Meeting Leanna

Leanna (top) and Bethany Mills (Photo: Natalie Grono/Sydney Morning Herald)

Once in a while, life throws unexpected meetings at you, meetings that take you completely outside your normal frame of reference.  I’ve had one of those moments this week. Today, I met Leanna Mills. It happened something like this:

Last night, coming home from dinner on the tram, I was talking with an English friend, (in English of course). A man sitting nearby turns around and looks at us. As my friend got off the tram, he gets up and comes over, and asks, in a strong Australian accent, “So, where’re you from mate?”

He finds out I’m from New Zealand, and I find out Nic’s from Newcastle, New South Wales. And he’s here in Montpellier with his family because his 14 year-old daughter Leanna is having life-saving surgery. For the sixth time.

Leanna and her younger sister Bethany (12) suffer from an extremely rare neurological condition called primary dystonia. There is no cure, and one of the few successful treatments is deep brain stimulation, which involves the implantation of electrodes in the brain. One of the only places in the world they undertake the procedure on children is the paediatric neurosurgery department at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Montpellier.

Nic and his wife Michelle don’t speak a word of French, but since 2005, the lives of two of their daughters are in the hands of a few French expert surgeons. As Nic told me, the Australian government provides part-funding for overseas treatment, but most of the enormous costs of travel, surgery and after-care have been paid for by Nic and his wife’s own fundraising efforts, and the help of a few generous donors.

I wanted to give Nic my contact details, but when we parted ways at our tram stop, I didn’t have a business card on me, and Nic didn’t have a pen. So I shook his hand and wished him well, and walked home. A late-night google search uncovered this article about the girls in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Today, I wrote down my contact details on a piece of paper, and stuck it in an envelope. The plan was to drop it at the reception desk at the hospital, and ask them to give it to Nic. I wasn’t even sure if the hospital staff would allow me to do that, given patient confidentiality rules.

But when I arrived at reception, the lady said “Ah yes, the Australian girl. She’s on the 5th floor in Pediatric Neurosurgery. Take the lift, and go on up.” So I found the ward, asked at the nurses’ station, and I was shown to Leanna’s room. Leanna and Nic were both asleep, but the nurse had no hesitation in waking them up to tell them they had a visitor.

I had originally planned to simply drop off a letter. I ended up staying two and a half hours. Stuck in France, the Mills have had few English-speaking visitors. Nic and I talked about the fundraising efforts, and the adventures and dramas the family have had over the course of ten years. A nurse came in, invited Leanna to a birthday party for one of the other patients, and she disappeared for half an hour in a wheelchair.

It seems a cliché to describe Leanna as a brave young woman. At the age of 14, she’s spent more time in hospital than most people experience in a lifetime. She has electrodes in her brain, a battery pack in her abdomen and wires inside her neck. And yet, one day out of intensive care, she was still smiling. And she insisted on getting my myspace address.

Just as remarkable are Leanna’s parents. Nic has given up his job to care for his daughters and to find ways to raise funds for treatment and care. They both look tired, but determined. Nick’s made a solid list of contacts and has grand plans to put together the financial footing the family will need in the future. There’s a book and a website on the way.

Even if the repeat surgery is succesful, there’s a long way to go – Leanna and Bethany both require ongoing monitoring, and changing the batteries in their brain stimulation devices requires surgery every two years for the rest of their lives. The costs involved are extraordinary – but without this treatment, the girls would die.

Bethany, two years younger, is back in Australia and by all accounts doing very well. The Mills’ youngest daughter Olivia also stayed behind in Newcastle with relatives this time, while the oldest daughter Katey travelled with her parents to spend the summer in Montpellier while Leanna underwent surgery.

Next week, the Mills hope to fly home to Australia. I’m going to try and keep in touch with this remarkable family, and when their website is live, I’ll post the link here. Because you never know who might be able to help.

Clive James on Silly Money

Clive James is one of my favourite writers. When I was 13 years old I wanted to write like him.  I still do. Deeply funny and very, very well-read.  Cambridge educated, he wears his omniverous intellect lightly, rather like David Mitchell.

He’s Australian, but like fellow brainy Aussie Germaine Greer, he left his native land early to forge a formidable reputation in the UK.  Occasionally Clive James does a series of talks for Point of View on Radio 4. (A 10-minute podcast each week – well worth subscribing to!)

He nails his topic just about every time: last week he delivered one of the best atheist-agnostic descriptions of the continuing importance of Jesus I’ve ever heard.

This week, he takes on the credit crisis, and makes one very serious point – why the heck do we need all this money anyway?  What WAS Bernard Madoff (already a wealthy man) actually going to DO with 50 billion dollars?

James makes one prediction for 2009 – having lots and lots of money is going to look very silly.

“We’ve reached a turning point. A madness has gone out of fashion: the madness of behaving as if only too much can be enough. There will always be another madness, but not that one. From now on a man will have to be as dumb as an petrodollar potentate to think that anyone will respect him for sitting on a gold toilet in a private jumbo jet.”

Invasion of New Zealand

Australian TV Show The Gruen Transfer asked a couple of advertising agencies to come up with a campaign to promote a military invasion of New Zealand by Australia.

Quite amusing really, we didn’t know the Aussies cared so much about us! A hi-res version of the second ad is online at

Hat tip to Duncan MacLeod.

About Bloody Time, Mate

Stolen Generation

There is still some hope for the world. The new Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is preparing to deliver an official apology to the stolen generation in the parliament in Canberra on February 13th.

Saying ‘sorry’ really is only a first step, but it is a significant step by an Australian government to acknowledge some of the deep injustices suffered by the koori since colonisation. It was a step that John Howard (and deputy sheriff and former Aussie PM) John Howard famously refused to take.

I hope the Rudd government offers a turning point for Australia and their relationship with the koori, who represent some of the oldest cultures and languages on the planet. Maybe the last 200 years of colonialism and shameful government policy represent just a minor blip in the 60,000 year history of human habitation in Australia.

Murphy’s Law is Proved Correct

Photo: Aram Sinnriech

Oh Joy. A panel of experts has provided the statistical rule for predicting the law of “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” – or ((U+C+I) x (10-S))/20 x A x 1/(1-sin(F/10)).

After tests of the experiences of 1000 people, they have discovered “things don’t just go wrong, they do so at the most annoying moment”.

Retour de la Voyoucratie…

A momentous weekend of political movement in the South Pacific, perhaps the least momentous of which was the election of Auckland’s first centre-left city council since Colin Meads was in short pants. New mayor Dick Hubbard’s surname, and his profile as a local breakfast cereal mogul will no doubt lead to some painful punning headlines over the next four years. It also remains to be seen whether City Vision-Hubbard can do any better than the Citizens & Ratepayers who have pretty much dominated Auckland politics since the Second World War.

Across the Tasman, Australia swings convincingly to the right, and George W. Bush rests easy knowing that his diminutive sidekick will still loyally guard the kennel in his part of the world. Speak softly and carry a big heap of stealth cruise missiles. Way to build trust across Southeast Asia, John!

And in contrast to the the mild mannered Anglo-Saxon power plays of this week, French Senator Gaston Flosse has successfully inveigled a toppling of the pro-independence government of Oscar Temaru in Tahiti after only 15 weeks. As Le Monde points out, Temaru and his fragile coalition were probably not properly prepared to take charge of the territory, (and would have trouble fulfilling an election platform that included the introduction of a 6 hour working day and a 50% increase in the unemployment benefit). Nevertheless, the methods used by Flosse to obtain the vote of no confidence probably deserve closer scrutiny : allegations that Paris threatened to reduce the subsidies that keep the colonial economy afloat, and even accusations from the French Socialists that Flosse’s machinations had support from the heart of the central government…

Tension is “palpable” in Papeete these past few days, and an attempted knife attack during the parliamentary debate on Friday night suggests that this situation has the potential to rapidly turn ugly…

Il est temps de partir, John !

This weekend’s Le Monde has this story covering the Michael Moore-esque “Time to go John“, a series of shorts pulled together by Australian film makers exposing some of the questionable actions of the Howard government.

Interesting to see that a European paper should take notice of political and articistic manouevrings so far from the metropole – if only there was a more active critique in the metropolitan French media of the continuing colonial regime in the Pacific….

The Observer also has a horrifying article giving a glimpse into the extent of the criminal networks abducting and trafficking women and children across eastern Europe. Where is this all heading?

It is ultimately abhorrent that there are people growing rich off the prostitution and abuse of children anywhere in the world. But this is happening on a large scale inside (or at least within spitting distance of) the European Union. Do we actually care? Are we powerless to stop this?