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 - John interrupted and said, "I belong to a gang. I was President of the Cronulla chapter of the Rebels 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. Here's 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 dude.

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 it."

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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