27th October, 1996. The last time I ever set foot in the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, Victoria. 20 years ago, today. So, a lot happens in two decades but the experience of that foreboding period many moons ago still empowers, inspires and grounds me. Many say our experiences make you the person you are and this is my story that does just that; the day my tummy died.
The morning sun glistened which, making softened droplets of moisture sparkle from the frostbitten nature strips, radiated into my nine year old eyes. I followed my little brother’s trail of green footprints left behind from his strides through the frosty blades of evergreen. Spring was on the horizon and the chilly walk to St. Mary’s was part of our daily routine. It was August the 9th, 1996, the school day was merely another boring one ahead; no sport, another barrage from the teachers whom clearly made a living loathing me and making me feel unwanted. So, naturally, in return, I made their lives hell. School was something I never really enjoyed, granted, being in my company was probably not the most enjoyable experience either from time to time. I was one of those kids that loved sport and found sanctuary in the realms of life on the oval, away from the teachers and their rules and unachievable expectations. I was a kid of confidence and one yearning for positive reinforcement. This day started with blue skies and by the time I reached the school grounds, I expected a familiar battle. The battle I had overcome the previous day and many before it had nothing on the conflict I was about to confront. For on this day, the battle would be for my life.
Like so many misfits, I needed challenge. I needed someone or something to stimulate my day, every day. I was a keen mathematician and, obviously a strong creator of literature. I was one of those kids that got bored easily; the textbook, ‘copy me’ style of education made me cringe, so inherently those in charge found it extremely difficult to keep my young, creative and very determined mind occupied. Before too long, I was that annoyance, the one who just didn’t do what he was told to. So going to school soon became a place to do nothing more than an experience which allowed me to practise my pride and joy, football. Each recess and lunch, the oval was an amphitheatre for one of the biggest shows in town; the 'Timmy Bristow Show'. Dodging and weaving, my ego clearly growing with each opponent I’d leave dumbfounded in my tracks.
Then, without notice, I fell from grace in the hardest way possible.
Trying to organise football teams as I watched the clock slowly drain toward the main break became my favourite time of each day. I was in control, all the 3rd grade students wanted to be just like me, they craved my attention and it felt good. The only attention I’d ever get was the scowling from teachers, the evil eyes and the ever-present image of Timothy under the frown face on the blackboard. This ten minutes was different, this ten minutes was magic. On this day, everything was different; the clouds came over as if on call to the ringing of the eating bell. The high midday sun became blanketed as I made my way to the oval. The other kids in Year 3 decided today wasn’t football day and made their way to the playground instead. My intentions didn’t waver though; I was going to play footy regardless of who wanted to, so, without supervision from the staff members, I joined the Year 6 kids in their game.
Despite most being three years my senior and twice my height and body weight, I held my own. Even to these bullying brutes, my skill and determination was the envy. About three minutes into the first stanza of the game, I dove for a breath-taking smother and, in part, succeeded. My dive over shot the mark and the outgoing footy missed my outstretched arms and slammed into my face, causing jubilation for the kicker. It was as if that was better than kicking the imminent goal. I still remember hearing a voice over the ringing of my ears. “Nice shot Daniel!”. One student, who would soon too regret my presence on this particular day, bellowed from nearby. “Yeah, I know,” the kicker replied. “Bulls-eye!” he stated with a smug giggle. At this point in time, I should’ve seen this headshot as lunchtime over. Curtains. I trudged to the front office, which shared a wall with the staffroom, top lip streaming with blood. I opened the door to the sarcastic comments of a teacher, with an eye rolling and cynical, “What have you done now, Mr Bristow?” I was told to sit with the icepack on my already swollen mouth in the corner whilst the teacher went to sort out why there hadn’t been any duty teacher outside. Naturally, I sensed this patronising lack of care and snuck back out to play. I needed redemption. I jogged back to the Year 6’s game and quickly found the footy, giving my all with every moment that passed.
The clouds drew darker and the sky closed in as if in tandem with the fast finishing playtime. I was eager to get my hands on the footy once more before that bell rung out. Then my opportunity arose. The ball was kicked high into the air and I pursued with a determined hustle. Running backward with the flight of the footy, unbeknownst, a large pack of seemingly giants descended from the opposite direction. Eyes on the ball, I was ready to launch at it. In an instant, my world was turned upside down. The oncoming pack had too launched itself, only slightly earlier than me. Merely airborne, an errant knee catapulted into my midriff and sent an explosive eruption from within. My eyes widened in shock as they were paused, stranded on the overhanging clouds from above. It resembled the feeling to that of being shot. The cinema clearly based their death scenes on moments like this. I must remind you, this little boy was a light framed nine year old. To make matters worse, I hit the turf on my upper back and the ensuing pack crumbled on top of me. The previous knee made its way into my stomach once more. This time, wrenching the breath from within my tiny lungs. At the time, I felt the world was in standby, watching down to make sure I was able to take that next gasp, even a small pocket of oxygen. Seconds passed and this moment didn’t come. The student to whom the errant knee belonged was one of the two from the first incident. He went into shock too. That daunting feeling of getting into trouble for hurting someone at school was clearly gushing through him.
A childhood neighbour and family friend, Peter, raced over and lifted me to my feet, thinking I had winded myself. To be honest, I sort’ve thought the same. Still no duty teacher, Peter carried me to the benches on the side of the oval and reassured both my breath and mind. “Take it easy, you don’t want the teachers to find out and get us all into trouble do you?” he posed. This did not happen. Teacher or reassurance; I was in a panic. I sat in utter agony as I could feel the temperature escaping my body. The lunch bell resonated out loud and the alarm bells correlated in my head. Even as a nine year old, I knew something was not right. The usual ‘silent reading’ activity ensued but this was out of the question, I crawled, on all fours to the giant pillow at the back of the classroom and curled my body into a ball. It was the only position I could wrangle without excruciating pain. Between questions from my peers, asking if I was ok, I crawled to the doorway, our teacher was outside the classroom chatting with a colleague.
As courageous as I could be, I stood and asked the teacher if I could head to the bathroom. Something had to give; I made it half way, then proceeded to vomit my way across the outdoor area. This was a living nightmare playing itself out in real time. It’s actually hard to fathom the sight of a nine year old going through this but, trust me the sights I was to see in the coming weeks made this scene look like paradise. Though this didn’t help me at the time. I was quickly ushered away from the vomit and given the standard ice-cream bucket in case of a repeat. By the time we found our way to the staff room, it was 2:00 pm. The next hour and forty minutes were a blur, falling in and out of consciousness.
Mum raced in to see me, a little boy in the corner of the dark, cold room, I was almost blue. I still think she regrets not making more of a fuss. “Not even a blanket”, she’d retell her friends at a later time of the scene. “I know he can be a turd but he’s a kid, he needs to be cared for”, she’d continue to rant; I knew nothing of what it all meant at the time but as an educator now, I can only shake my head in disapproval.
I got home around 4:00 pm and slipped into bed. ‘Maybe when I wake this would all be back to the way it should be- pain free’, I thought in hope. Whatever was going on inside my belly had other ideas, within two hours; I was headed for the hospital.
“Have you got some Panadol at home?” the nurse at the counter of the emergency asked, slightly patronising Mum. “Put him to bed and see how he is in the morning”. Just like that, we were rejected from the medical attention I clearly needed. That evening was to be every parent’s worst nightmare night! Like clockwork, on the ten minutes, my stomach would knot and start churning. Huge pains would engulf my tiny frame and the extraction of nothingness impeded my ability to breathe. My body said “no more” but the dry reaching continued. My insides were haemorrhaging. The swelling was so intense; my organs were being squashed to breaking point. I can’t imagine the concern of Mum at this point. She phoned Dad.
Like I was once more a baby, Dad whisked me down the stairs, I was energy zapped and could no longer even sit up without squirming in agony.
Straight in, second time around, hospital visit number two. All cues lead to something seriously wrong. Drugged up, I had no idea where I was headed. I’m sure behind closed doors, doctors were scampering for information and best practice in this situation. Being in a small country town, the resources wouldn’t suffice, and within twenty four hours of being freakily kneed, I was fighting for my life, flown off to Melbourne’s Royal Children Hospital.
What an amazing experience, to be in a small plane instead of being trapped at school like all the other hapless students. 'Suckers!' I thought. I giggled and looked out the small circular windows of the aeroplane. The ‘laughing gas’ was in full swing.
As much a daunting place a hospital may seem, the Royal Children’s Hospital made theirs a place of hope and aspiration. The mood may have been glum but it was hard not to smile when greeted by incredible nurses each morning and assisted by knowledgeable doctors. A certain irony fills the air within the walls of a hospital. On one hand, there’s doubt and then the unknown boiling of panic, but on the other, it’s rather difficult not to get swept up in the raw emotion from the sheer magnitude of miracles happening on a daily basis. The first few days, I went from torment to unconscious within minutes of each other. The halls were overflowing with waiting sick kids, for the newly built Children’s Ward 4 was not quite ready for patients. Out of body experiences were a constant and the reaction to pethidine made me hallucinate things straight from a horror film. I was strolling Struggle Street in a big way.
The first week had passed and the pain eased ever so slightly but the swelling became cause for huge concern. I was never a massive fan of school so this place actually became a nice break. Between tests, scans and needles I made a menace of myself singing 'Waterfalls' at the top of my lungs. Thinking I was mimicking prowess, I was most likely replicating a cat being choked. The nurses just cheekily encouraged it and went on smiling. The fact I never really knew what was happening to me was a credit to the staff; I was happy, for, in my case, ignorance was bliss. Mum though, she bore the brunt of it all. Not only did she quickly run out of sick leave to be by my side in Melbourne, she was dealing with the uncertainty of what may or may not happen if the doctors were to open me up. Little did I know at the time, I was mighty close to that ‘white light’ and the stress and anxiety it must have caused my family is almost unfathomable. With each day that passed, a probable and at times, imminent, life-threatening operation became more apparent. Nearly three weeks had passed and I hadn’t eaten a bite or even swallowed a sip; but with the drips aplenty, the medicine was working its own magic. I had visitors and gifts that soothed the pain and eventually I wondered what my peers were up to at school, and soon I begun to pine the schooling experience. Back at St Mary’s, the child whose knee had caused the damage had his own battle. The bogus blaming and berating he copped was unjust, incomprehensible and, quite frankly, unethical. He surely suffered enough in knowing he was at the heart of a freak accident. To look back, I am truly enraged to think about the negative impact teachers continued to have on students. For a small country town school, this incident was huge. In no circumstance though, was this kid at fault. Boys were simply being boys, playing rough footy. With no supervision. Duty of care is something that is wildly thrown around these days but, despite seeming an obvious preventative measure, on that fateful day, there was zilch. Where was the consoling, the council for this boy? Not for me, I was off being pampered whilst that poor Year 6 student was being punished. Questions weren’t raised. A massive black hole in the education system bears its head when you start offloading on a Year 6 kid to mask an oversight, a clear incompetency of a staff... of adults.
It is always nice to look back in hindsight. What if I had done things differently that day? Should I have made the decision to sneak back out to play? It doesn’t matter really. We should live without regret and we learn from our mistakes. If we make the same mistakes, we are not responding and we are not learning. I learnt a lot from my ordeal, about myself and about adults. I learnt that those who are in need most of care, rarely receive it and those that deserve most gratitude rarely request it. Giving makes a perfect gift for oneself and I feel it is now my duty to share this message. To continue to give, never ask anything in return and learn from each and every experience I have. I really enjoy story telling but I especially love my students. They, like every child, deserve to be treated fairly to be thought of as they are; special. I will always hold a certain school slogan close to me. It came from the very first school I taught in. Their school emblem reads, ‘Together we learn, share, respect and care”. The school experience should be a shared one and the care we show for our children is pivotal in the way they learn. Respect is two way; it is shown in many ways but should always be shown together.
For those whom were interested, I spent over a month in the Royal Children’s Hospital, three weeks without eating. I re-visited and was readmitted due to complication three times over the following six weeks. My duodenum had ruptured and my pancreas split, haemorrhaging ferociously. The swelling and unstoppable bleeding lead to the concern my surrounding organs wouldn’t survive. If the doctors were to operate, they feared there may only be a modest chance of survival. At day 17, the swelling stagnated then started to subside at day 20. Such a minor incident compared to many patients. The worst thing that ever really eventuated was the fact the doctors told me my growth may be slightly stunted; now I’m still coming to terms with being the smallest of the three Bristow boys by a good 10 or 12 centimetres, despite being the oldest. I can sit back and ponder the role luck played here but I feel I was meant to battle through that encounter. I was meant to go on in this world and become an adult who inspires. One who gives kids the true care they deserve, for, as teachers we need to realise that each and every child is special in their own unique way.
Written for those who made each day special for me whilst in most need of care; the nurses and doctors of the Royal Children’s Hospital. Twenty years have passed but their dedication will never be forgotten.