Archive for June, 2007

We never change (do we…)

This has taken me a while to write. Not for want of trying. Not for some emotional barrier. More a kind of blogger’s block. I’m sure it’s not contagious, nasty rash though…

So the lads are gone. Quite obviously, many of you have probably seen Phil since he returned (without camera and fleece, tut, tut. Thou shalt not leave stuff on Air New Zealand Flight 2 while I have a kip in LAX…). Spud is not quite home yet. And if all goes according to (his) plan he should be adrift in a yacht somewhere off the NE coast of Australia.

They are conspicuous in their absence. Indeed I can see the carpet for the first time in two weeks, not covered in sleeping bags, air mattresses, odd socks and bodies. There’s an extra 3 books on the sideboard, deposited as used reading material by my guests (El Diego – Maradonna’s autobiography – Spud, The gathering storm – Winston Churchill – Spud and You don’t know me – Phil).

I miss them. In that for a while it felt like home. Or maybe that I was at home. Or that maybe I never left. Not all of those are positive. Comforting at least, if not positive. I had a similar thing when Simon and Ruth (my brother and his boss… wife, I mean…) left. That you spend all the time getting used to them being there and then they go. Maybe it just seems a bit more pronounced cause I know that in two weeks I will be home. And I know I’ve been thinking about that more and more as time passes. Not just cause winter has finally landed with a grey and sodden squelch.

People are hard work. In general. Some more than others. I have a hermit fantasy (steady…) that life would be much more straight forward if I lived in a cabin in the forest and hunted deer and grew a beard (ha!) and read old dusty leather bound books and scared off young children. My fear is that maybe I’ve come far too close to that already.

Some people struggle with their own company, that the thought of a day on their own, with no one to talk to, no one to waste time with, that this would scare the life out of them. I am of the opposite disposition that a day on my own is to be savoured, to be enjoyed, to think, to read and (by GOD’s sweet grace) to rejoice in GOD’s glory. I have sneaking suspicions that my disposition is perhaps more the disposition of those who think that really they’re rather worth a lot more than can they are.

To be more realistic, people are a lot more complicated than this, and this is only scratching the surface. Which is kind of the point. People are complicated. We all have our own souls, joys, passions, gifts, fears and dreams. And somehow we expect to get on.

Or to rephrase, we expect to get on effortlessly. Because we, or rather I, am at the centre of my own little Andy-centred universe, it confuses me that the people around me aren’t quite how I would have made them. And given that I am the boss of this little shrunken world then this comes as a surprise.

Distance helps. Being 15000 miles away helps you listen better. If only cause you get more emails, and it’s hard to interrupt half way through an email. It helps you confess. It is easier for me to ‘glory in my weakness’ here than it is at home. I can write things in emails or blogs or songs that mere proximity may have kept me from. I suppose it’s the basic principle that if you shut your eyes tight and you can’t see all the people then it ain’t nearly as scary.

There are people who I have ‘seen’ only in wonderful emails over the past year. People who I feel closer to now than I did before I left. There are people who I have barely ‘seen’ in the past year. Most of whom I think will slip back into my life as if I merely nipped out for a pint of milk.

I got an email saying how it would good to see me when I get back to see how I changed. And it struck me that perhaps I hadn’t expected that. I’d expected others to change without me. For me to miss out a year of their life could only mean I miss out on what would have been shared experience. But I never thought that the awkward silence between two friends reunited could have anything to do with me. That the reflective pause could be someone noting, ‘yes, you’re different’. Simon says people don’t change. I argue with him, but deep down maybe I agree. There is truth and there is falsehood in that statement. Another long blog in itself.

I miss people who know me. Who know me as an idiot and a selfish prick, and despite how they would have me different, they still love me. I know lots of people here, but I know none of them so that they know me. I miss the family of GOD. We fight and spit and kick but they will never let me stray too far.


Homeward bound

The ferry back to the north island is again, a spectacular experience. As cold as it is, we still brave it just to stand and marvel at Marlborough Sounds and the blueness of the water and the brightness of the sun. We attempt the old ‘arms length group photo’ for a while in the hope that someone will come and offer to take one. We’ve been at so long that it’s getting a bit silly before a kindly American lady offers to do the needful.

People are nice. Exceptionally nice. I’ve said this before, but I’ve met fewer more congenial people. Even people working in petrol stations or supermarkets (the hive of the rude and ignorant), make the effort to wish you a good day or insult your national rugby team.

I tell them that they’ve got a good country and try not to mess it up too much the way we’ve done with ours. I worry one day that they’ll take this to heart and build a big wall round it to keep everyone else out.

By the time we get to Wellington it’s raining. Good to see it’s keeping to form. And we have  a lovely (if slightly chilly and damp) afternoon in Wellington, wandering the streets in search of a café called Fidel’s and second hand bookshops. I like Wellington now. Not that I didn’t before, just that I now realise that it’s the only place with decent bookshops and a music scene.

The next day I’m back in work and time shifts up a gear or two. I’m working long days and all of a sudden the boys are gone. Despite sitting up till 2am chatting they’re still gone too soon.

A whiter shade of pale

On day 3 me and Phil abandon the Skiing, thinking that now, with only two main runs open, is the best time to try to learn to snow board.

Kiwi’s are big into boarding. At least 50-50 if not more will board. I’ve always admired them. Mostly cause it looks cool, but it also looks like a lot of fun.

Me and Phil spend 30 mins before our lesson on the nursery slope, simply falling over, standing up and then falling over again. We laugh at ourselves. The kids laugh at us. My two feet are strapped to a solid plank that I appear to have no control over. I’m not even sure what the theory behind it is.

Two hours later, we’re confidently (well more confidently than before) making our way down the nursery slope at speeds in excess of 3 mph. Thanks to pretty much private lesson by our instructor (who gets to spend six months in NZ and six months in Colorado USA – way cool).

We spend the afternoon braving the proper slopes and realise quickly that gradient is an important variable in snow boarding and that maybe we’re not quite ready to embrace it yet. Nothing broken, we retire for the day.

Next day we head straight for the slopes, and Phil survives a brush with death by falling off the chair lift just as we leave, and just avoids getting whacked on the head by the lift. In true form he takes a poor, non-English speaking foreigner down with him.

By this stage it started to snow. Bringing new meaning to the words white-out. Sunglasses help, if only cause darkening what you can’t see makes it slightly less intimidating. A blindfold may have been more effective.

So to summarise, we are now at the top of a mountain, effectively wearing a blindfold, with our two legs trapped to what can only be described as a well polished, slightly elongated tea tray.

Gravity sees us right. She has a tendency to do that…

With skiing done we vacate Methven to the north, back to Hanmer Springs. Mostly cause my car is there, hopefully repaired, but also cause the Springs of Hanmer Springs are pretty sweet and it’s nice to sit in an outside hot tub in the snow. Not a pretty Scandinavian girl in sight but lots of friendly Kiwis so well compensated.

We only leave when we realise they’re actually draining the hot tubs for the night.

We eat in a tacky (but quite tasty) Chinese restaurant that appears to serve everything except what we wish to order. The evening finishes with a brief walk along the main strip of Hanmer to realise that there was probably more nightlife in Methven.

Up all night

NZ in winter isn’t exactly pumping. Methven at the beginning of the season is barely dribbling. Spud wonders why there’s nothing to do in the evenings. I explain the concept of Kiwi bedtime and that people who like night life live in Auckland (where it’s horrible) or Wellington (where it’s quite nice) or Christchurch (which I presume is alright) or Dunedin (which is just students).

So we spend our evenings waiting for the pool table to come free, eating pizza and watching greyhound racing and trying to guess who’ll win just by how ridiculous the name of the dog is.

There are only two places open at night. The Brown Pub – which appears to be for all the locals, and the Blue Pub – immediately across the road, for all the skiers, presumably started by the locals in the Brown Pub so they could have a bit of peace and quiet.

The cinema is only open on Friday and Saturday night, and only shows films none of us have ever heard of. The TV appears to show only greyhound racing and self-improvement programmes.

We discover the long-last art of conversation. Or rather, we get so pissed off at the fact that we can’t seem to have a conversation about our hopes and dreams or without resorting to banalities or insults that we have a barney and an epiphany and sit up till 3 am talking about the contents of the preceding sentence.

It takes a lot for me to listen (and not just waiting for my turn to speak), and maybe it takes some grey hound racing and a nudge in the right direction to get me to.

Road to joy

I suppose I meant to do a daily blog, for the time the guys were here. Like the ‘big trip’ but with more snow. But it never really happened. I could blame tiredness, I could blame long conversations till 3 am, in a different age I probably could have even blamed Drumcree but to be honest I just got a bit lazy.

So anyway. We drove from Hanmer Springs to Methven (at the base of Mt Hutt) in a morning and kept wondering when the snow was gonna start. For those who have skied in Europe then you’re well drilled, with the flight, the bus trip to the chalet, the sudden realisation that you are in fact sleeping in a lavatory in the local service station and not the log chalet you saw in the brochure. But ultimately you end up staying in the snow.

Methven, the local alpine resort, was in the middle of the Canterbury Planes (imagine what they look like), and full of sheep and cows. There were mountains in sight, but they looked like a really angry version of the Mournes and not something you’d want to carve parallels down.

By this stage it was lunch time and we wanted to at least get a brief ski in so we braved the mountain road to the field. Another brief point to folk who have skied in Europe. The road to the resort may well be windy and your bus will be piloted (the correct term as he thinks he’s flying a jet fighter) by a grumpy Frenchman with a moustache. But the road will at least be tarmacced and have those wonderful crash barrier things at the edge.

The road to Mt Hutt is gravel. Well there’s gravel underneath. There’s mostly snow and ice on top. About half way up we have to stop to fit ‘chains’. Initially I am dubious, but when I see what lies before us I think maybe I need ‘spikes’ not just chains. Phil does us proud, and gets us safely to the top.

On the way down we see a car with both front wheels over the edge of the cliff. A stanchion from a flimsy fence being the only thing to stop it going over. The driver looks as white as… well…snow.

It is the first day of the season and alas only two of the big runs are open. But they’re good runs and we’re keen. We run bets (we seem to run bets on everything, from when the car will break down next or what time Spud will need to pee again) on who will fall over first. Phil wins with a spectacular 3.5 secs and falls over almost as soon as he clears the chair lift. Me and Spud breathe a sigh of relief that it wasn’t us.

So good to be back skiing. A wonderful, completely bizarre sport, that requires such a stunning amount of effort to actually exist that you wonder how you can ever justify it. A bit like a girlfriend or the human race. But it’s simply wonderful, to be gliding over smooth, pisted slopes in the sun, staring down at the Canterbury Plains to the ocean. One of the few countries you could be surfing and skiing in the same day.

The other joy of skiing in NZ is that (almost, apart from the Irish apparently) everyone speaks English as a first language. So you get into all kinds of chats with folk on the chair lifts. The three of us end up on a lift with a Kiwi in a ‘Mt Hutt’ jacket who chats to us about where we’re from and what we’re doing here. I end up with an all expenses paid job offer to be a ski patrol doctor for a couple of months. This would fulfil one of my two great medical career paths – the other being a cruise ship doctor, with hat and uniform and the whole nine yards.

Phil tells him he’ll be back in 5 years. I tell him I’m going back to Ireland for the ski season (as in the duration of the ski season, not the Irish ski season). He asks why on earth I would want to do that, and I wonder why…

Zen and the art of Mitsubishi RVR maintenance

So begins another road trip blog. I worked out I’ve had three months holiday in the past twelve. That’s teacher’s holidays…

With the lads here, I’d booked a few days off and we planned a wee south island road trip/ski trip. I’d just finished my last night shift, which thankfully had been a quiet one. I drove the 4 hours to Wellington fueled on coffee and chocolate brownies. I flaked out in the car waiting for the ferry.

It’s not really sleep; it’s just a slightly lowered level of consciousness, or cognitive dissociation (as Forbes calls the ICU craziness that patients tend to get). When you wake up you have the slightly warm fuzz in your head from being not entirely awake but I still remember every song that’s been played since I passed out.

The ferry was dark and cold and uneventful, I woke from my slightly obtunded state as we pulled into Picton. We stayed the night in the motor camp in Picton, the third time I’ve stayed there now. Tucked up in my sleeping bag I slept as if it was the last I’d have for a while.
We took the scenic route to Christchurch, if only cause the main road was undergoing road works and was only open for 15 minutes every 2 hours. The scenic route goes down the middle of the south island, criss crossing mountain ranges, rivers and the Lewis pass.

Again, I’m likely to struggle with adjectives again here. The south island in good weather is simply stunning. If you want descriptions then just get a few photos off google. NZ has been referred to as GOD’s own country. Impeccable taste I must say.


Clear blue skies, about 4 degrees, a light dusting of snow on the peaks of the hills, driving along empty roads, lined by vineyards, turned brown by the winter. Good tunes, good coffee, shame about the company… Only kidding lads. Honestly.

The first warning was when the windscreen suddenly steamed up out of the blue. No obvious reason, just steamed up. Two, actually maybe more like 10 minutes later, I notice the temperature gauge on the dash is reading high. This has never happened before so I’m surprised to see it’s up. To be honest I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. Does it measure oil, engine or water temperature? Anyhow I knew it was bad.

We stopped at the side of the road, opened the bonnet and stared bewildered at the steaming mass of complicated metal before us. Of course none of us let on we were bewildered. We all pontificated about radiators and valves and pistons and what the problem was. Each of us with as much authority as a democratically elected Iraqi president.
Having found the radiator and the cap and scalded our hands letting out the steam, we topped up with a bottle of NZ’s finest spring water and drove off again. We were in the middle of nowhere, roughly 300 km from Christchurch.

This lasted us about an hour till the needle on the temp gauge started to rise again. Now I’m worried. We follow the same procedure and top up the radiator with about three liters, with the engine running to avoid air locking it (helpful advice from crazy old man who stopped to help us). At this point it’s entering my head that we’re putting an awful lot of water in and it has to be going somewhere. None of us vocalize this.

By now we’ve got four one liter bottles that we’re filling up from streams we pass. The good thing about NZ is that the river water is probably cleaner than the stuff out of the taps. Half the fun is tramping off though fields in search of streams for water. The water so icy cold it hurts your hands to fill the bottles.

We’re running bets on when we’re gonna need to refill the radiator again. Winner gets to pick three songs in a row off the ipod instead of the one at a time that we’ve limited ourselves to.
Best one is when it overheats 200m short of the Lewis pass in the snow, we pull over, open the bonnet and cover the engine in snow to cool it off. This is the sixth stop. We’re getting about a half hour driving at a time, as long as we don’t have to go uphill.

The first place of any size we come to is hanmer springs (pop 750) and on the road into the township we limp onto a garage forecourt. The mechanic is as I expect. Diagnoses the problem from 10 m away (‘I can tell you from here that it’s your fuel pump’) and fills us with fear about what could have happened (‘just hope you haven’t blown your head gasket’ – with the same tone as if al-qaeda had just gone nuclear). He sounds like he knows what we’re talking about. Though that’s not hard. None of us ask what a head gasket is.

Bad news is, it’ll take a few days to repair. So we’re in the middle of nowhere, neither near where we came from nor near to where we’re going. It’s 5pm and it’s below freezing. We’ve now lost our sole means of transport.

Within 60 minutes we’ve rented a new car (the guy even came and picked us up), got a motel, have the car safely at the garage, and we’re sitting in a 40 degree thermal hot spa at the springs. Spud says the key is keeping calm. I say the keys are mobile phones and credit cards.

Between us we get it right.

A long day continues

1700 hours. Sitting in a café in wellington beside a bunch of french folk. Perhaps unremarkable. But i’ve been having a good day.

Good in that it’s already 32 hours long and I haven’t slept. I’m not gonna make my bed for another 14.

I’m on night shift in the unit at the mo, which is turning into one prolonged entire weekend shift. I started at 4pm yesterday. I left spuddy and phil to go to taupo for the evening (people who know NZ geography know you don’t go to taupo for a night), and plodded into a busy enough evening and night shift with a third of my work being nursing (rolling patients, giving drugs, doing the bloods) cause we’re just desperately short at the mo. Of nurses I mean.

One pretty sizeable overdose, a woman with lungs so stiff we couldn’t get air either in or out of her lungs a little old man with inoperable bowel cancer and four cups of coffee later, i’d made it to morning. I phoned spuddy (weird phoning your own flat to get hold of someone else) and got a groggy, sleepy agreement to a  morning surf. Only slightly less groggy and sleepy than my suggestion.

At ocean beach for 9am. And the surf was pretty big. Not exactly consistent or even that surfable but big. Each wave like a rugby tackle (ta for that one spud) to the chest and a huge rip tide that dragged you down the beach at an alarming rate. Lots of fun. But hard work. Didn’t matter, it was another crisp hawke’s bay morning and I was on the beach.

I’d made it five mins from home (and sweet brekkie) when the phone rang and Ross (my boss) asks was I doing anything important and could I fly a patient to wellington. 20 mins later i’m back in work and facing the usual ‘do you never leave?’ comments.

Because I was on nights at the weekend spud and phil were over, they’d planned to go off and their own and do a few things. Top of the list being NZ v France at the Westpac stadium in wellington. I was jealous, good old fashioned jealousy. The first time since i’ve got to NZ that I didn’t really want to go to work.

Cause i ‘d come back in to do a transfer when I was meant to be kipping, ross said to not bother with the night shift and just come back on sunday night. At which point a cunning plan formed.

I’m about to get in a helicopter to go to wellington, and will in fact get there before spud and phil (who left an hour before). My boss is now telling me that I don’t need to come back to work tonight. There’s  abig rugby game tonight in wellington. Indeed there are tickets left. So in fact there’s no need for me to come back in the helicopter at all. It’s just a cheap and efficient means of getting to the game, well for me anyhow.

So with the encouragement of my boss (‘give me a ring if you can’t get a ticket, I know some people’ dear knows who…) I grab a warm jacket and a camera, and oh yes the patient having the heart attack, mustn’t forget them, and jump in the chopper.

Land on the roof in wellington, hand over the patient and 10 mins later i’m in a taxi to the stadium as the heli goes back to hawke’s bay. I feel like royalty. This doesn’t happen often, let me have my moment.


Turns out wellington is a lovely city, though that’s maybe only because the sun is shining for the first time in 10 months of flying patients here. I get a ticket easy enough, just two rows from phil and spud, which is of course most unfortunate, and in no way intended…


And so I end up here sitting in a café in wellington beside a bunch of french folk. Perhaps unremarkable. But i’ve been having a good day.

So whenever spud and phil finally get here… I mean they left an hour before me… Some people… We’ll watch the game and then spud will drive me back as I try to get a few hours sleep in the back of the car. If only cause I felt bad for abandoning Ross without a registrar on a saturday night. I’ll be back in the unit by 2am, and only another 8 hrs till the day is finally over, somwhere around the 52 hour mark. Pass the espresso…

Listening to mood

In blogs the done thing is to put in your ‘mood’ and ‘currently listening to’. At least in proper blogs they do. So I think I might combine the two, and try to say something coherent (that’ll be a first) with it. They used to do this on ‘whose line is it anyway, except they were better. I’ll maybe just stick to the lyrics and let you work out the artists. It’ll give Dave Knowles something to do anyhow…

one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do, two can be as bad as one, it’s loneliest number since the number one’  ‘all the lonely people, where do they all come from’ ‘is it special when you’re lonely, will you spend your life in a studio apartment with a cat for a wife.’ ‘I remember something Sarah said, that love is watching someone die’ ‘and when we die, will we be that disappointed or sad, if heaven doesn’t exist, what will we have missed, this life is the best we’ll ever have.’ ‘My old man swore that hell would have no flames, just a front row seat, to watch your true love pack her things and drive away.’ ‘Woke up way too late feeling hung over and old, and the sun was shining bright I walked bare foot down the road, started thinking about my old man, seems that all men just want to get into a car and go.’ ‘Woke up with a bang and a bug on your face, it crawled in your mouth and gave you a taste of the good life that you left behind, but I think you’re gonna be fine. Somebody loves you, and you’re gonna make it through’ ‘gotta meet you face to face, got to convince you that I’m not so strange. I’m happy sad, it comes easy to me.’ ‘But I’ve got too many secrets to tell a single soul, too many secrets to convince anyone I’m any good. I won’t let you down, even if you believe that I would’ ‘Our story works as long as you, don’t settle for the best, choose me above the rest’ ‘cause if you’ll let me be, I’ll be your pretender to the throne’ ‘after all, in the end, just pretend.’ ‘I juggle one handed, do some magic tricks and, the best imitation of myself.’ ‘I don’t want to believe that all of the above is true’ ‘I find it so hard to be true and all these lies I’m telling you, are little anchors in my chest, that pull us down into this mess’ ‘i don’t feel like I’m falling down, just say hello to the ground’ ‘I always fall and you pick up the pieces’ ‘it feels like I’m falling down, I’m cold as the coldest ground’  ‘just don’t stumble through tonight, have no fear of falling’ ‘hey kids look at this, it’s the fall of the world’s own optimist, I could get back up if you insist, but you’ll have to ask politely’ ‘and if the sky starts falling on the street outside, the only thing that satisfies’ ‘the story of sinners ransomed from the fall’ ‘but I’ve still not got my sky blue feeling back…’

Inside out

ICU is a funny job. And clearly not ha ha funny, you’ve learnt that much by now. I’ve just finished a 9 day stretch in the unit. Generally I’m looking after 11 patients, that’s as many beds as we have. There has occasionally been 14, and then we run out of ventilators and we get a bit twitchy when we’re pulling the old iron lung out of storage.

But with all the patients in one place, in a small unit, I get to know them very well. I see them 10-15 times a day or more. Though I don’t usually get to know the patients personally, they’re generally very rude and never speak to me. Some say it’s the fact they’re unconscious, I just think they’re being ignorant, some people eh…?

I know them well in the medical sense. I can quote you the blood results of every patient for the past week, I can tell you dates they were admitted, when they had surgery, when they got the tubes in, when they got the tubes out. I know how every patient behaves, for example their blood pressure will disappear when turned one way that they’ll tend to punch the staff when their sedation wears off. I know which drugs work for them and which don’t. So when I say I know the patients inside out, there’s a certain degree of literal meaning to it.

Over the past week I’ve had the pleasure of looking after CB. CB’s 19 years old. He’s also 19 kg. I’ll let that sink in a bit.

He’s got pretty bad cerebral palsy (though I’ve seen worse), severe developmental delay (and then some) and epilepsy. Tough break.

He’s also got pneumonia, or rather has had pneumonia for about a month now. Not only has he got muck and infection in his lungs, he’s also got muck and infection round the lining of his left lung. In fact so much he’s only working off one lung.

When he came down, I put two tubes in his chest, his tiny ribs so close together I could barely get them into his chest. And for the past 4 days I’ve spent an hour each day injecting stuff into the tubes to break down all the muck and let it drain.

At least he’s not as rude as the others, he rolls his eyes and his head and splutters at my presence. Though he doesn’t seem to know I’m there till I blow on his face (a trick I learned from his mum).

I explained to his mum what we were doing and the principles behind it (in roughly the same terms as above) and she knelt forward and whispered in his ear ‘aww, you poor wee !@£$%^, they’re gonna blow the *&^% out of your lungs wee man’. She couldn’t have said this any more tenderly or lovingly. He seemed to understand, the love if not the words.

And so I’ve sat an hour a day fiddling with the tubes and singing old hymns to myself, blowing air in his face, and watching his eyes roll back and forth. He cries when the tubes catch his chest. A high pitched wail, his face contorted till the morphine kicks in. A simple, breathing, crying reminder of the way the world is. Of how I think I know what justice is, but have no idea. Of how I have no idea how lucky  I am. Of the sheltered, self-protective little world that I’ve made. Of how there will be no more crying, no more tears, no more suffering.

In my head are such questions. Without easy answers. I don’t think they’re meant to rest easy on my mind. On the verge of beginning to approach the edge of understanding, in the very smallest way possible, what he meant when he said, ‘behold I am making all things new’.

The wee %^$&*£.


June 2007