When She Finally Cried

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Verbatim transcript:  Dr Melissa Novarty, Prince of Wales Hospital, Sydney, Australia

Background for Rolling Stone article:  “Ice Queen - Origins of an Icon”

 Look, it was how long ago?  Did you say twelve years?  How did you get my name?  It’s not hospital policy to talk about patients.  I’m sure there’s not much I can tell you anyway.  And off the record means you won’t quote me, right?  You’d better not quote me.  You say they’re famous musicians now.  Interesting.  I’m more an opera fan.

The thing is even though it was so long ago I do remember this.  I was newly appointed here and it was one of the first really tragic cases I was involved with.

I remember I noticed how scary a respirator can sound.  Mechanical and relentless.  I’d never reflected on that before, but looking at the two kids, and the dad, I suddenly heard it as they did.  And they heard it a lot while they waited to see if the mother would come out of it.  Months if I remember rightly.

I’d told them she was in no pain and that we had no idea what the extent of her brain damage was or how long it might take her to wake from the coma.

Privately, I thought the damage was extensive and irreversible, and the patient would never wake.  So I knew they’d have the awful choice of continuing to pay for her care in a private facility or turning the machinery off.  Of course, even if they made the choice to shut the respirator down, she might still breathe on her own.  She might go on like that, unresponsive but nominally alive, for years.  She didn’t of course, but it does happen.

The little girl shouldn’t even have been there.  She was still recovering from her own injuries and was heavily medicated.  She was wheelchair bound and would need extensive therapy to regain effective use of her leg again.  I remember she had internal injuries that required surgery.  But she had pluck, that was clear.

She was a pretty little thing.  She was tiny, but probably close to her full height.  She had golden blonde hair, a smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks and a gap in her front teeth.  She had big green eyes with their dark lashes.  I thought she’d probably be striking as an adult.  She was like her mother—not that you could see much of the mother, most of her body was in plaster and bandages and her face was swamped by tubing.

The boy was like his father, tall and thin, gangly almost, with big hands and feet.  The kids didn’t look like siblings except around the eyes and mouth.  The boy had the same big green irises and spidery black lashes and the same gap in his teeth.

Other than a severe concussion, the boy had no injuries and the father was injury free, which was a miracle given the nature of the accident.  Usually when I see accident victims involving a semi-trailer it’s to pull the sheet over their faces and notify relatives.  Of course, then we found the mass in his brain.

They kept asking me the question all doctors hate about coma patients, “Can she hear?”

There’s no reliable science to indicate coma patients can hear and understand, but every so often there’s a story about a patient who woke and claimed they could hear everything but just not respond and I know the idea of it gives comfort to families.  Still I think it’s a matter of diagnosis rather than a miracle and I’m not in the business of giving false hope.  I felt this woman was brain dead and would never feel anything again.  But I remember telling them they should talk to her all the same.

The boy was the one holding the other two up.  Did you say he was sixteen then?  That would be about right.  He talked to his mother about flowers and how they’d made a deal with a florist to bring her favourites regularly.  I think he joked about hospital food too.  Everyone does.

I think I remember the nurses saying the mother was a writer, a journalist for an arts magazine and the father was a musician.  They’d been coming home from a concert when the accident happened.  My memory isn’t bad is it?  I wondered how they’d manage.  I hoped there was other family around who could step up because they were going to need help to get over this.  Something like this was almost impossible to get over.  Seems they did okay from what you’re saying.

The girl was too young to lose her mother.  She probably hadn’t had a first boyfriend yet, probably hadn’t had a first kiss or been dumped or had her heart broken.  A girl needs her mother for those things.  And she would have scarring, fortunately not in places that were usually visible, so it could’ve been much worse—it could’ve been her pretty face—but still there was that to get over as well and young girls can be so sensitive. 

I remember I called the hospital social worker and Father Reece so the family knew there was professional help available, but the dad was too disoriented to know what to do.  He was going to need to make a decision about his own care.  He’d need surgery but even with it, there was no guarantee he’d have long.  No wonder I remember this one.

Funny thinking about this now.  You promise me you’re not quoting me anywhere?  My strongest memory of all is the girl breaking down.  I’d seen the father in tears, and the boy, but the girl was stoic, partly because of the drugs but shock too.  We were all worried about her.  It was a relief when she finally cried.

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