Twenty years ago on 7 December, 2000 I joined the ‘zip club’. In plain English I had open heart surgery. Around a week earlier I had undergone an angiogram, where they pump dye through your arteries while you are awake, but sedated.
The cardiologist said calmly, “You have 90 to 95% blockages, compromising 80% of your heart.” I needed a triple by-pass as soon as they could fit me in.
So I went about my normal business for a week with a bottle of nitroglycerin tablets in my pocket. I remember driving back from the airport in my old red Falcon ute, a blisteringly hot day, with inadequate aircon. This may be where it all ends, I thought.
Open heart surgery makes quite an impact on your life, and I had meant to write about it. Time passed until one Saturday morning a few years later I had an experience that got me going. Blogs were new then. The piece I wrote was published by a Melbourne freelance writer and editor, David Tiley, who was running a blog called Barista: heartstarters for the hungry mind.
When I started blogging here and there, it felt like one of those dreams where you are at a social function and you suddenly realise that you’ve forgotten to dress from the waist down. I was about to give up, when David wrote me an encouraging email.
The blog is no longer around, but David is. He is currently editor of Screen hub. The guest post from way back then, which I copied as published and kept on my hard drive, is posted with minor modifications below the fold.
Barista: heartstarters for the hungry mind
August 09, 2004
guest post: Brian Bahnisch
Living in Brisbane, Brian Bahnisch moves around our blogosphere with a lovely ability to do the proverbial hard yards on facts and figures, and find the emotional reality behind them.
Saturday morning interlude
Another stunning day in paradise, I set out to drive to a shopping centre not far from here. It is that grotesque effusion into the skyline, built by the turncoat Minister for Transport, Don Lane, on railway land, because he could, as a single finger gesture to the Brisbane City Council during the days when Joh ruled alone.
Part of my purpose, strangely, was to visit one of a chain of pharmacies under the brand of Terry White, the Liberal politician who took Joh on and lost, arguably precipitating the demise of the Liberals in Queensland. I needed a repeat of my blood pressure capsules, $23.70 to me, full cost $37.01, lord knows how much to the Americans.
As I drove I was thinking of what we had actually done, here in Oz, in signing up to a closer union with the American brand of capitalism this week as a result of the Free Tree Agreement decision. I was reflecting on Weber’s ‘iron cage’ of capitalism which transforms social structures and re-makes identities with values designed to maximise consumption and profit, all with an illusory notion of freedom and choice.
After collecting my pharmaceuticals I shouted myself a salad sandwich with a pot of tea in the coffee shop next to the pharmacy. I chose one of those bench alcove seats just behind an old guy who seemed to be sitting there, staring into space.
A drama was about to unfold before my eyes.
I’d barely noticed the man in black in the seat in front of the old man, later identified as the coffee shop proprietor, now sitting sideways and smiling encouragingly at the old man.
I pulled out a couple of articles I’d run off to read and started on Chomsky who was having a rave about the military-industrial complex, western imperialism, the diabolical things the Americans had been doing in Haiti and elsewhere while protesting their virtue to the world with the complete complicity of the mainstream media. You know the sort of thing. But interesting perceptions, as usual, as I discover later.
Suddenly there was a man in a white coat talking to the old man, who seemed frozen. He couldn’t hear, it seemed, or maybe he couldn’t talk. “Nod if you can hear me”, he was asked.
Then an almost imperceptible nod.
I became aware of two Trident security men, soon to become three, five people now attending to the old man.
The man in the white coat was the pharmacist from next door. He said, ”We need an ambulance”. An ambulance was called. Then he asked the old man if he could look in his bag. An imperceptible nod. He identified the man as one of his customers, called the man’s wife and scurried next door to print out a profile of the man’s medication.
I had figured out by this time that the man had probably suffered a mild stroke. But I was transported back to about a year ago, one night when I had taken one of those new-fangled sleeping tablets, Stilnox, before going to bed, thought I’d just wait to see whether Alicia Molik won the set in the US Open, duly passed out, was discovered by my wife and carted off to hospital.
That occasion included the female ambulance officer chasing our young cat around the back yard at 1.30am. The cat’s name was Mischief, who always had her nose there when you opened the front door, ready to make a break for freedom. Definitely beyond the call of duty for the ambo, but cheerfully performed. We had nurses living either side who, woken by the ruckus, thought I was gone for sure. I did regain some consciousness when they applied the oxygen mask. The human kindness of this incident and the cheerful efficiency of the ambulance officers made an indelible impression on me.
After a restful sleep in a hospital bed, I was fine, completely fine.
The $750 bill from the ambulance also impressed me, but our health insurance paid.
Now the subscription is part of the electricity bill. Everybody pays and everybody has access to the service. Furthermore, the ambos don’t need to work second jobs to keep a roof over their heads, as they often do in the US.
Thinking of this and watching the drama unfold, tears started rolling down my cheeks.
Ten minutes after the ambulance was called the man in white appeared to say they were out the back. He seemed to be there every minute or so, checking on the old man, but I know he was also furiously working on scripts in the pharmacy next door.
The ambos were all good Australian cheer and efficiency. In another 10 minutes they were gone, the scene was cleared. Those guys had certainly not been working a second job through the night.
Chomsky forgotten, I sat there pondering. I was taken back to the night three and a half years ago, when I had woken up at 11pm in intensive care after triple-bypass surgery. It was a rough night, partly because I couldn’t move. My wife tells me she still has a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach when she thinks of the bionic man I was with tubes and wires running out in all directions.
The young nurse was with me all the way and saw me through the night. Forget the wires and tubes. She was the one who figuratively took me by the hand and guided me to a safer shore. I still have a tendency to break up when I think about it. At 7am at the end of her shift I thanked her and she said: “It’s OK, you’re welcome. It’s my job.”
Later another nurse told me he’d worked in Scotland. We wake them up earlier here but we get them out of hospital a couple of days earlier with fewer complications. Good old Oz! Adapting and adopting the best! Asking more of us as patients, but also achieving more.
In the coffee shop it all came back. I convulsed silently for a while, holding in the sobs. (I’m not so hot right now!)
Regaining my composure, or so I thought, I gathered up my stuff and went home. It’s just that on walking in the front door I realised I’d left a bag of shopping behind. Left a note for my wife and back I went. Half way there I realised I didn’t have my shoulder bag, and hence no money, no phone, no drivers licence, no identification if I fall down in the street. Not, good, Brian, this experience is taking more bedding down than I thought.
Around the round-about and back home. When I get to Toowong, they have put my shopping aside as I knew they would. No need to ring and check. There are real, good-hearted people in that grotesque building.
I call into the pharmacy and tell the chemist how impressed I am. He is uncomfortable with praise, but it is clear he is the go-to man in an emergency. “The system still works”, I say.
Yes it did, he replies, but sometimes it doesn’t. Like the time the ambulance took for ages. But then it was during the week and by good fortune a bunch of doctors who just happened to be there looked after the woman who had had an epileptic fit in his shop. Note, Mr Beattie! We need spare capacity in ambulance services at all times!
I had a few thoughts coming out of this experience. First, there is an Australian spirit of mutual help and solidarity which is beyond the reach of American capitalists.
Second, I reflected on the nature of my feelings when I am confronted with these events, especially when transported back to that night in intensive care. It’s not sadness and it’s not joy. It is as though I’m in a place where nothing can touch me. At the same time everything touches me and I’m immersed in a feeling of being completely connected with humanity.
Then I realised that nurse, whoever she is, is part of me forever and in turn is part of whatever perchance I may contribute to others.
One day on Back Pages [Chris Shiel’s blog also now defunct] I rabbited on a bit about intersubjectivity and how through it we actually create each other. It doesn’t need to be mutually intense. It wasn’t intense for the nurse or the man in white or the ambos or the young ambo chasing the cat in the back yard. They were just doing what was there to do, but with good cheer and giving more as needed without a feeling of sacrifice.
It is a form of freedom and creativity I’ve come to treasure. There is no question of kudos or credit. Those notions are simply irrelevant. As long as we are making each other and not destroying each other.
It is also about being there, fully there in the moment, being and becoming.
I’d always thought I should write about my experience in intensive care, and now I guess I have.
And I’m OK.
In a way the experience I have described is a part of my transition to equanimity and acceptance of old age. It is part of a life-narrative.
We start our lives entirely embedded. Throughout life, as our personal identity develops, we are aware of the tension between our isolation and our common humanity. In the end the self remains, but is immersed in an oceanic experience. Emotion and thought, too, come together as one.
Posted by barista at August 9, 2004 11:15 AM |
That’s the post, more or less as it appeared, without the image.
The Toowong Centre was upgraded in 2014. What you see is the new version, not quite as gross as the old, and soon to be dwarfed by the $450 million Toowong Town Centre development.
Me? I’m fine. This is a photo of me taken around that time:
The lovely golden penda was a dud. It flowered about once a decade, so recently we gave it the chop. I’ve got more wrinkles and I think your nose keeps growing while the rest of you shrinks a bit.
At the time to get 6-10 comments on a post was about typical. These were special, too good not to post:
Wow. Thanks Brian (and David) for bringing that to us.
It raises a whole mess of issues for me, but I think the greatest is how as a society we tend to undervalue nurses, until we are forced as individuals to confront just how important they are. As a young person, I can afford to ignore the health crisis, but one day I’ll need help, and I hope I’ll get the nurse who had 8 hours sleep last night and saw their partner some time in the last week.
Bob Carr can also learn from the lesson applied to Peter Beattie. Having Ambos sitting in hospital carparks for hours (sometimes 6!) waiting for a bed to become available is bad for the Ambos, but it’s not so good for the patient either. It lengthens the Ambo’s shifts, which is OK for a one-off, but if it happens day after day it burns people out and discourages others from joining their ranks. I shudder to think what would have happened to the stroke patient had he sat in the back of an ambulance for 4 hours before being treated..
Still, who am I to complain. I save $5 in tax each week.
Posted by: Rowen at August 9, 2004 11:44 AM
Well, there’s a tear or two in my eyes. Thank you Brian, not least for reminding me that Australians aren’t necessarily as narrow minded and mean spirited as our political masters seem to think.
When are you going to get your own blog up and running?
Posted by: zoot at August 9, 2004 02:03 PM
You’re beautiful, Brian. Love you, mate. Life is indeed precious. Great you’ve found it.
Posted by: Peter Ransen at August 9, 2004 02:34 PM
zoot, I’m working beyond my design capacity now!
Peter, thanks mate. You’re not so bad yourself!
One element I missed in thinking about the emotion I felt on Saturday and going back to that night in intensive care, is of course the fragility of life. But also combined with the awareness that we are incorporated in a way into the stream of humanity, and when it is truly time to go, we best go gently.
Posted by: Brian Bahnisch at August 9, 2004 03:30 PM
Brian is occupying a kind of hybrid role which is really suggestive in terms of the development of the internet. (sorry if I am talking about you as if you are a case study, Brian, but I am sure you will understand).
Because he does research-rich posts, he can comment on more technical sites, or guest blog on them – as he has done for Quiggin and for SMH. For more experiential material he is welcome here, where I think he has a slightly different audience. Or at least, the same people come here knowing that I am not much of a theorist but I do build the site around stories of people.
So Brian can move back and forth according to the audiences of the various sites. It is a great position to occupy, and I think we will see more people find that space.
I am very open to guest blogging if anyone cooks something up they think would work here. And I am happy to receive suggestions about links for posts – you see them turn up occasionally.
Posted by: David Tiley at August 9, 2004 09:39 PM
Yes it was a great post to read, Brian, – and unlike a lot blog reading that is quick and ephemeral, I thought about it afterwards away from the computer as I was walking through the park.
“At the same time everything touches me and I’m immersed in a feeling of being completely connected with humanity.
“Then I realised that nurse, whoever she is, is part of me forever and in turn is part of whatever perchance I may contribute to others.”
and David, this hybrid is an exciting idea – different voices in different spaces.
I’ve often thought that the comment boxes are parallel blogs – and some comments (if we’re lucky) almost become a guest blog in themselves
Posted by: boynton at August 9, 2004 11:30 PM
Oh yes, Boynton. The fun is often in the comments …
Posted by: David Tiley at August 10, 2004 02:14 AM
I’ve been a bit distracted by a few things around here.
Boynton, you’ve extracted the kernel. Let me expand a bit more.
I’ve always been interested in the development in individual personal identities as we grow. Also I’ve long thought that individualism has perhaps gone too far in the modern world.
Last year I read a draft of something (son) Mark was working on, a new reading of the French thinker Maurice Merleau-Ponty. M-P according to Mark reasoned that our individual personal identities are socially formed. That is, the primary reality is intersubjective. Within this field and out of this field individual identities are created.
There were a few other inputs to my thinking, which I won’t spell out in detail, but they included some concepts from Neville Symington and a post David did on What’s love got to do with it. Something Chris Shiel said about Hannah Ahrendt and lies triggered a bit of a brain storm resulting in my planting an essay on a comment thread about Peter Garrett. Probably left a few people scratching their heads.
Intellectual knowledge is one thing, to personalise it and make it your own is another.
The experience last Saturday, more particularly the emotions and memories it evoked, and even more particularly reflecting on same, seemed to bring it home to me.
Intellectualising a bit further I think I’ll call the notion that we create each other in a positive sense ‘creative intersubjectivity’.
Please note, the remembering of an event three plus years ago is often thought of as reliving the experience. This is true in a way, but it is more true that it is a new experience in a new context with new ingredients not there before.
David, in all this I’m partly trying to say that all this is more than the “emotional reality behind” the dry intellectual stuff. Rather it is a fusion of emotion and intellect. The abstraction of concepts and stats you get in economics and other social sciences bothers me a bit, because the emotional dimension is masked and deemed a lesser reality.
Symington reckons (another concept I’m trying on to see where it goes) that all actions, even thought, are at base, ARE in fact, emotional. Hence, if a rational thinker privileges neat, elegant rational thoughts and solutions to problems it is because he/she likes them over others. But, when Quiggin posed the problem of who we would take and who we would leave in a burning building, a scientist about to find a cure for cancer or our mum, we find we suddenly don’t like where the logic takes us. Why?
Of course values constitute another whole dimension. I’m still trying to figure it all out.
Finally, I approached David to post my piece here because I get the impression that it’s mostly humans who come here and not so many RWDB [= Right Wing Death Beasts]. Also David kindly improved it a bit with his editorial skills. I knew you’d be along, Boynton, and I’d really like to get along to your place more often. I spend too much time, perhaps, tilting at windmills.
Posted by: Brian Bahnisch at August 10, 2004 11:12 PM
Hi zoot. Evidence you were there. And I’m here still tilting at windmills.