The River Runs Dry

Photo of the Todd river bed at Alice Springs

I walked home from the public swimming pool, having swum my mandatory forty laps. Thinking-time in the pool helped wash away my nights on call, if only to refresh me for the next. The clay path skirted the Todd’s dry riverbed, where I knew many of my Aboriginal patients camped—not that they were visible, except for the flicker of a campfire at night. They’d told me the coarse sand stayed warm, and with a few blankets and some grog onboard, the cold was not so bad. I hadn’t yet ventured into the riverbed; I felt threatened by the camp dogs and my fear of snakes.

Living in Alice, I missed the sight of water. On all the maps, the Todd River appeared as a great blue serpent winding its way through town and between the ranges. The reality was an expanse of dusty beige sand, lined by stands of river red gums. It was merely a promise of water that could not be quenched.

On a stinking hot afternoon, I had no objections to working in the emergency department; at least the hospital was air- conditioned. I would follow up all the patients whom the junior doctors had called me about overnight—a local bitten by a snake (he only went out to collect his washing); some youths ejected at high speed from a car near Tennant Creek; a young mother assaulted with a star picket; a child with an infected dog bite to her hand.

I was in the office when one of the nurses, Dianne, thrust an ECG before me. The heart tracing was perilously slow and deranged. ‘Whose is this?’ I asked her.

‘It’s Bundy’s.’ Dianne motioned with her thumb to the resuscitation bay.

Bundy Morgan had been brought in from a different riverbed, a community some 500 kilometres away. I walked over

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Into the Swim (part 3)

This piece was published in slightly shorter form (titled ‘I can probably help’) in the book ‘Emergency: Real Stories from Australia’s ED doctors’, edited by Simon Judkins, Penguin 2015

Into the Swim (Part 3)

photo of Urquhart's bluff and beach victoria

A yellow rescue helicopter hovers menacingly just beyond the break. Its downdraft carves a white-fringed crater on the sea’s surface. A rescuer descends on a rope. Soon after a body rises, limp and curved over the sling of the rope. The chopper swings toward the beach, depositing them onto the sand. An ambulance arrives in the carpark. I watch the paramedics run to the body.

I start walking. I’m conscious of being in my swimsuit.

The paramedics are performing CPR. Someone asks me to move aside.

‘I’m an emergency doctor, I can probably help,’ I say.

A paramedic looks up. ‘Are you a doctor? Can you try tubing her?’ He waves the tube and motions for me to join them.

I’m on my knees in the wet sand, leaning over a woman younger than me. She’s clothed in jeans and a t-shirt that’s pulled down exposing her chest. She is cold and grey. Her eyes stare, pupils huge and cloudy. My impression is she’s dead.

I insert the airway tube and frothy pink water gushes out of her windpipe. She has no pulse. We strip off her wet clothes trying to let the sun warm her.

She was dragged out by the rip. The guy next to me saw it happen. He is a surfer and a nurse. He saw her jump off the rock platform after her son. He tried to rescue them, but she was unconscious. Her son was floundering. The nurse chose to rescue the son first because he was still conscious.

We try, but we can’t revive her.

A retrieval helicopter descends to land on the beach. Its downdraft sandblasts us. Two paramedics in navy jumpsuits emerge. I give them a brief run down. I have my doubts she’ll survive; it’s been too long and I think she had drowned before she was pulled from the water.

The paramedics continue CPR as she is carried to the helicopter. The engine powers up and in a moment the helicopter is airborne and away.

When I look up, I realise the beach is empty. No one approaches me. I go to the water’s edge to wash my hands in the sea.

It’s the lead story on the news that night. She didn’t survive. My heart bleeds for her young boy.

I return to the beach a week later. It’s been deserted, labelled treacherous. The people who know what happened feel the need to swim between the flags for a while.

I walk along the expanse of sand and imagine I see her face reflected in the sheen of water left by each wave. Although this is still my favourite place to run my dog and dig mermaid pools with my daughter, it has changed for me forever. I pay my respects both to her and the sea, leaving flowers on the sand.

The Eagle

Wedgetailed eagle flying 
She finds an eagle on a highway verge—a wedge-tailed eagle. It lies with its eyes open next to a stinking kangaroo carcass. It has been struck by a vehicle; must have been recent as every other predator and scavenger, including its own kind, haven’t yet discovered it. Such is life in the outback—cannibalism is an accepted form of survival.

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