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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