Sydney: Bridge Emergency

25/7/09-8/8/09-25/09/09

Well four months have passed since my last Sydney post, and so much has happened.  I’ve got a list of things to write about so I’ll backtrack slightly and catch you up on some stories.

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I was still making regular trips back to Melbourne for various events, and when I went back in February I didn’t think it’d be any different to the others.  That was until I realised I had nowhere to stay.  Every other time I’d had my house in Footscray to return to, however I’d moved out of there on New Years Day.  This presented a slight problem as I’d booked flights and was staying in Melbourne for three nights.  I asked around and found places to sleep, however it was weird.  I suddenly felt like I didn’t belong in Melbourne anymore.  And I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere in Sydney either – that to me had always just been a temporary summer job.  I know it had extended past summer, but I still didn’t call Sydney home.  And now Melbourne wasn’t either.  I started to feel quite displaced.   It is a weird feeling to have, that you don’t belong in any particular city – even though you’re living and working in one and have a long history in another.  I stayed at one friends house for two of those three nights in Melbourne (which, to add to the weird mood, happened to be the weekend of Black Saturday to top it all off!) and I was extremely grateful to him, as I felt comfortable there.  I didn’t feel like I was intruding, nor overstaying my welcome, and it was a time when I really needed to feel like I belonged somewhere in this now alien city – even if it was just for the weekend.

I returned to Sydney still feeling a little odd, and continued working as many hours as possible.  It was still summer, so the tourists continued flocking to the bridge, and I was maintaining about 75 hours a fortnight on the bridge.  Now, I’ve always worked hard, and am used to doing many hours, but 78 hours on the bridge in a fortnight was exhausting, both mentally and physically, especially in the heat.  However, it was paying the bills, and it kept my mind from wandering too far.  It was one job that certainly consumed all your thought capacity from start to finish.  I wasn’t allowed to take my phone on the bridge, nor did I have the time or head space to think about anything else other than each climb I was conducting, which was a good thing when I had so much to contemplate.

Now, it wasn’t only the climb leaders that found summer to be particularly draining on the bridge, but also some of the climbers.  One day I had a climb that was no different to usual, a few climbers from the UK, a few Aussies and a few others to mix it up.  Admittedly it was one of about four really hot days we had in Feb, after a spate of about two weeks of rain, so no one was particularly prepared for it.  In this group was a nice elderly couple (in their late 60s) from England.  Ann and her husband Bill had flown over the night before (for some reason, most people climb the bridge in their first or last few days in Sydney), and were not accustomed to the heat.  Nor had she eaten anything since breakfast, and hadn’t had much to drink for fear of needing to go to the toilet when on the bridge.  Now all of this spelt disaster.  She was a little tired from climbing the ladders, but she said she was fine, and I believed her.  Those ladders can still make me huff and puff when I get to the top, so I wasn’t worried about her yet.

We got up onto the arch, and stopped to take the Opera House photos.  Ann and Bill had their picture taken and proceeded to walk up the arch to wait with the rest of my climbers.  I took the last guy’s photo, sent him up with the rest of the group and I followed a short time later when I’d packed up the camera.  I got to the group to see Ann in the arms of her hubby, and the last climber telling me “She just collapsed with no warning”.  Well most people don’t ‘just collapse’ for no reason, so I spoke to Ann and asked what was wrong.  She said she was fine and wanted to continue.  I could see she was determined to go on, but I’d asked a question and hadn’t received a satisfactory answer.  So I asked hubby if he knew what was wrong.  He started to say she’d had a few ‘dizzy spells’ before, but Ann cut him off and my lie detector radar went on full alert.  I understood she wanted to continue climbing, but for her health and safety, and my responsibility for her and the rest of the group I had to know what was going on.

I knew I wasn’t going to get any answers from her, so I decided to put her to the test.  I said we could continue the climb, if I was convinced she was able to go on.  Therefore, she had to stand up while I was there.  While she busied herself with that I managed to have a super quick chat with hubby.  I could tell he was worried, and hence I had reason to be concerned.  Ann stood up and announced she was ready to go, but I said we’d wait a minute and see how she felt.  Almost instantly she said “I think I’ll sit down again” and I helped her to get down.  She kept insisting she was fine, but it was clear that she wasn’t.  We tried the same thing a few more times, until I said to her that I was not happy she was going to be ok if we continued climbing, and I felt she should leave the climb.  Well that sparked some life into her.  She said “I want to keep going, Bill has wanted to do this for ages, I don’t want him to miss out”, yet it was plain to see she could not keep going.  I was reminded of my mum, pushing herself to the limit and wanting to continue to keep everyone else happy (or at least not deny them of anything they wanted), to her own detriment.  I said Bill could continue the climb if he wanted to, but I was going to call someone up to help her down and off the bridge.  She was adamant she could continue, so I gave her one last shot.

During the time Ann was sitting on the steps I checked on the rest of the group, explained what was happening, and asked if they were happy to just hang out for a little while longer.  Luckily for me it was a beautiful day, and I sold it to them by saying that they were privileged to be lounging on the bridge in this weather.  I know that groups and crowds are most manageable when given some honest information, and I needed their compliance up there.  They were a good group and happy to wait.

By this stage I’d radioed in to the control room to tell them what was happening, and all other climb groups had stopped at their current location on the bridge and were waiting for the go ahead to continue, however the current events had occurred in just under a few minutes.  I’d given Ann some water and a glucose tablet, and she stood up again and held onto the railing.  I was standing behind her with my hands on her upper arms to steady her, when I saw the colour literally drain right out of her face and she collapsed backwards onto me.  She was out cold.  Bill started panicking and I was trying to calm him while wake Ann.  She felt so frail in my arms, and given her stature and age that wasn’t really unusual, however I was genuinely concerned she might not come alive again.  I spoke her name loudly a few times, while calling to the climb leader behind me to come and help, and radioing into control that I needed an ambulance NOW.  I did not need someone to die on my climb, yet Ann still hadn’t come to.  I lowered her into a sitting position so she was propped up between my knees as I squatted on the step, so I had the full use of both my hands.  While saying her name a few more times, and giving as much information over the radio regarding her condition, and trying to keep Bill calm and not panic the group, Ann gradually gained consciousness again.  A collective sigh of relief rose from the group, and Bill shed a few tears.  She’d only been unconscious for a short while, yet it felt like a lifetime.

An evacuation of the other groups on the bridge then began, to make room for the ambulance guys.  Along with that, we had the bridge co-ordinator come running up the arch to check on things, constant radio chatter updating control of the situation, and a manager had come out from the office, fully suited up, and rushed out onto the bridge to assess the situation for himself.  Once again I checked on the rest of the group, told them we were waiting for an ambulance for Ann and that we were going to take her and Bill off the climb to go to hospital.  When that occurred we could continue, but until then I needed their patience and cooperation.  They readily agreed.  It’s not often you’d get to climb the bridge and see a woman lose and regain consciousness, and witness the ensuing evacuation with the paramedics in attendance, on a nice day in the sun as well.  That was how I sold it to them, and it paid off.

We waited forty minutes for the paramedics, and in the meantime Ann’s condition worsened.  She started vomiting (not that there was much but water and one half dissolved glucose tablet coming up), and I’d wet my hanky and put it around her neck to try to keep her a little cooler.  I used another hanky to create a small piece of shade for Ann, then decided it would be easier to just use my body to block the sun as much as I could.  All the while I kept talking to Ann to try and keep her focused on something else.   I could hear via the radio how the evacuation of the other groups was going, and when they could, Bill was taken back down the arch and onto the road deck to wait for the ambulance.  By the time the paramedics arrived and stretchered Ann down off the arch, we were the only group left on the whole of the bridge.

Now we were 45 minutes behind our timings, yet I had no plans of rushing my group around to get back on time.  I checked with the rest of the climbers that no one had planes to catch or deadlines to be back for, and decided we’d continue the rest of the climb in leisurely time and enjoy ourselves, seeing as it was after all, a beautiful day.  I thanked everyone for their patience and resumed the climb.  As we got to the top of the bridge, and were looking at the west of the Harbour, an army chopper came flying around the arch, at a point lower than where we stood.  I had stopped speaking in mid sentence and excitedly told the group that that was the third specialty for them that day.  We had the bridge to ourselves, after the medical emergency and evacuation with the paramedics, and now we had an army chopper flying so low we could see over it.  Sure, I talked it all up and got them all excited, but it was a unique day and we all needed a release from the built up tension.  As we returned to the building I asked them to take an extra minute and fill out their feedback forms as everyone was going to be reading them today.  Luckily the feedback was all positive and they loved the experience.  I got a fair amount of praise for my efforts with ‘the lady who nearly died’, and after checking with management I was able to tell them all that Ann was in hospital but was going to be ok.  That bought a collective cheer and everyone left in good spirits.

I called work the next day and spoke to Ann and Bill as they’d come back to return the climb suits and equipment (imagine going off to hospital in that outfit!), and was told she had been dehydrated, and was kept in overnight for observation, but she was fine now.  I had left a request with management the day before to have Ann and Bill’s climb certificates and Opera House photos given to them free of charge, and I checked that they had received those which they had.  They were both happy to be well, although disappointed they didn’t finish the climb, and promised to complete it one day.  I was pleased she was ok, and glad that BridgeClimb had the sense to give them their photos (the only ones I got to take of them) free of charge.  I later received a nomination for a safety award from the manager who turned up on the bridge during the incident.  So my record for never having had a code 99 (person leave the climb for fear) remained intact, however I was the first in my training group to have had a code 55 Bravo (person leave the climb for serious medical reasons).  Once again I was skipping over the basics and going straight for the top!

More to come in another post.

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