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