Location: Manning Valley/Sydney
Date: January 2012
January 20, 2012. This little trip to Sydney wasn't supposed
to be on the Odyssey itinerary. It began in November when I alerted my
GP to some rough skin in my mouth, on the floor below the bottom teeth.
It had been there a while and hadn't bothered me, but I was nevertheless
suspicious. Sure enough, my GP referred me to an ear, nose and throat specialist
in Taree who took a couple of samples of the lesion for a biopsy, which
proved negative. However, she suggested I have the lesion removed by a
local specialist, David Simons. Simons took one look at it and said, "Sorry,
I can't help you." Instead, he referred me to a head and neck specialist
in Sydney, Dr Johnathan Clark. In December, I traveled to Sydney by train
where Clark investigated the lesion, suspected the worst, and took two
new samples for biopsy just to be sure. "Even if the biopsy does prove
negative, I won't believe it, and I'll operate anyway." A few days later,
another head and neck specialist, Dr Sydney Ch'ng, phoned me at home in
Taree to say that Clark would be unavailable for the operation to remove
the tumor but that she would take his place. She had several times before.
Fine with me.
January 4, I arrived at Royal Prince Alfred hospital in Sydney in the
afternoon, the day before the operation was due to take place, and was
shown to my bed. The other guys in the ward were a culture shock to say
the least. John and Sean swore like troopers - constantly - as if they
had something to prove, like a territorial claim on the ward or something.
It didn't matter who was in the ward; nurses, doctors, visitors or whomever,
the guys kept swearing their heads off. The other guy, Patrick, found it
all rather amusing and, I admit, after a while so did I. John and Patrick
weren't threatening anyone... just the opposite, both were friendly and
helpful, albeit colorful. So that was four cancer patients in the one ward,
all of Irish descent.
Sean had his entire office set up in his "bedroom" with the curtains
drawn - phone, laptop, racing form guide, etc. He was mostly into betting
on line.. horses, dogs, football, and whatever else moved, and watching
the overhead telly. He had testicular cancer, with one removed. Recently
the cancer had returned and was affecting his legs with some kind of painful
sciatica. He shuffled when he walked. He's 35.
Patrick had 2 tumors in his neck removed by radiation. He was free to
move around but still wore a feeding tube in his nose. He also had great
difficulty speaking. But he was a nice bloke, and very friendly. He was
aged about a year younger than me.
One of the male nurses got a bit chatty so I told him about the young
bloke I sat next to on the train. He was constantly on his mobile phone
talking to "bro"... everyone was "bro". It soon became apparent that he
was a graffiti "artist"; he kept talking about bulk buys of spray paint.
"No, I haven't got the 20 cans with me, bro, not on a fuckin' train. Besides,
I'm still on probation, bro... I'm a free man." Other little gems
I picked up were that his missus is moving some distance away which makes
it more difficult for him to visit his kids (I gather they're divorced
or separated). He wasn't too impressed about that and told "bro" that he'd
smash her face against a wall if she interfered with his visitation rights.
Charming. He also told another "bro", "We don't do crap, bro, we're writers"
(in regard to "quality" graffiti). At no stage during my eavesdropping
did I get the impression that this young bloke was very bright.
Anyway, as I told the nurse my story, and explained that such types
have a gang mentality - that they need to belong to a group or botherhood
to give their lives some kind of meaning -
interrupted and said, "I belong to a gang. I was President of the Cronulla
chapter of the
Bikie Gang for 25 years." So I guessed that explained the full beard,
heavily tattooed arms and Harley Davidson shirt. Anyway, we got to talking
and he told me some pretty amazing, if not horrific, stories.
one I Googled about a police bust on several premises including the fortified
Cronulla clubhouse. John Devine's name is mentioned a couple of times.
John told me about his wealth... a couple of houses, tens of thousands
of dollars worth of diamonds and gold, a couple of Harleys, one worth $100,000,
several cars, a tattoo business, etc. John was wearing a solid gold ring
which weighed an ounce, and a solid gold chain around his neck which weighed
a couple of ounces. All his gold is solid, he told me. Nothing plated.
That evening, his family visited the ward and they looked perfectly normal.
They live in respectable suburbia at Hurlstone Park. I asked John what
the neighbors thought about his presence and he said no worries. A couple
who at first objected soon changed their minds when they discovered their
dogs nailed to their front doors.
John has only just married the mother of his sons. They've been together
over 30 years but only recently tied the knot because John's cancer (of
the stomach) is terminal. He only has about 6 months to live. "Mr Cactus"
he described himself to me. 3 months ago he was healthy and fit... a hundred
pushups, a morning jog around the block, no problem. Then he was diagnosed
with the cancer, and has lost 20 or 30 kilos in weight. He can't keep any
food down, and was puking big time - not a pretty sight, folks. He needs
a wheelchair to get around. He's 53.
I was tempted to ask John if I could take his photo but he looked so
sick and wasted I figured he wouldn't want to be remembered that way, so
I refrained. By the way, when I first entered the ward, John said, "Oh!
An Aussie!" The hospital was like the League of Nations, with just about
every nationality you can think of, especially amongst the nurses and doctors.
However most patients were Aussies. There's long been a shortage of medical
staff in Oz so there's been a lot of recruiting from overseas, mostly Asia
and the sub-continent.
I didn't ask John too many questions about his activities as a bikie
but I could easily imagine them. So it was quite touching when he
showed me a drawing and poem to his grandson. He depicted himself in his
leathers, riding his Harley with those tall handlebars through the heavens
at night, but surrounded by a halo of light. I didn't memorize the poem
but it was a message to his grandson (who is only 4) to remember his grand
dad every time he looks up at the stars because one of those stars will
be him, riding his Harley. Rather amazing tenderness from such a tough
Speaking of things artistic, John has a natural talent for sculpture.
Many of his stone and marble carvings adorn the grounds of Goulburn Jail.
His works are mostly religious icons, which he donates to various churches.
He's currently doing one for the Royal Prince Alfred hospital. He's been
carving things since he was a kid... no training, just a good eye for proportion.
He started with wood but later graduated to stone and marble. I suppose
the donations are John's way of easing his conscience.
John is the son of an Irish couple who lived in Everleigh St Redfern
when he was a kid. They tossed him out of the family home. For a while
he lived on the streets and scavanged garbage bins to survive until a local
Aboriginal family took him in and raised him. He had learned a few tricks
back in those days about survival and how to make money. He describes himself
as an outlaw, so I asked him if there was a difference between outlaws
and criminals. He replied yes, an outlaw has a certain status as a folk
hero (Ned Kelly, Billy the Kid, Robin Hood) whereas a common criminal is
simply low-life... no class.
I also asked if being a member of a bikie gang was like a 9 to 5 job
or 24/7. He said 24/7. "If I call a member and order him to be at my place
at 5am on any given day, he'd better be there." A member starts out on
probation and it's not until the leader is 100% satisfied with him that
the new recruit is given full membership. And that can take a couple
of years. The rules and codes of behavior are strict, non-negotiable and
are in written form. The Rebels, incidentally, is Australia's largest bikie
gang with over 2000 members.
During the evening, John often used his smart phone to call other bikies
(brothers) for a chat about something. He gave me the number of a former
president (now retired) who has the most incredible memory for various
events throughout the years. "He can even remember all the damn license
plates!" John described me as a "journalist" and suggested I collaborate
with the ex president, Tiny, to write a book about the Rebels Funniest
Moments. He said it would make a fortune. My worry is that what those guys
might find funny I might not. In fact, I might be horrified. Besides, my
tongue is still swollen, I can't speak properly on the phone, and Tiny
lives in Sydney.
An out of character aspect to John's tough bikie image is his little
125cc Vespa motor scooter. He loves the thing, and uses it to zip down
to the corner store to get the milk and paper. It's a lot easier than getting
dressed up in all the leathers to ride the Harley. During one of his phone
convos with a bikie mate, he talked the bloke into buying a used Vespa
so the two of them could go for a ride together.
Next morning, I was wheeled into surgery at about 7am. I was warned
that I might get a tracheostomy if I had trouble breathing during the operation,
but as it turned out, I didn't need one. Ten hours later I was wheeled
into a private room where I woke several hours later at about 10pm. I was
surprsed to find a tube up my nose - my feeding tube - plus a bunch of
other tubes in my arms and neck - tubes for inserting stuff, tubes for
draining stuff. I was a mess. And my tongue was swollen. When I first woke,
I was completely disoriented. I looked at the clock on the wall, then looked
away, then looked back. The clock hadn't moved, but it seemed like it should
have. "That clock isn't moving," I said to the nurse. She explained that
I'd been through serious surgery for 10 hours and was still under the effects
of general anaesthetic. Slowly, I began to come round but I was very weak,
needing assistance in the loo and shower. I learned in a hurry not to trust
the urine bottle. My diet of drip feed was coming out both ends simultaneously.
A nurse was stationed in my room full-time on the first night. After that,
I was visited every hour by various nurses, one of whom turned me on my
side to give my back and butt a wash and discovered "something odd" jammed
up my rectum. She checked with the head nurse and discovered it was a thermometer
left in my butt during the operation. The damn thing was about a foot long
and it felt really weird being withdrawn. "There's no privacy here, Gary.
You leave your dignity outside when you arrive here."
By about day 3 or 4, I was capable of showering and going to the loo
myself. Then a friend (ex neighbor in Glebe) visited and delivered my new
wireless modem. How cool was that? Up until then I was bored as hell with
virtually nothing to do except chat a little with the nurses or stare out
the window at a bunch of trees... and there had been no contact with people
I knew on the net. Meanwhile, I was improving well according to the nurses,
one of whom said I was "ticking boxes". A week and a bit after surgery,
I was taken off the drip feed, had the drainage tubes removed, and the
plaster cast on my right arm removed. Then I was moved from the private
room to a ward with 3 other beds. It
must have been pretty close to the heli-pad because I could hear the
chopper quite loudly.
One bloke, Neville, had undergone a similar operation to mine except
his included a tracheostomy. His tongue was much more swollen than mine
and protruded from his lips like a giant slug. At first, I thought it was
a serious birth defect. He was reticent to make any sort of contact, and
never spoke, not even to the nurses. If he needed to make something known,
he'd write notes. After I'd been in the ward about 2 days (10 days overall
in hospital), Neville warmed to me and came over to my bed with a note
to say he'd been there since mid December and was still being drip fed.
The day before I left, he had been there 31 days. Another bloke in the
ward was Robert. He and I chatted quite a bit and discovered something
we had in common, a history in the radio business. He was undergoing radiation
and chemo therapy for cancer of the intestines, for which be blamed exposure
to Agent Orange during the Vietnam war. He was discharged about 2 days
before I left, and had surgery scheduled about 3 months further down the
track. The third bloke, James, was 86 with a serious tumor in his throat
despite having never smoked in his life. He had already undergone a tracheostomy
to aid breathing but had lots of trouble overnight with gagging and gurgling.
He was forever calling a night nurse to his aid, which also kept me awake.
He was scheduled to undergo radiation and chemo therapy for 9 weeks. As
I shook his hand before I left, I wished him luck and he said, "I'll need
Most of the time in the 4-bed ward, I ignored the meals. Stuff like
scrambled eggs, pureed vegetable and meat I simply rejected... and couldn't
eat. I ate only custard and soup and yoghurt, and drank a bit of fruit
juice and health drink. Another problem was a couple of blisters on my
inside lip (probably caused by trying to talk too much) which made eating
and drinking painful. As a consequence, I lost weight as well as strength.
After I was discharged, I was so weak I hardly made it to the railway station
with my heavy backpack. On the train itself, I had a dizzy spell and sank
to the floor of the carriage. But I was soon back on my feet and managed
to return to my seat without assistance. Even now, several days later,
I still find it difficult to stay on my feet for extended periods, and
I barely have the strength to tear off those seals from the tops of plastic
cups of fruit or juice.
I've been home almost a week now and am improving ever so slowly. I
had no idea I would be this badly affected by the operation... no idea
at all. It makes my heart surgery 10 years ago seem like a non event. I
feel drained, and am getting around the house like a bent old man, constantly
resting my butt on the nearest chair. Sheesh.
Next Tuesday I have a final (hopefully) appointment with the surgeon
just to check that the wounds are healing okay. Then about half way through
next month (February) I'll start the 6-week radiation and chemo course
at Port Macquarie... but that'll be another story. Meanwhile, I didn't
take many pics of my recent experience at Royal Prince Alfred... Sunrise
at Taree railway station the morning I departed by bus, changeover to train
at Broadmeadow (near Newcastle), various scenes at the hospital including
of me looking dreadful, a picture on the wall which so happened to be of
Mt Warning (Wollumbin) which is mentioned quite a lot in Green Room II,
my wounded arm (with and without plaster), the Devine Miss Mikela one of
the lovely and attentive nurses who treated me so well, the main entrance
foyer at the hospital as I departed, and a few passing scenes from the
train as I returned home. Click
here for the photo album.
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