among them: Love each other; Be happy every day; Be positive; Be grateful; Never give up. Their first child, Jodie, was unaffected by EB. Only when Dean was born did Peter and Jenny learn that they both carry the gene; their chance of producing a child with EB is one in four.

    The pain that dominated Dean’s childhood has lessened, but it is not forgotten. “When I was younger I had no skin at all on my face; it affected my entire face, including my nose and eyes,” he says. “When it all started to heal back, the flesh closed over my nostrils when I was two or so. I don’t remember ever having nostrils or breathing through my nose.”

    It was a terrifying time for the whole family. “We wanted to go home and hide, and live our life as best we could with the situation that we had,” says Jenny. “When you’ve got a long-term, chronic illness, you get to a point where it’s about quality of life, not quantity.”

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'The Cottonwool Kid: Dean Clifford' by Andrew McMillen, November 2013. Dean is pictured with parents Peter and Jenny in this photo by Eddie SafarikThe Cliffords, who spent those early years in the Queensland rural town Kingaroy, made a big deal out of each birthday because they never knew whether it would be his last. They never expected their son to get to school, but were astounded by the support he received when he did. “Who’d like to be Dean’s friend?” asked the preschool teacher; all of his classmates raised their hands.

    A constant refrain on Dean’s school report cards was that he could have done a lot better. It wasn’t merely the time he missed; a kind of fatalism set in. “In high school, in particular, I was struggling for the motivation to put in the effort,” he recalls. His friends in Year Nine would worry about impending deadlines. “I’d say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got an operation next month, and if I don’t recover, you’ll get the day off school!’?” His friends would look at him in horror while he laughed at his own dark joke.

    Thin, frail and wheelchair-bound, during his adolescence Dean was only ever a slight breeze away from death. His open wounds, blood loss and moisture loss left him malnourished and by 14 he was being fed through a tube. Illness began to distance him from his peers. “I’d go to school and hear about people sneaking out to parties at night, or having sleepovers, and I’d still have to be at home to be connected to the tube feeding into my stomach while I slept because I was so malnourished. Mentally, that side of it irritated me more than the disease, the fact that everybody was going out, starting to have girlfriends, getting their learner’s licences. I was still stuck at home, still incredibly sick, and still basically continuing to hang on to life rather than experience all the things that everyone was talking about … I was on the outside, looking in.”

    Yet that awareness of mortality was also strangely liberating. “I finished school at grade 10 because I didn’t expect to be alive for my 18th,” he says. By the age of 15, he jokes, he was already 10 years past his use-by date.

    In 1995, he began work experience at a local radio station, 1071 AM, and initially only had the stamina to work one morning per week. The station owner, Marc Peters, says he’s “absolutely glad” he took the chance on employing Dean, who eventually became a popular breakfast radio announcer. “I think it turned his life around,” Peters says. “It gave him confidence; it made him part of the community.”

    A change in station ownership in 2000 meant that all staff were made redundant. The Cliffords, high on the confidence-boosting radio gig and the thrill of Dean carrying the Olympic torch through Kingaroy, decided to chance a move to Brisbane in 2001. It didn’t work out; no employer would take on a young bloke who looked like a burns victim, regardless of his skills and experience. The trio returned to Kingaroy at the end of 2001. Dean, dejected, resigned himself to a life of limited means and experiences. “It was a devastating year for me,” he says. “I was just blown away by how obvious it was I’d achieved so much, yet in Brisbane I was still the little kid who everyone was scared to be around.”

    “He was quite crushed when I first met him,” says Corinne Young, who became Dean’s disability employment worker after his return. When he was knocked back without reason for a public service job in Kingaroy, Young became determined to find him work. “I didn’t sleep that night,” she says. “I thought to myself, ‘Who in Kingaroy deserves Dean?’?” The next morning she drove to the local Toyota dealership, owned by Ken Mills. It wasn’t a hard sell: aware of Dean’s warm persona on radio, Mills created a part-time marketing role for him that endures today, 11 years later. In 2005, he became a brand ambassador for Toyota Australia and that same year he became an ambassador for his favourite sports team, too.

    Marc Peters set those wheels in motion back in 1989, when Dean was nine. “I was told that he’d give anything to be able to go to a Broncos match,” Peters says. “I knew someone who had a connection; he went down to a training session and they virtually adopted him from that day on.” Former Broncos coach Wayne Bennett remembers Dean as “the guy we won the 1992 grand final for”; the then 12-year-old was thought to be close to death. Second-rower Andrew Gee – Dean’s favourite player of all time, still with the Broncos as general manager of football operations – recalls the young boy sitting next to the trophy on the plane home.

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'The Cottonwool Kid: Dean Clifford' by Andrew McMillen, November 2013. Dean is pictured with Brad Thorn in this photo by Bruce LongIt was then-Bronco Brad Thorn who saw the potential for Dean to build his upper body strength and devised an exercise program for him that began with three sets of 10 bench-presses at 30kg. That was in 2006. Thorn has been blown away by the progress Dean has made since then: in the mid 1990s only the strongest Broncos players could bench-press 140kg. “It’s given him so many things,” Thorn says. “You imagine the frustration with his condition as a young man. When he works in the gym he can let out that emotion. He’s got the condition, but there’s still a man in there.”

    Despite his achievements so far, Dean isn’t satisfied. When we meet he’s following a strict training regimen with his sights set on bench-pressing 145kg. As his parents speak fondly of their only son from their couch, Dean is downstairs in his personal gym where his training partner, Greg Weller, 32, stands behind the bench-press. “When you’re ready, Deano,” Weller says calmly. “Let’s do this, man.”

    Two video cameras capture him sitting on the edge of the bench, breathing heavily as he psyches himself up. He lifts 145kg up and out of its resting position. He guides the weight down to his chest and begins to thrust it skyward. “Drive it, drive it, drive it! C’mon man, push it!” urges Weller, but the pressure is too great. After a stifled “Nup!” Weller helps to return the bar to its starting position. Clifford lets out a roar of defeat. Sweat pours from his body. He rips off a glove and tosses it across the room. “So close, hey,” says Weller.

    Dean reviews the video footage frame-by-frame until he pinpoints the moment of failure. That word hasn’t existed in his vocabulary for quite some time; it’s been two years since he has failed to meet a weightlifting goal. Talk between Dean and Weller quickly turns to rebuilding his confidence at around the 140kg mark before rescheduling his next record attempt.

    From chronically ill cotton-wool baby to seasoned strongman, it’s difficult to imagine a more unlikely weightlifter.

    ++

    “What does raising the bar mean to you?” asks Dean, standing before an audience of staff from a Sydney pharmaceutical company. His left hand grasps his walking stick; his right hand holds a wireless device as he clicks through confronting photos from his childhood. “To me, ‘raising the bar’ would have to be my three favourite words,” he says. “I get chills just thinking about it: how I can take on the next challenge, how I can overcome the next obstacle.”

    Since he first stood before a small crowd at the Kingaroy Rotary Club in 2003 and began telling his story, with the encouragement of Ken Mills and Corinne Young, Dean has built a healthy career from motivational speaking. His portfolio is filled with letters of praise from clients as diverse as Harley-Davidson, Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School, Qantas and the Australian Federal Police. Today at Link Healthcare he presents the challenges of his early life in characteristic matter-of-fact style. A couple of women click their tongues simultaneously in surprise at the sight of a close-up photograph showing Dean at his worst: a red, raw, skinless face fills the screen.

    Watching him, an earlier conversation comes to mind. His motivational speaking came about after those bruising setbacks in Brisbane in 2001. “I hated the thought of someone else feeling as defeated and as trapped as me,” he says. “No one was prepared to give me a chance. One person said I couldn’t work at the front counter because people would be scared of me; they told me I’d have to work in the back rooms, out of sight. I’ve proved that’s not the case. I’ve stood before 5000 people, speaking; I haven’t hid behind curtains or out of sight. I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve survived.”

    “There’s a bit of shock and awe when people first see Dean,” says former Broncos front-rower Shane Webcke, who befriended him in the early 1990s. “I think people automatically think he’s a burns victim.” Dean’s father, Peter, was always troubled by strangers staring at his son in public. “A few years ago we stopped at a McDonald’s in Rockhampton,” he says. “Dean was walking in and this little kid came running out, yelling to his mother, ‘Mum, there’s a scary man!’?”

    Dean tends to laugh off these interactions. “It’s normal for me,” he says. “It’s so second-nature that I don’t pick up on it a lot of the time, unless it’s over-the-top aggressive. When we’re out at a pub or a nightclub, my friends and I will turn it into a joke: ‘It takes a lot to look this good – these are designer clothes!’?”

    But he does get lonely on occasion. “I don’t have a lot of friends, but those that I do are almost like family to me. They’re very close and important people in my life.” He hasn’t had a girlfriend, though there were a couple of female friendships that came close. “Dating is incredibly hard,” he says, slightly pained. “It’s more about building strong friendships, and if anything develops out of that – great! I do hope that one day, it will.”

    Near the end of his talk to the pharmaceutical company, Dean plays the two-minute video of his 142.5kg lift. The staff crane forward as the man in the video breathes heavily, beats his chest four times with his right fist and then lies down on the bench, bandaged hands grasping the steel. Thirty pairs of eyes watch the seconds tick down to the moment when he raises the bar from the rack, guides the weight steadily down to his chest, and then thrusts it skyward. While the staff applaud his effort, Dean can’t help thinking how much more impressive it’d be if he could lift those extra 2.5kg.

    ++

    Postscript: Dean achieved his bench-press goal of 145kg on November 17. He’s already talking about 150kg.

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'The Cottonwool Kid: Dean Clifford' by Andrew McMillen, November 2013

    For more on Dean Clifford, visit his website.