Eaten Alive By Sydney
February 9, 2010 – 2:49 am | 5 Comments

When the prospect of a shift to Sydney is raised, the doomsayers often rise as well. And they’re nasty! The manner of one’s demise is always different, but the result is always the same – …

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90 Minutes To Live

Submitted by on February 11, 2010 – 8:34 pm91 Comments
90 Minutes To Live

Sydney Newbie appreciates the quality of Sydney’s health care after his mate Axe collapses in the street.

If he had kept the brave face, gritted his teeth and made it to his train, the sliding doors would have been one of his final memories. No second chances, no change of fate, never to see his 40th birthday. Dead…within an hour and a half.

Thankfully, John Akurangi had an angel on his shoulder, a mate on his back and Sydney’s finest medicos on his case as he overcame a natural reticence to call for help. Hulking, relatively fit ex-professional rugby players are supposed to soak up pain and suffer in silence. But acquiescing to the Triple-Zero call saved his life.

Monday, 7 December 2009 was when the pre-Christmas catch up over yum cha suddenly and dramatically morphed into the near-death experience for ‘Axe’, a Sydneysider for the past five years after finishing a distinguished career in rugby union.

The walk from the Marigold restaurant in Haymarket to Central Train station was hot, for sure, but the tree-lined path through Belmore Park provided shade and a sense of CBD serenity. We were just on the verge of saying ciao – to catch up again over dinner in Balmain on Friday night – when I was compelled to stop and take a photograph or two of the station for Turning back to Axe after a few clicks, I was stunned to see him in distress, hunched over, his butt buttressing a column.

“Dude? What’s happening?” I asked as one of his great big mitts reached out and gripped my shoulder for support. Touch. A 185cm, 112kg slab of granite, Axe was always at the heart of rugby’s physical confrontations, propping up the scrum and wrestling in close quarter action in lineouts and at the breakdown. Pause. I briefly wondered if I was being encouraged to scrummage against him. Loosehead or tighthead? Engage. “You’re not well are you?”

I’m sure if he had been able to catch a breath amid the pain he would’ve answered “what gives you that idea?” and I would’ve answered something like “hmmm, it might be because you’ve instantly become the palest Maori since blond-haired, translucent Chippie Semenoff” or “might be the thick sweat starting to pour from your bald dome”. But, really, it was because his grip on my shoulder carried its own message: “this is real bro, stay with me…hang in with me”.

The initial ‘episode’ lasted an uncommonly long time. I remember thinking how bizarre two chunky monkeys man-hugging must look to the streams of people coming and going from Central. But any embarrassment I felt was promptly squeezed out of me. I also had time to contemplate whether the cause of his discomfort was something he had just eaten and whether I was to be struck down with the same affliction at any moment. “Stop it,” I thought. “You’re being shellfish.” Later, when we found out this was the moment when John suffered an 11 centimetre tear in his aorta, I’m surprised he even found the energy to nod when I buried my inane thoughts and offered to find him a seat in the shade and go water hunting.

Common courtesy made me go through the charade of asking an Asian guy if we could borrow one of the seats at the table where he was having lunch alone. No shade, but it was the only seat in the vicinity. I poured Axe into the metal chair, suddenly afraid it would collapse under him or he would faint and fall out of it.

I ducked into the deli and bought a bottle of water while lucking out on ice and directions to the nearest medical centre. Axe drained the water, but said he desperately needed to find a bathroom as his stomach was feeling…um, wretched would be an appropriate word.

Racing around the outside of a precinct I had never been to, flitting in and out of commuters and transients, it became apparent the facilities I was striving to find were not readily at hand. Returning to Axe with the news engendered a request for a sick bag. I returned from the original deli with another water and two plastic bags. I immediately wished the bags weren’t see-through when the big guy forced his fingers down his throat and coughed up a liquid bile. The Asian dude stayed in his seat. I hoped he had finished his lunch.

I couldn’t wait any longer. “What do you think this is?” I inquired, encouraging Axe to talk rather than barf in front of me. It was the first of many, many times this question or similar variations would be asked. “Dunno bro, but I’ve had broken arms and cracked skulls requiring surgery and this pain beats them hands down.” Ouch.

I had never noticed Transit Officers before, but, thankfully, three magically appeared through the heat haze, their blue overalls and hiking boots screaming “authority”. And with good reason. They sized up our situation and split responsibilities – one deftly moved the Asian luncher on, another called on their in-house medical resource and the third started the info-gathering.

To save repetition, please appreciate this exchange was repeated for Central’s on-site paramedic, the Ambulance duo, the hospital admission desk and a variety of specialists, from the Intensive Care Unit’s top dog through to cardio experts and nurses. And I’d like to stress, at no time did the verbal volley become tedious. We simply wanted Axe to overcome his affliction and providing as much information as possible seemed prudent.

“Where is the pain?” “Chest and then all over…” “Started in the chest, but he says his stomach and lower back are pretty bad too.”
“How would you rate the pain?” “Not…flash.” “Judging by what he’s been telling me, I’d say a 9 or 10. He’s a pretty tough guy, but this is rocking him.”
“When did this happen?” Grunt… “Around 2.30pm. We’d just finished Yum Cha and had walked through to Central. Bam! Big pain…”
“Yum char? Did you eat the same things?” Grunt… “Everything, except the chicken feet. He hoovered them by himself.”
“And you feel like you want to empty your bowels?” “Shit, yes.” “Just hold in there buddy…”
“Are you allergic to any pain relief?” “Morphine…it makes me sick for days.” The second time he was asked, Axe just nodded at me: “Morphine,” I parroted, “it makes him sick for days.”
“How old are you John?” “39.” “Born on the 24th of April 1970. Shares his birthday with Shirley MacLaine and Barbara Streisand…but I’m not implying anything.”

The key question from the Transit Officers, however, was: “have you called an Ambulance?”

I shook my head. I didn’t say anything because it wasn’t my call. Axe didn’t say anything because he was avoiding the call. Scary. We live in a weird society where 20% of the Triple Zero calls in NSW are crank calls, but a decent bloke having a major medical meltdown still looks on ringing an ambulance as taboo.

I’d never called an ambulance in my life either, but I could see the concern in the Transit Officers’ eyes and the dullness in Axe’s. “Remember John Drake,” I said, referring to the former All Black prop who had suffered a heart attack less than a year earlier, aged just 49. Axe snarled, the fire returning to his eyes: “Hey! Drakey died.” I nodded: “Exactly.” Point made, the TOs dialled 0-0-0, directing the ambulance to the appropriate entrance.

I’m struggling to remember if a crowd gathered to watch. I don’t think so. I was lost in my own little world, worried for Axe and desperately wondering how I could help, other than the odd quip to try and keep him smiling. I thought he’d appreciate gallows humour. And if he didn’t, well…he was in no fit state to catch me, let alone pummel me.

A woman asked me what was going on and I said “I’m sure he’ll be fine” before she was politely asked to move on. Minutes later, as I tagged along behind the trolley to the ambulance, the same woman would try and bum a few dollars off me for a “coffee”. Classy.

Our first ambulance ride. I resisted the urge to flick switches and turn on sirens. John resisted the urge to vomit as he sucked on oxygen in-between groans and blood pressure tests. It’s a sad time when pain is preferable to morphine. It took a round of questions at the station, another set in the stationary ambulance and some “Ground Control to Major Tom” walkie-talkie discussions before decisions were made. I tried to keep up with the conflabs and I’m sure they were trying to determine if Axe’s complaint was heart-related or gastric. Either way, his astronomically high blood pressure was of concern. I didn’t know it at the time, but Axe’s eyes started rolling back and he saw a bright white light in the dimly lit vehicle. He blinked a few times and the light pulsed and split apart, racing around him like mini-UFOs. Looking back, this was probably a seminal moment. “Stay with us big guy.”

The ambulance officers were in contact with, and had a choice between, St Vincent’s and RPA. At the time I thought we were, rather appropriately, off to the Rugby Players Association, but I soon found out RPA stood for Royal Prince Alfred. And what a fine hospital it is. Their quality of care, and empathy, has been exemplary.

As Axe was wheeled out of the ambulance he thrust his iPhone and wallet at me. Wow. His life was now literally in my hands. Armed with such knowledge I filled in the admission form. Date of birth, sissy middle name, home address, Medicare number…

As soon as I had handed over the questionnaire I was directed to the Intensive Care Unit and proceeded to play a game of “keep out of the medical staff’s way” while trying to help keep Axe in a state where his blood pressure wasn’t climbing higher than a young Sir Edmund Hillary in the Himalayas. His smock was also riding high and he regularly flashed other (mostly amused) patients as he tried in vain to get comfortable. When you’ve been in as many rugby changing rooms as Axe, modesty is not a virtue.

He begged me to jump on his back and realign his spine. WTF? “Dude, let the professionals handle it. I’m sure they’ll have you sorted in a minute.”

Several uncomfortable bedpan moments later and Axe went for CAT Scans while I popped out on to the main road to make a few phone calls on his phone. I left a message for the friend he was staying with for a few weeks before his new apartment was ready to be occupied. I then informed my 5-year-old we couldn’t make Little Athletics before returning to find that Axe had been wheeled to a private section of the ICU…or, I Don’t C U, as I called it. I waited outside, reading a sports magazine cover to cover, until I was joined by Jennifer, the person graciously letting Axe doss down at her place for a few weeks, and Sue, the building supervisor at their Bondi Junction apartment building. They were incredibly concerned and amazingly supportive – what a community.

We were invited into the inner sanctum because the results were in. We listened with disbelief. The ICU chief said the CT imaging had confirmed his initial thought. When Axe first ‘reported’, the pre-diagnosis gut feel was that he had suffered Aortic Dissection, a tear in the lining of the aorta that results in blood leaching rather than reaching vital organs. “But it generally happens in patients 50 years plus, so your age threw us,” the Doc told Axe. “So, what happens now?” I inquired. “First step is to bring his blood pressure down and see how he responds to treatment. But surgery is highly likely.” I had a slew of follow-up questions, but didn’t want to raise Axe’s blood pressure by asking about mortality rates or how lucky he was. My Googling fingers were twitching in anticipation of the late-night search for more info.

It was now 8.30pm, six hours from when the mighty Kauri tree first wobbled and almost fell. It was difficult to compute – enjoying prawn dumplings and sticky rice one minute, hooked up to monitoring machines and intravenous dispensing devices a few heart palpitations later. Surreal…and frightening.

Earlier, Axe had forbidden me to ring any of the family contacts on his phone. Now, I pressed him again: “Mate, I’d want my whanau to know, but not to worry.” He looked at me. “You don’t know my Mum. She’d worry if I stubbed my toe.” “Mine would laugh,” I replied, “and ask if I had video footage so she could view it whenever she needed cheering up.” Axe smiled wanly. He had definitely lost his usual spark. Energy had simply drained from him. “Look up Lyn Bennison,” he said. “That’s my mum. Just don’t freak her out.”

I didn’t freak her out. Mainly because I lied. It was 10.45pm in New Zealand when I called. I explained who I was and that John was in hospital for observation, but he was comfortable and waiting on the results of some tests. We’d know more tomorrow and Jennifer or I would give her a call in the morning with an update. ‘Probably’ heart-related I responded to the first of her probing “Mum Questions”, might be ‘gastric’ I added to downplay the Inquisition, and ‘no’ he can’t talk because his ‘ward’ doesn’t have cellphone coverage. “Seriously, John doesn’t want you to worry. He’ll touch base tomorrow. It’s all good.” Lyn wasn’t fooled. She was across the Tasman in a flash, commandeering the iPhone and becoming the first line of defence whilst providing the type of support only a Mother can.

The next day still carried the surreal nature of its immediate predecessor, although it was sinking in that life had changed irrevocably for Axe. I had released the Google hounds and gasped at the information they captured. Aortic Dissection was freaking nasty, especially for entertainers, having dealt to Lucille Ball and John Ritter. Avoiding a career in comedy or acting will be critical for Axe’s long-term prospects (Ha! I didn’t know when I wrote this that he will be appearing – as a Kings Cross niteclub bouncer – in the third series of Underbelly).

The support of friends and family will be crucial too. An initial Facebook message two days after the ‘incident’ saw an outpouring of “best wishes” and “get wells” from his 800+ friends and the same channel allowed those supporters to receive regular updates.

Lyn Bennison Hi everyone – this is Lyn, John’s mother. John is progressing well. They are putting off surgery for another couple of months due to an infection. They will manage the problem with medication in the meantime. Spoke briefly with the Doctor by phone this morning and he is hoping to discharge John either Wednesday or Thursday so I will have him home in the apartment with me for a couple of days before I return to Auckland. He is still quite weak and gets tired very quickly. Doc says the only exercise he is able to do is limited walking until he builds up his strength and they reassess him on a couple of months. He is in good spirits, especially now he knows he is coming home in a couple of days. Thank you all for your good wishes, phone calls etc. This has meant a lot to him.

December 14, 2009 at 7:09pm · Comment · Like · See Wall-to-Wall

A tribute site sprung up on the day Axe was cleared to head home, nine days after his first ambulance ride.

Meyer Lan Skemez Please join and show our good friend our support..!

Get well soon John Akurangi !

John Akurangi’s aorta has an 11cm tear from the bend down heading away from his heart. This can be fatal. John was in intensive care, but now is home in Sydney in a stable condition, although he is very weak and unable to do the things he loves like sport, work, beach and enjoying life… We all love you John and are here to support you on your road to recovery… Please join this group and leave John a message and encourage your friends to join this group and leave a message as well. We will pass along all your thoughts to him to show him the great support he has from his extended family…. Thanks…

December 16, 2009 at 3:29pm · Comment · Like · Share · See Wall-to-Wall

Over the next two days John Akurangi responded to every single one of the hundreds of messages of support left on his personal page and the tribute site. He embraced the scores of visitors over the Festive Season and remained mellow and well aware of his new limitations while looking ahead to his February surgery.

And whenever he does overdo it, he has the close-knit community of his apartment building to pull him into line, or words of wisdom from one of the angels in his life.

Lyn Bennison Wow John, I see you have managed to catch up with your friends who have joined your page – well done – maybe it is now time for a REST as the doc ordered!!! You’re never out of my thoughts. Love Mum

December 29, 2009 at 10:35am · Report


  • listen to your body when it provides warning signals
  • don’t dither and debate the merits of calling for an ambulance. If you’re at that stage, call!
  • always wear clean underwear in public
  • have an ICE ( In Case of Emergency) number in your cellphone

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