Always looking over your shoulder…part 2

The first six weeks of your time at ADFA is spent doing an insanely fun variety of new things (there are videos and info provided by ADFA now available here). Things are a little different now to when I was there but it basically runs as orientation week, single service training (i.e. in your respective military groupings of Army, Navy or Air Force) for two weeks, then common military training for two weeks and then a week of nearly non-stop marching getting ready for CDF Parade day – the day you are presented to the Chief of the Defence Force and where you kind of move from an officer candidate to a real trainee. Marching in that parade is very important for every first year – it’s when the Corps of Officer Cadets accept you into the fold.

Over the six weeks, it doesn’t necessarily always feel like fun – you’re often being yelled at and things are all very serious but how cool is it that over a six week period, you are having free fitness classes, free food, free lessons in weaponry (specifically 9mm hand guns and semi-automatic machine guns), those in the Navy get to go to the Navy base on the coast and learn fire fighting on ships, damage control (mostly standing in a replica of a section of a ship with holes where at different times water floods out – it’s a big exercise in getting flooded).

We also learned NBCD – nuclear, biological and chemical defence where you get to quickly put on chemical defence suits and masks, you get to experience tear gas and purging the gas masks out that you’ve put on after entering the gas filled room without it….one word, snotty! We also got a day trip on a Destroyer from Sydney down to Jervis Bay which was great, especially when they did a firing display – in less time than it takes to say the word “beep” as fast as you possibly can, the CIWS (pronounced sea whiz but it stands for Close In Weapons System or also called the Phalanx) fires off about 1000 bullets – ok, maybe we can say it fater than it fires but it’s the last line of defence for a ship and we were told that if it needs to fire you’re in trouble. For a crazy video of how fast it fires, have a look here – this video was shot on a US Navy Amphibious Boat and the firing demonstration here is about the length we were shown when we were onboard one of our ships.

As an active person who cannot get enough of life and new things, the first six weeks should’ve been soooooo cool but I was sick. While I was down at the Navy base, I’d gone to “sick parade” – where you see the doctor instead of going to roll call. They’d run more blood tests, stool samples and other delightful tests just as had been done at ADFA but before the results were back, it had been decided that my condition was psycho-somatic: all in my head because my Mum had terminal cancer of the pancreas and so I was displaying the same sort of symptoms.

I was devastated. Two years of working to join the Navy and I was ruining everything because I was screwed up in the head. I cried like I’d never cried before in my life. I was booked in to see a psych at the nearest military hospital (45mins away from our base) and until I was there I just lay in bed bawling until there was nothing left in me. I couldn’t speak, I just stared. I wanted to tell my friends who were all so worried about me but how do you begin to tell them you’re problems are only mental and because you’re a nut case you’re making yourself physically sick.

I was taken up to the hospital the next day and the psych started interviewing me. After an hour of questioning he offered me a cup of tea. When he came back he told me that he’d before he helped me with a coping strategy for when the time came for my Mum’s death, he needed to make a phone call and he’d like me to listen and take note of what he said. I was emotionally and physically drained (although the tea was soothing) so I didn’t anticipate what was about to happen.

The psych rang the doctor at the Navy base I was at – he was far from polite but didn’t raise his voice nor swear or anything inappropriate. He was just blunt and very clear in his choice of words. The ones that meant the most and now 16 years on pretty much to the day, still ring clear in my mind “…There is nothing wrong with this girl mentally or emotionally. If anything we need more strong minded and strong willed people like her in our Navy. It is clear her problems are physical and you need to do your job to find out why she is so sick…”

As good as it felt to be cleared from ruining my career because I’d caved mentally, I really didn’t want to see the doctor after the bollocking she just got. By the time I’d been transported back to the base, some test results were in and they had found I had giardia – a stomach bug. It was likely that I’d picked it up on the flight stopover in Bangkok (I remember drinking from a water fountain in the airport) and it had gone untreated for several weeks so it’d become a mature parasite and required a heavy hit of medicine.

Having a diagnosis was awesome. Now I had direction and a reasonably clear indication of when I could get on with life. I returned to ADFA and, still under medical restrictions, got on with it. After our Navy training time, we moved into common military training – obstacle courses, rope climbing, fitness assessments, drill work, weapons handling and field training. WAHOO! My appetite for food was coming back but I was still wiped out – I had lost 20% of my body weight afterall! I had to get medical clearance before I was allowed to go “out bush” for field training, so on the morning we were due to leave I went into see the medics.

They took my blood pressure, then swapped machines then took it again. There was no indication there was anything wrong, so I wasn’t alarmed when they said “OK, lay back and we’ll get the doc in to see you.” A few minutes later there was a doctor and a woman who I knew was the matron of the hospital – a rather prickly/nasty Army Warrant Officer who already thought I was faking being sick in the first week. I didn’t like it that she was there but she took my blood pressure again, got a second machine, then a third. All three showed my BP as 60/40 (these days my BP is nearly a consistent exact 120/70).

For the first time I saw compassion in her eyes as she asked if I felt ok. I said yes and asked if I could go bush because I was really looking forward to being painted up in camouflage paint and clothes and run around the field. The stoney eyes came back and she said “Don’t be ridiculous, you’re staying here”. She smartly turned and walked out telling the medic to find me a bed. The medic was sympathetic handing me tissues and explaining that my blood pressure wasn’t quite normal so I’d have to stay for the day so they could monitor it. The Doctor was also great – he ordered more tests and said he’d come back once I was settled to talk and try see if he could figure out what was going on.

It was 2 weeks before CDF parade, 2 weeks before I would see my family again and 2 weeks before my 20th birthday but here I was back in hospital, terrified and alone.

Part 3 coming to a computer screen near you soon!

Always looking over your shoulder….part 1

This is the first part of the story of a time in my life I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy but one that has made me who I am today. I am by no means anyone of significance and there are many who have been through challenges I don’t know that I could cope with, but there have also been many that have crossed my path that have found strength from my story. I share it not to big note myself or point fingers but because last night my housemate and I had a frank discussion about life post-cancer and for the first time in years, I didn’t feel alone and that made me realise I might help someone else feel the same if I relive some of my darkest days. Thank you Iain.

1997 was perhaps the worst year of my life – although there have been many significant events throughout the years, that year just plain sucked. It was to be the start of my promising career in the Royal Australian Navy – a journey that my Mum and I had worked together on my gaining entry, one where I’d already received a scholarship for my year 12 (final high school year) studies and one where I had a grand long term career plan of becoming the first female admiral. Although it wasn’t to be, I like to think that without having been through that year, I wouldn’t be the awesome person I am today (don’t get me wrong, I’m human, I still have flaws but I am also still awesome).

I saw in the New Year with my family in my uncle’s house in Brackley – a town in Northamptonshire (which always makes me think of Jane Austen) in central England. My Uncle had dubbed me the Fire Monster because I was always on the floor in front of their faux fireplace (looked like a wood/coal fire but was actually gas). It was a good night even though the family trip home was so sombre. My Mum had been diagnosed terminally ill with cancer. So she made her final trip home to the UK to say goodbye to her family.

While we were away, I got a call to say I had finally cleared medical and was set to join the Navy at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) on the 20th of January – 10 days after we returned from the UK. I was psyched up and relieved that my Mum would rest easier knowing my future was secure. Two days before I left, we went to Sydney to stay with my Godparents (my departure point to go to ADFA was the Sydney recruiting centre). 24hrs out is when all the fun started.

We’d been out for dinner on our first night in Sydney to the Souths Juniors Rugby Club. I remember ordering a medium rare steak. Even though I was 19, I’d rarely eaten steak and I think this was my first real one and I’d ordered it because my Godfather had ordered one and I wanted to show I was strong like him – strange why we do some things! The following morning I started vomiting everything I tried eating. What little food was left in my system was quickly expelled from my bowels and I was wiped out. We all thought it was nerves/excitement and I remember my Mum and Godmother quickly thinking up ideas to get me out of the apartment and enjoying my ‘last deh of FREEEEEDOM’ as my Godmother who had recently watched the movie Braveheart, best put it in her thick Scottish accent. I just wanted to make Mum proud and even though I knew in my heart that she was, my mind was screaming at me – you’re sick but don’t let her know.

Mum had been diagnosed the previous September. By this stage she had clearly shed weight although we never talked about it beyond her joking about all the money she’d wasted over the years on weight loss programs and all she needed to do was get cancer. Even when she was dying she was trying to make life easier for everyone else to cope with.

The following day we went to the recruitment centre to undertake our entry medicals. When I went to weigh in, I hadn’t even thought about having been sick. My weight was a problem though – based on the BMI measures, the lower scale of the healthy weight range for my height (170cm/5”6’) was 58kg (around 128 pounds). The most you could be underweight to join the military was by 4kg (around 9 pounds) but I’d always weighed in at 52kg (115 pounds) right through the scholarship selection process and the entry process. I’d worked hard with a dietician to get my weight up and I had reached 56kg before I went on holidays where I did next to no training while we travelled around the UK. When I stood on the scale, it came up at 52kg….the staff pretended they didn’t see me arrive and asked if I was thirsty suggesting I could have the whole jug of water if I wanted because I’d need to give a urine sample later anyway. I drank the water and weighed in at 54kg. I was off to the academy!

Waving goodbye to my parents, godparents and one of my closest friends Steven (who not only had made the 3hr journey down to see me off but had also been there at the hospital with me while I waited for my family to arrive after Mum had been diagnosed – I was the one who had to break the news to everyone) was one of the most difficult things to stomach. I knew I would see them again but I was losing time with all of them – especially Mum and although we didn’t know it at the time, Steven too.

Our bus stopped on the freeway to Canberra for a light meal – cut sandwiches. I ate one triangle and it took about 20mins after we were back on the bus for it to affect me. I needed to vomit badly. I started to cry not understanding why when I had worked so hard, could my body fail me by being so nervous that I couldn’t hold down food? Some girls that I had met through the recruitment process suggested trying to sleep or listening to some music both which helped keep me calm but I still felt sick.

We arrived at ADFA, met our section commanders, collected our bags and commenced moving through a large auditorium to collect our kitting. It was summer in Canberra and at 7pm at night it was still over 30 degrees and very dry – having come from the coast where it’s humid, it felt really hot. Sweat was pouring out of me and I just wanted to sleep. Once we had everything, our section commander escorted me up to our blocks. I had to ask my section commander 3 times to stop – I was so weak I couldn’t keep up and although I was terrified that I’d be yelled at and I could see he wasn’t impressed, he let me catch my breath, took some of my kitting for me and keep going. The walk would only take 3-4minutes normally when you aren’t pulling luggage etc, but that night I think it took us 15 to 20. When we got up to the block, we left my luggage outside and I was taken up to the rec room to meet the divisional captain – now, still a friend of mine, but then he was one of the hierarchy.

By the time I got to my room and had time to myself, it was around 10pm and it was only just below 30 degrees outside. The following morning reveille was at 6:30am and after hearing in gruff tones what we needed to do, we ran back to our rooms. Craig, my classmate, had arrived after I’d gone to bed. He bolted to the shower, I bolted to the toilet and threw up again – I’d been awake since 5am needing to be sick but was too afraid to leave my room without permission. I ran back to my room, made my bed in the military way, swapped spots with Craig in the bathroom while he ran to his room and then we ran to the landing again ready for our next instruction. The next few hours were a blur – I threw up again at breakfast and by now had confessed to Craig that I thought I was sick. He had been an air force cadet (although he joined the army) and when we filed into the hall for an address by the Commandant and other senior officers he stuck close by my side and introduced me to several people he’d met through cadets over the years. In the middle of the brief a wave of nausea came over me again but there was nothing we could do – we were in the middle of a row in the middle of the hall.

As soon as we were able to get out, I ran to the bathroom again. We were due to go to morning tea but while I was in the bathroom, Craig had approached one of our third years (senior trainees at the academy) and told him how sick I’d been. They took me to the doctor and I was admitted to the Duntroon Hospital – I hadn’t even been at ADFA 24hrs and aside from having my wisdom teeth out in day surgery, I’d never been admitted to hospital in my life. I was grateful to get some more sleep but fretting over what I was missing. This was the start of my life at Duntroon hospital. I say life because over the next two and a half months, I was there no less than 3 days of every week and for someone who never sat still, it was more demoralising than any of the games they played to turn you into a fine military officer. They couldn’t find anything wrong but I’d dropped down to 42kg (92 pounds) in the first 2 weeks.

Between that first day and Easter, I became such a difficult case that the only conclusion was that I was faking it. I had one doctor on my side and between him and the surgeon that operated, they saved my life.

Part 2 to follow soon – I will add some photos once I can lug my photo albums to a scanner.

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