It should have been like any other Thursday in Sydney. You know Friday is coming, autumn is in full swing but the weather is still decent. Despite an unhealthy dose of man-flu, I’m fighting, or at least pretending, to be as fit as I could be.
A good friend of mine and former work colleague had invited me for a bite and a beer with him and a Doctor he has known professionally and personally. I should have crawled into bed but I had a feeling I could not miss this.
I’m intrigued as he describes the Doctor but my attention is well and truly grabbed when he reveals she is a Craft Beer judge. The last couple of years I have tried to increasingly appreciate beer and ales with distinctive tastes.
My days of guzzling tasteless, gassy pints of Stella Artois, Kronenberg, Carlsberg and more recently in Australia, Hahn Super Dry, Pure Blonde and occasionally VB, were well and truly over.
We meet after work at the Quarrymans Hotel in Pyrmont, an area I rarely venture to but which I notice is teeming with life, boutique bars and cafes.
The Quarrymans is rustic, but not the deliberate shiny weathered look favoured by new bars. It’s full of wood, barrels and charm. It’s dark but adds to the atmosphere. It also labels itself as the, “House of Craft”.
The large vertical beer menu behind the bar hits you immediately as you walk in. 24 different craft beers and ales, that we are reliably informed by the barman as being rotated regularly.
We kick back on stools over a barrel and two pints in Dr Vera arrives. A warm embrace and you can tell this lady is a great person. German father, Chinese mother, British Citizen, Australian Permanent Resident.
Dr Vera buys a paddle of a selection of the beer and ale on offer and as we try each one, sipping instead of our usual gulps, she explains the notes of each taste.
Normally I would scoff at this, I know what I like and if it tastes good I’ll drink it. But the simple yet precise explanation blows me away: “This one has notes of Banana”. I laugh inside, but lo and behold, one sip and I taste a bunch of bananas.
“This one has more grapefruit tones”. Spot on. As Dr Vera explains the whole process of tuning in to these tastes is stimulating in itself. Your brain and senses are alive and working hard to detect the background of the drink.
“These two are both Imperial IPAs, yet one is much darker due to the wheat process”. (Or something similar). Being a newbie to the production process I try to remember the important gems of information and ask a few questions.
I did take away that “Imperial” effectively means high in alcohol content and that, “it’s not the quantity, it’s the quality”. I’ll try to remember more next time.
I do learn she was born in Hong Kong, went to boarding school in the UK and was horrified on her first day being presented with cereal and cold milk for breakfast. This was the first time she was faced with our Western breakfasts having been used to three, hot, protein meals a day.
Dr Vera had worked in South Africa, been involved with teaching and study in Boston in the US (the most fertile ground for health academia and research I would learn) and had returned to Australia, currently working in Emergency Departments in Sydney and Wagga Wagga.
Passionate about humanitarian work and indigenous health, she somehow finds time to be spread her energies across clinical work but also in health policy. I give the condensed version rundown on my eventful background; the story of how and why I’m here now.
Much talk later about the Paleo diet, healthy eating, Justin Hemme’s Merivale empire and our goals we head for a 15 minute stroll towards Town Hall Station across Darling Harbour.
Darling Harbour is a curious place in Sydney. The bright lights, second-rate overpriced bars and restaurants are plenty. And the recent attempts to revitalise the area are failing. It’s a lazy tourist’s dream but leaves you feeling empty. There’s no soul.
Crossing a bridge towards Town Hall a slight incline greets us. Chatting away enthusiastically we stop at a back entrance to the station alongside a traffic-light cross section.
I glance at my mate to say goodbye and realise he must have had a shower. He is dripping wet, his shirt stuck to him with streams of sweat running down his forehead and face. He is whiter than usual.
Dr Vera, sharp as a tack, grabs his wrist and looks concerned. She confirms his heart rate is so high, over 180 beats per minute, it is about to jump out of his chest. We step-back and he attempts an exercise of putting your thumb in your mouth and blowing so hard until you can no more.
This can sometimes reverse the effects of what Dr Vera describes is the heart having a, “short-circuit”. Medically know as Supraventricular Tachycardia or SVT, where in laymen’s terms (that even I loosely understood) there is re-entry of the blood causing heart rate to jump suddenly from 60 to 200+ beats per minute.
He is showing all the classic signs: rapid breathing, dizziness, chest pain, pounding heart and shortness of breath. Thankfully he does not lose consciousness. Even more fortunate is the fact we are accompanied by a Doctor as cool as ice.
A sense of déjà vu washes over me, but in reverse. We have been here before; two years ago a similar occurrence happened to me with my mate joining me in an ambulance after I collapsed at a training session.
He called my wife who, knowing my history of unfortunate medical conditions and sometimes clumsiness freaked out hearing the immortal words, “Don’t worry Caz, but Terry is in an ambulance…”
Back to the streets and we are quickly on our way in a taxi, a short hop across the city to Macquarie Street and the Sydney Eye Hospital. I had no idea there was an Emergency Department there, a tiny, quiet department nestled in the middle of the historic building.
He is taken immediately in for testing and I’m amazed Dr Vera does not pull the immortal line to the hospital staff, “Trust me, I’m a Doctor”. All the time she remains calm but determined that by getting him there quickly for an ECG they can get an accurate diagnosis. Rather than the symptoms dying down and being told, “Well you’re fine now. We can’t see anything abnormal”.
Thankfully after 30 minutes Dr Vera is allowed in to check on him and soon after both come through the swing doors to the reception area. It’s 11:30pm and my mate is now looking decidedly perkier, his skin is pink again and he even jokes (I think) that we should get a beer.
I say my goodbyes, jump in a taxi and slump exhausted into the passenger seat. This is not a journey for small talk. As the driver weaves erratically over the Harbour Bridge I contemplate the evening.
An eventful night that reinforced my increasing recent beliefs that business is an exchange of energy. It should be a human experience, doing great things with and for great people. It should interchange seamlessly with “everyday life”.
It also gave me an insight to a remarkable doctor’s life. With the not-so-subtle reminder that we are not invincible and should not always try to be a martyr. We can all be struck down at any moment regardless of our age, background or fitness. Ironically it makes it all seem just a little less scary.