My dad was a hero

I wrote this to record a family event for my nephews and nieces. A chance to see something of their Granddad Keith Blaikie. But it is something that I have wanted to do for me also. This is what I remember of that week starting March 1, 2003.

I was in bed when the phone rang. It was Friday 11:30 pm. This was the time of cordless landline phones, a time before cellphones. My flatmate took the call and brought the phone to me. It was Mum. She was upset, ‘Dad collapsed today. He didn’t come home for afternoon tea, so I went to find him. He was unconscious. Sal (the little Jack Russel terrior) was with him. We got the ambulance for him. We’re in intensive care now, in Invercargill, Auntie Esme and me. Victor is at home, Mervyn (the neighbour) is with him, to help call people, to let them know. The doctors say it’s a massive brain hemorrhage. He won’t survive it, but it could take a day or so for him to die.’ She was being very brave, but she was empty; shock and denial at war with the pragmatic, do-what-needs-to-be-done attitude that we grew up with. We knew this day would come, but when it finally arrived, it came as a violent surprise. We mostly saw humanity at its best that week and after, mostly…

‘I’m coming. Leaving right now. I’ll pack a bag and I’m on my way. Where do I park when I get there?’ There are weird practical things that have to be talked about at times like this. It’s surreal. Like the next conversation I had with my flatmate at midnight on a Friday about what I should wear to my father’s funeral. I packed as many options as possible, threw everything in the car, and sped the 3.5 hours to Invercargill’s Que hospital. I found a park, and then I was face-to-face with the forbidding entrance.

There is nothing welcoming about a hospital, especially at 4 in the morning. Someone told me how to get to intensive care, and there was Mum and Auntie Esme, sitting on awful chairs in the awful waiting room. Surrounded by pamphlets of all sorts of health related trivia. We camped in this horrible little room for the next 36 hours, along with other families who were facing critical care situations. But they knew that they would get to take their dad home and yet they acted like theirs was the most devastating trauma in the whole world. Meanwhile Mum, my elderly aunt and I had to sit on wooden stools in the corridor while that family asked for ‘privacy at this difficult time’. We took our awful coffee and waited outside. Laughing hollowly at the insensitivity of some people. It was actually good to get some space from their ‘Shortland Street’ style drama.

Since Mum’s phone call, there had been a lot of activity. I was surprised to find Dad was on life-support machines. But they’d found out that he had opted to be an organ donor from his driver licence data, and he was a perfect candidate. Dad had just filled out the paperwork for a new licence and they had just discussed at the farm, a few weeks before his collapse, how good it would be if he could donate, but how unlikely that would be. Little did we know what was coming… It turned out that I knew all of the nurses who looked after Dad during that time. The most wonderful, beautiful human beings. Such kind support at such a traumatic time. The doctor on the other hand, Peter, was almost incompetent. Not at his medical job. But terrible at relating to other humans. Especially given that it was his responsibility to sit with us and discuss the option of Dad being an organ donor. He started this conversation in the ward, surrounded by all the other people and staff, until he was loudly interrupted by the voice of the doctor working on the patient behind the next door curtain, telling Peter to wait until he could assist. We found out later that the next door doctor had been through a similar situation with his own father about 6 months before, and he couldn’t stand by and let our doctor botch it all up. And so we moved back to the awful waiting room (the drama queens had left to take their dad home by now) and the conversation about which organs they wanted to take began. We were handed two double-side photocopied sheets that simply listed every organ or bit that they could possibly use, and we had to put a cross in the box next to each part that we would consent to being taken. I was surprised to find that we could have said ‘no’ at this point. But we didn’t. Peter started to go through each body part on the form, (which actually looked like it was the fiftieth copy of a fiftieth copy), one by one, explaining what the body part was and what it could be used for. At one point, Mum and I joked that they probably should take the lungs, they’d only been used for smoking for 60 years, there was probably a few more years left in them! Peter was confused and assured us that in that case, they, um, probably wouldn’t want the lungs. The other doctor almost rolled his eyes, and he took over saying that they would like us to release the kidneys and liver, maybe the corneas, we didn’t need to worry about the rest. And then it was done. Mum signed the papers very matter-of-factly. And then Peter informed us, with a sigh of relief that his responsibility was over, that all we had to do was wait for Dad’s brain to swell to the point that there was no brain stem function. And then the transplant team, who were patiently waiting he told us, would fly in and ‘retrieve the organs’. Note the wording there, how the sense of ownership has shifted from the donor to the transplant team. This phrase has become abhorrent to me, but it has become part of the vernacular of how medical people talk about donor organs, in an attempt to depersonalise the operation. How dare they assume ownership. Bastards. All you can do in the face of such insensitivity is stand for a while with your mouth wide open in amazement, and then shrug it off with a disappointed smile. There were too many other things to deal with, there was no energy to give him a couple of barrels, or even the brain/heart space to comprehend how badly we had just been treated. He wouldn’t understand anyway. After all, he had done his job. And Dad would have really been proud to know that the last act of his life was to give other people a chance at a better life. He had lived his life trying to make that happen for us and others. In that sense, what was happening was a continuation of how he had lived.

We slept that night at Carole and Ray’s home, which was nearby in Invercargill. It was a relief to get out of that awful waiting room, to eat some good Southland cuisine and put our heads on a pillow for a few hours. At lunchtime on Sunday, they assessed that there was no brain function, and they declared that Dad was dead. (‘They’ is the doctors and the hospital system, not the nurses. It felt like the nurses were the only human contact during this time. They were a source of kindness and comfort. Quite different to the rest, who were a great meat grinding machine.) The announcement was surreal, because the heart monitor and the life support system were still operating. But he was gone. And it still hits me like a tonne of bricks. He was gone. My dear, kind, quietly spoken, wise, community minded Dad was gone. The quiet wit, the cheeky smile, the laughter, the stories. Reduced to memories. And I wailed. I couldn’t help myself. The loss was so terrible.

Eventually, the wave of loss subsided and we were faced with mundane realities. The transplant team would be in later that afternoon. The operation would happen later in the evening. Did we want to come back and visit Mr Blaikie in the morning? You bloody bet I wanted to check what those bastard butchers had done to my dear old Dad! We’ll be back! I swore a lot in my head in those days. But I was all quiet business on the outside. There was a funeral to organise…

We went back to Carole and Ray’s place for afternoon tea and to pick up our stuff. While we were there, relating our stories, venting a bit, they noticed that an unscheduled plane flew in. So the transplant team had arrived. And my heart broke all over again. But we had stuff to do, so we got in the car and headed home to the farm. The news at the farm was not so good. The whiteware seemed to have all gone out in support of Dad. The washing machine had died. The dishwasher had died. And there was something wrong with the zip (the industrial sized water boiler, ironically dying just when we needed it). And then there was the news that my brother, who lived in Australia, was not going to make it home. He had been on his way to Nepal to go trekking. A family friend had managed to intercept him in Singapore and gave him the news on Saturday morning. We had hoped that he could then just get on a plane and come home. However, the ground staff insisted that they couldn’t get his stuff off the plane and that he would have to continue to Kathmandu, where he could then arrange to get home. This was a lie. If someone doesn’t get to the gate on time, they will ‘deplane’ that someone in a matter of minutes, no problems. They were just being shits. Anyway, my brother was in a mood to accept their advice, and got on the plane. Only to find that once he got to Kathmandu, the next flight out was in a week. What do you do in that situation? Wait in Kathmandu for the week, get the next plane out and miss the funeral anyway? Or go on the two week trekking trip and make a trip home to NZ for the scattering of ashes later? So he went trekking. Surreal. I don’t travel Thai Airways, and I distrust any official at Changi.

We rested as well as we could because Monday was FULL ON! A trip to Invercargill (1 hour each way) to check on Dad. The nurses had laid him out in a private room, and we were free to stay as long as we needed. Then we had to make a trip to Balclutha (50 minutes each way in the other direction) to see the Funeral Director, and buy new whiteware, then back to the farm, where the visitors had started to arrive. And then there was the funeral to arrange: pall bearers, minister, eulogy, songs, funeral service sheets, food, venues… Everyone thought it was a good idea for me to sing, so I arranged a duet with my long time singing partner, Rob, and that also meant arranging a piano player, and a practice on the morning of the funeral! My brother organised a couple of the most unlikely ushers to help people to seats and to hand out service sheets. Their comment was that they should’ve had a pen with them, because Francie’s friends were all stunners, and they needed to be collecting phone numbers! Of course they are typical blokes and did not follow up on anything. And it was tuberculosis testing week for the cattle, so they needed to be mustered in and antibodied on Tuesday, and then mustered in and read on Thursday. The funeral fitted nicely into the schedule on Wednesday. TB testing is normally a large job carried out by the vet, and at a particular time, so rescheduling would have been difficult. To be honest, Dad would have said that the TB testing should take priority over his funeral! The farm always took priority. Friends of my farmer brother just turned up to help. They were brilliant. I always had respect for them as good Kiwi blokes, but this was their was to show love and respect. Farming communities are amazing communities. We would just ask for something to happen, and it happened. The funeral afternoon tea for over 600 was just catered for, no problems. The whiteware just arrived and got installed on the day it was bought. Food, flowers, washing, dishes washed, visitors… It was heart warming and comforting. And then it was over. And we picked up the pieces and carried on.

Sixteen months later, I went with my Auntie Esme to an Organ Transplant memorial service at the cathedral in Christchurch. It was a wonderful service except for the part where the chief transplant surgeon had the podium. During that very sensitive time, he talked about how important it was to be able to harvest organs for transplant, and how difficult retrieval could be. Again, notice the language. Appalling. I was so angry. ‘Harvest’. ‘Retrieve’. But this was in stark contrast to the testimonies of organ receivers, who talked about new lives, and gratitude. And I reaffirmed for myself that we had done the right thing. Regardless of the brazen insensitivity of the medical profession, Dad would be very gracious and forgiving, and very glad to know that his organs had gone to two people, one for kidney transplant and one for liver/kidney transplant. How wonderful it is, that we have the technology to do these things! How heroic it is that people, and their families, choose to be organ donors if possible! How thankful I am that I grew up in such a wonderful community. One that recognised the quiet contribution of my Dad, and honoured him for it at the end with the same kindness and service. My Dad was a hero.