Heart Broken

The last time I wrote about a photograph of my husband was December 10, 2019. I was worried about the impact of the fires and the smoke on his health and angry at Scott Morrison for saying that the volunteers wanted to be there. Here’s a link for those that missed it.

No Scott Morrison my husband does NOT want to be fighting fires

As a consequence of that post, Graham and I both ended up on The Project. Here’s the link to that:

The Project: In my own words – Meg McGowan

We said no to all the other media requests. We nearly said no to The Project but we had been overwhelmed by the messages of support, particularly from other fire fighters and their families. “You have put into words what we have been feeling!” they said, so we felt like we owed it to all of them. A few weeks later and we are back to being happily anonymous.

On Thursday my husband posted this photo with the caption “How good is coal?”

He was trying to make me laugh, parodying our consistently disappointing Prime Minister and the all purpose catchphrase he is inclined to use at every opportunity. “How good is Australia?” “How good is the cricket?”  This is my husband out on the fire line, knowing that I am at home being worried for him and trying to reassure me.

How good is coal?









The day this photo was taken, Graham was out fighting fires at an old coal mining site. He told me that there were lumps of coal all over the place, just laying about on the ground. He thought it would be funny to make a comment about the time our Prime Minister carried a lump of coal into parliament, extolling the virtues of it as an energy source.

I had a chuckle and then looked at the larger version of the photo he posted to his page. Here it is:


Suddenly all I could see was the smoke and the soot. How is that paper face mask supposed to be protection against anything? I know it’s become something of a soap box for me but there’s a reason for that. Two days after this photo was taken, Graham was once again out with a fire crew. They were waiting at a staging area at Warnervale when he felt what he described as ‘an odd pain’ in his chest. It was no stronger than heartburn, but not heartburn. He had no other symptoms other than feeling like his pulse was particularly noticeable but not irregular or racing. He drove the truck home at the end of the shift.

When he was still worried about it later that evening I suggested we get it checked out at the after hours doctor because it was Saturday. The GP checked his pulse and blood pressure. They were both fine. Their ECG machine didn’t want to cooperate so the doctor gave Graham a referral to have more tests done on the Monday, “Just to be on the safe side.” We thought he’d had a physical response to all the stress he’s been under.

I suggested we take a real day off on Sunday. It was just as well. Tests on Monday confirmed that his ‘odd pain’ was a heart attack that lasted about 12 hours and caused damage to his heart. He was told to go straight to hospital. Given the mild nature of his pain they expected the angiogram to reveal a minor blockage that could be remedied with a stent. Tomorrow he has open heart surgery for a triple bypass. All three of the major arteries to his heart have been compromised. The surgery is considered essential and urgent. If he had done work around the house on Sunday, as he had originally planned, there’s a very real chance that he would have died.

Three months ago he had a complete physical with his GP including lots of blood work. He was fine. Tomorrow they will cut his sternum open, lift his heart out of his chest and use a vein from somewhere else in his body to provide circulation around all the blockages. They will put his heart back and then join his sternum using metal wire. He will be in hospital for about a week. All of the doctors he has seen have commented that the stress of the last three months and the smoke he has been inhaling have, in all likelihood, contributed to his heart condition. It makes sense. Hearts need oxygen.

Graham is the on-call officer for his brigade. When he’s not out fighting fires he’s down the end of the hall trying to get other people to go out and fight fires. He has been a bundle of stress for three months since the start of the season. I don’t mind. I’m hugely proud of his volunteering and I’ve done everything I can to support him. Without people like Graham the whole country would have gone up in smoke. I do what I can to make sure he eats well, gets sleep and does whatever he can to manage the stress but there is no way he can forget what is going on. Of course stress is also a contributing factor to heart disease.

I understand his volunteering. Before I retired I was a police officer and I spent a good part of my career working in child protection. I know what it’s like to put the safety and welfare of other people first. Graham is one of the kindest and most compassionate people I know. Asking him to step away would be pointless (I know, because I tried) and holidays in Hawaii during the fire season are out of the question.

I wonder how many families are in the same position. We are the unrecorded. The statistics that nobody will ever know about. People whose health has been permanently compromised by their volunteering. I fear for all those beautiful young people out on the fire line. How long until the consequences of all the smoke and stress catch up with them? How will they ever be able to prove that it was these fires that caused future damage? I have often thought that if our volunteers were paid employees there is no way any union would let them work without adequate safety gear. But they are volunteers.

Graham loves the RFS and was angry with me for criticising the use of the P2 masks.

“The P2 masks are approved by the RFS. I don’t think they would send us out there without proper equipment and we need to be able to talk to each other.” Then a friend in the mining industry sent us a message saying they were next to useless, and that even respirator masks need to be professionally fitted to work well.

The professional fire and rescue employees get full helmets with built in radios. CORRECTION: Since writing this post I have received a message via my daughter from someone in fire and rescue. When it comes to fighting bush fires they are ALSO given P2 masks! Appalling! 

There is one word that Graham has been using since the start of the season. Heartbreaking. He has walked in the door reeking of soot and smoke and whatever else he has been exposed to, tired and frayed and wanting to hug me before he has a shower. “How was it?” I say. “Heartbreaking….” He replies. We don’t say much more about it. Graham loves the bush and the death of so many animals and birds has hit him hard. He doesn’t want me to be as sad as he is, so he doesn’t share the details.

It turns out that it was literally heart breaking. His giant, beautiful heart is damaged and tomorrow they will operate on him to try and restore its function. I worry that the damage to his heart is not just about the smoke and the stress. I fear it’s also about the impact of everything he has seen and that it has overwhelmed him. He is so angry with the people that want to pretend that all of this is normal, and nothing to be worried about. He rages about what it will take to get people to wake up and to understand that this, right now, is the impact of climate change.

We could have prevented this.

Graham and I have spent the whole of our adult lives trying to convince people that we cannot live apart from the rest of the planet. Everything is connected. We decided to teach permaculture because it’s the best way we know to provide people with a pattern for how to do that. I am hopeful that he will keep getting to do that.

Once his heart is better.

Except that his heart is broken. Suddenly hope is potentially life saving. I want him to keep believing that we can still turn all of this around and I want him to not notice that there are times when I feel heart broken and hopeless too. Sometimes all we have is hope.

We have had so many messages of love and support. People are asking us what they can do to help. This is my answer. Please hold a good thought for us in your hearts and send whatever kind of healing energy you believe in towards Graham for tomorrow’s surgery at St Vincents private hospital in Sydney. Then commit to making 2020 the year that you make responding to climate change your top priority. If you’re short on ideas then use this:

52 Climate Actions

Start by getting a node together of like-minded people. A node means you have joint responsibility for leadership and allows each of you to come and go. It avoids traditional hierarchies (part of what got us into this mess).

Then form a climate action team and meet in person locally. Recruit people that live nearby or within a short distance to save on fossil fuels. Invite your neighbours, even if you don’t think they get it. They are the people we most need to reach. Get together every month and ask each person to report on what they have achieved. Let people ask for support or ideas. Choose one action and brainstorm it with the whole group so that everyone has lots of choices for how they will respond to it. Share some food, preferably local and vegan and ethically sourced, and talk about why this matters. When someone gets through the 52 actions, or feels like they are ready, support them to start another group.

This could be a self replicating pattern that spreads exponentially. Hope. Do it for Graham, or the volunteers in your life, or the people that lost their lives or the people that lost their homes. Do it just because taking action beats complaining and because we should all try to be the change we want to see in the world.





88 thoughts on “Heart Broken

  1. Hearts do break but they do Also mend . I’m crying tears for you both as I have for so many in the last weeks yet I have to believe that change is coming , the world needs to change and we need to change it . So I thank you for your words and send you my very best wishes of hope for you both x


    1. Thank you so much for speaking out and for sharing your husband with us in such an unselfish way. My thoughts are with you are he goes through the surgery. My husband had the same some years ago and it is amazing what the doctors do. Go well.


  2. Thank you for sharing….writing helps I know. You and your husband are to be commended for your on-going loyal and hard work to do all you have. I hope, as do all those who have commented that your husband has an excellent recovery. I am so glad he is in the right place for his surgery and after care. Do take care of yourself too. These months have taken their toll on so many. Sending my best wishes and appreciation to you both.


  3. Thank you for your wonderful article written from the heart. You have captured the hearts of the world and are telling it like it is from the front line and your powerful story has hit home for so many around the world and you are bringing to light more that can be done on climate change. I don’t like it that your dear husband has had his health so massively compromised as a result of his good earnest work to help others. I wish you both all the best for the surgery and recovery. You are both very special people and wonderful role models for all around you and those you teach through your writing . Thank you for having the strength and taking the time to stand up and write your articles they are so powerful to so many.


    1. Hi Peggy,
      I don’t know how that happened. It can take a while for comments to go up because I need to approve them. Try again if you like and I’ll make sure to post it.
      If it was about My Sisters Keeper I have now done a separate post about Ophelia.


  4. You are a remarkable and eloquent women. I saw you on the project and told everyone’s you made more sense than any politician I have seen speak, I hope Graham recovers quickly. The world needs many more like him xx


  5. Thank you for sharing. I wish for you that Graham is recovering well….I also had tears for you, for Graham, for all the other firefighters, volunteer or not, for all those who have lost so much and our native animals. There is much work to do, I thank you for encouraging change.


  6. I had my heart attack had the most excellent treatment and care at St Vincents. I look for to meeting him
    After rehab at our cardiac maintenance exercise classes. He will be well looked after.
    The fires are a shocking tragedy and your words are a great inspiration and message to use all. Keep up the great work, but take time for you both to process and recover from this stress and trauma. ♥️


  7. Thank you Meg for your heartfelt message and I wish Graham a successful operation and a speedy recovery. Thank you too for raising awareness about the P2 masks. This week I learned about My Sister’s Keeper and Ophelia’s goal to have every firefighter equipped with decent masks. As a result, my daughter fund-raised to buy 30 masks for our son’s crew and extra towards others. I hope they and their families can all breathe a little easier now.
    Best wishes to you and your family as you deal with the impact of this crisis in the coming weeks.


  8. You are an amazing woman, a powerful woman and happily a very eloquent one who has put into words beautifully what so many of us have been thinking and feeling. So sorry to hear about your husband and the additional pain and stress you both now have to go through. One wonders how many similar stories are out there that we’ll never hear. I wish Graham a speedy recovery and thank you to both of you from the bottom of my heart for your commitment and sacrifice.


  9. Hi Meg McGowan. I have not seen this post previously. I hope Graham is on the mend. I too am a Deputy Captain in the RFS brigade in Killabakh. We have never seen a fire season like this. We stopped counting callouts at 65 this last season. For the first time in over 60 years we had fire right through our valley and in particular our farm. A great proportion of the Manning Valley was burnt with 153 houses lost, 9 of those in Killabakh. It wasn’t coinicidence or freak of nature that the weather here in the Valley has significantly changed over the past 10 years. We had the worst drought ever prior to this last fire season which set us up for our worst fire season ever, perhaps the new norm. The RFS was in no way prepared for the disater that occurred in the summer of 2019 /20. This period has changed us all and hopefully showed our governing body and those in Government that climate chnage isn’t coming, but is here. I also know we did not even have P2 masks at our brigade during this fire seasn. Suprisingly they have now turned up with instructions. I have no doubt our PPE is of a poorer standard than the regular brigades something we need to agitate change in, to assist us in a fire environment which can only be discribed as hazedous for a whoe number if reasons. The issues you raise are so important. I am also the president of landcare here in Killabakh and we too approach the work at our farm from a permaculture basis. We shared our story about the fires through Wesley Mission as I am a member of our local Suicide Prevention Network, auspiced by Wesley. Getting our stories out there is important. There are so many similarities. I too worked in Child Protection for 41 years and since moving to Killabakh have joined the RFS. Community work and Community capcity building have always and will always be important to me.Thanks for sharing your story. Cheers Greg Hale.


    1. Dear Greg,
      Thank you so much for this comment. So many things in common!
      Someone commented recently that it would have been a much better idea for the government to rebuild all of the homes lost in the fires, thereby creating employment in some of those devastated areas, instead of giving reasonably well off people new kitchens. I added that using at least some of the money to employ bush regenerators and to support volunteer animals carers would also be a much better investment. It won’t happen, but it’s still worth saying.
      My very best wishes to you in all your community work. I do think rebuilding community is going to be critical to our survival.


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