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40 minutes with Mary

This morning, I met Mary.

Mary’s the same age as my Mum, but I would never have guessed it. She looks so much older. She has one child, a son, who is the same age as me.

Mary has had medical problems her whole life. Despite that, she sold her home of 30 years and left her community so she could look after her elderly father, who’d recently had a stroke. Two months later, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Four months after that, he died. Mary’s the sort of person who looks after others even through her own health problems.

Today, Mary drove her car to the local high street, because she can’t walk very far. She’s not even 60, but she’s already had two hip replacements on one side, three on the other. She parked in an accessible parking spot, then slowly started walking towards the bank, and then to the doctor, to talk about the possibility of having a third hip replacement on her right leg.

At the exact moment Mary was walking up the street, an elderly woman was finishing up her visit at the local podiatrist. As she was walking out the door, she caught her foot on the step and fell. Out the door, directly into Mary. The elderly woman stayed upright. Mary didn’t. She fell, hard, onto the ground.

I was walking nearby with my baby, on my way for a coffee, and I saw the whole thing happen. I walked over to them. The gentleman with the woman who had tripped and another gentleman helped Mary to a bench, but it quickly became clear she was in extraordinary pain. After five broken femurs, she knew what it felt like, and it felt exactly like that.

I called for an ambulance, took the details of the people who had also been involved (the poor woman was also very distressed- I found out later she was 87 and the gentleman with her was her neighbour, who takes her to the doctor when she has an appointment) and sent them on their way.

Then I sat with Mary and we waited.

Over the next forty minutes, I got to know Mary a little bit. We talked about pain and death and the existence of God and whether or not there’s a reason for everything. We learned we’d both had very unlikely pregnancies. Despite her pain, she worried about my time and the fact my baby was waiting with us. Didn’t I need to look after her? I assured Mary she was fine.

Mary’s the kind of person who worries about other people even when she’s in pain.

We both wondered at the cruel twist of fate that led her of all people to be in the way when the other woman fell. Of all the people to be walking by, it was someone who could least deal with the consequences.

Throughout the whole time, intermittently, Mary cried out in pain, or cried, or laughed darkly. I asked her if there was something she usually does to help with the pain. She showed me her morphine patch. “Pain is my constant companion,” she told me.

For forty minutes we sat there, waiting for help. For forty minutes, she cried and gasped in pain.

At one point, she said “This is what our society has become. Unless you have chest pain, you wait.”

I’m not someone who is starry eyed about medical care. I understand all care is rationed. We have finite resources But we have decided that we are willing to accept people being in pain rather than spend more on medicine. Our efficiency measures are more concerned with the amount of time an ambulance sits idle than the amount of time a woman sits crying on a bench on a footpath in agony.

Mary did nothing to deserve the situation she was in. She got dealt another bad card after a lifetime of them.

I called her son after she was in the ambulance, to let him know that his mum was heading to hospital. She’s spoken to him, but obviously had been a bit vague on details, so he asked me a bit more about what happened. When I said it was just extraordinary bad luck, he said that’s the sort of thing that happens to her. “She must have been born on an unlucky day.”

Mary’s fall might not have been avoidable, but her 40 minutes of pain without relief were. With more resources, we can improve ambulance response times. We more money for emergency medicine, we can turn 40 minutes into 20 or ten. We can stop believing that pain is an acceptable trade off for cost savings.

This might be who we’ve become. But it doesn’t have to be.

Mary kept telling me that there must be a reason this happened to her, but she doesn’t know what it was.

Nothing can ever be an adequate compensation for her pain and suffering, but I’d love to visit her in hospital in a few days time with some flowers, and to be able to tell her that because of her story, people are calling their local state members and putting pressure on them to improve funding for emergency medicine (which includes new paramedics and more emergency staff and beds). That other people care enough about her pain to say no, this isn’t ok.

I just got off the phone to my local member’s office. I hope you’ll join me in calling and demanding change.

Because Mary, and people like her, deserve better from us.

**Mary gave me permission to share her story

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