"You're the best thing that I've ever found
Handle me with care..."
–Traveling Wilburys, Handle with Care
Earlier in the week we’d all gone to Green Island where the wind was up to 25 knots, and that pretty much reduced the sea’s visibility to nothing but murky water. Plus, there were really no coral beds to be found from where we snorkeled. But we did still see some tropical fish and a big sea turtle (from the island dock), and had okay beach time on the side of the island blocked from the wind, so there was that. No matter what, we still had yet another great family day during our Australian vacation adventure.
Shortly after we arrived at the dock and got on the boat, I needed to complete health forms for both of us, which I did.
“Remember your safety numbers,” one of the crew members told me after reviewing the forms.
“Got it,” I said. “I’m 25 and Beatrice is 26. And my daughter will get the wetsuit. I won’t need one.”
He looked up from our health forms. “No, you should wear one.”
I nodded. “Okay, is the stinger level high right now?” I was referring to the highly poisonous jellyfish that populated the ocean here.
“No, it’s low, but you should still wear a wetsuit.”
“Use these wristbands when you pick up your wetsuits,” he said, handing me two thin yellow wristbands.
“Thank you,” I said, and returned to sit with Beatrice.
We were going out into the open ocean where there would be no islands or not even a pontoon to dock to on this particular snorkel trip, so I understood there were dangers.
However, when I went to retrieve the wetsuits and snorkel equipment, the crew members handing out the equipment had no idea what the yellow wristbands were for. Had never seen them before. Had no idea why I was given them. I found that odd, but just shrugged and returned to Beatrice with our gear.
We were supposed to leave at 8:00 am, but right before 8, two of the crew members, a young man and woman, ran onto the boat and up the stairs to the upper deck, and then immediately fled back out onto the dock, emergency kits in hand.
“Are we going to go soon?” Bea asked.
“Yes, very soon.”
When it was nearly 8:30 am, and we still hadn’t left, I felt like something was wrong. That’s when I looked out the front boat window to the upper dock and witnessed someone, I couldn’t see who, who was receiving CPR.
“Jesus,” I said aloud.
“What?” Bea noticed the alarm in my voice.
“Nothing. Hopefully we’ll leave soon.”
But we didn’t leave soon, and the CPR didn’t stop. I kept looking through the widow and after about 15 minutes, there were emergency vehicles near where the sick person lay on the dock.
Another female crew member was walking around and checking people in again – the same one who had checked us in before we got on the boat.
“Is everything okay up there?” I asked, hoping to find out more information.
“There’s a man with diabetes who had a seizure, maybe even a heart attack, and they’re trying to resuscitate him,” she said freely, here demeanor calm.
“I hope they succeed,” I said. “But’s it’s been almost 20 minutes, hasn’t it?”
“Yes, it has,” she said giving me a meek smile, and moved on to check in others.
“What’s diabetes?” Beatrice asked me.
I explained it to her the best I could.
“Will the man die?”
“I hope not. That’s why they’re up there helping him.”
“Will I catch diabetes?”
I explained further that it’s not really something you catch like other colds or diseases because of a virus, but there are those who are genetically disposed to get it, and that if you don’t take care of yourself with exercise and the right diet, you could get diabetes.
“I hope the man doesn’t die. And I hope I don’t catch it,” she said.
By then it was after 9:00 am, and I got the feeling we weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Beatrice was antsy and although the crew’s demeanor had gotten perceptibly agitated, they kept it together pretty damn well. More of them kept coming and going from the boat to the lower and upper docks and back again.
When I looked out the lower dock window again, I saw an EMT talking with the boat captain and a huddled portion of the crew. Based on the fact that some of the crew members were crying, including the young woman who checked us in, I knew what had happened even before the captain called all the passengers together on the lower deck to explain the situation to us.
The man on the upper dock had died. They tried to revive him and kept up CPR and other medical treatments for over 25 minutes, but unfortunately, they couldn’t save him. The man’s family was still up on the dock with the emergency and police personnel. Due to the fact that the crew was quite shaken by the entire ordeal, the captain decided to cancel the reef trip.
Nobody said a word. The sad and disappointed faces of the passengers and the crew said enough. We couldn’t exit the boat either, as the top of the dock ramp was where it all happened, so the captain moved the boat to another part of the dock so we could depart. I’d been texting the Mama and her and Bryce met us where we eventually re-docked.
Right before that, as the boat slowly moved past where the man had died, I saw his family sitting on the dock rail talking with an officer, I assume the wife and son. The female crew member who had checked us in was the first one to witness it, and she told me the man was on vacation with his family from Melbourne – and one minute he was fine and then the next – he just swayed, passed out and fell onto his side, hitting his head on the dock. He stopped breathing and she held his head while some passersby started CPR.
NAIDOC Week, where all the indigenous people of Australia celebrate their culture, their history and their tribal families. Ironically one of the booths at the NAIDOC cultural fair was the local Cairns emergency and ambulance services personnel, and when we explained to them what had happened, and that the girls had questions about CPR, they gave the girls a little demonstration and explained how it helps save lives.
When they can save them, of course. It doesn’t always work out that way sadly, because the family that Beatrice and I would never meet on a Great Barrier Reef trip we would never make would now grieve for a father and husband they lost. I can’t imagine and didn’t want to imagine if that had been our family. Every memory of our trip fossilized within. My heart ached for his family.
That's the thing, though – anything can happen, anytime, anywhere.
“I’m sorry, Sweetie,” the Mama said at the end of the day. “What a way to finish and what a tragedy. It would’ve been a perfect day out there today, too.”
“It was a perfect day, right here,” I said.
She smiled. A minute later she said, “You know, this morning when we dropped you both off, Bryce said she felt like she’d never see guys again.”
I cringed and then shook my head. “She was just missing us.”
“I know, but still.”
I nodded and smiled at her and the girls. I then turned my gaze out over the still ocean beyond. I knew I’d be wearing that nondescript yellow wristband for some time to come.