Ice Queen Origins - a prequel to Getting Real
Ice Queen Origins
By Ainslie Paton
Verbatim transcript: Dr Melissa Novarty, Prince of Wales Hospital, Sydney, Australia
Background for Rolling Stone article: “Ice Queen - Origins of an Icon”
Look, it was how long ago? Did you say twelve years? How did you get my name? It’s not hospital policy to talk about patients. I’m sure there’s not much I can tell you anyway. And off the record means you won’t quote me, right? You’d better not quote me. You say they’re famous musicians now. Interesting. I’m more an opera fan.
The thing is even though it was so long ago I do remember this. I was newly appointed here and it was one of the first really tragic cases I was involved with.
I remember I noticed how scary a respirator can sound. Mechanical and relentless. I’d never reflected on that before, but looking at the two kids, and the dad, I suddenly heard it as they did. And they heard it a lot while they waited to see if the mother would come out of it. Months if I remember rightly.
I’d told them she was in no pain and that we had no idea what the extent of her brain damage was or how long it might take her to wake from the coma.
Privately, I thought the damage was extensive and irreversible, and the patient would never wake. So I knew they’d have the awful choice of continuing to pay for her care in a private facility or turning the machinery off. Of course, even if they made the choice to shut the respirator down, she might still breathe on her own. She might go on like that, unresponsive but nominally alive, for years. She didn’t of course, but it does happen.
The little girl shouldn’t even have been there. She was still recovering from her own injuries and was heavily medicated. She was wheelchair bound and would need extensive therapy to regain effective use of her leg again. I remember she had internal injuries that required surgery. But she had pluck, that was clear.
She was a pretty little thing. She was tiny, but probably close to her full height. She had golden blonde hair, a smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks and a gap in her front teeth. She had big green eyes with their dark lashes. I thought she’d probably be striking as an adult. She was like her mother—not that you could see much of the mother, most of her body was in plaster and bandages and her face was swamped by tubing.
The boy was like his father, tall and thin, gangly almost, with big hands and feet. The kids didn’t look like siblings except around the eyes and mouth. The boy had the same big green irises and spidery black lashes and the same gap in his teeth.
Other than a severe concussion, the boy had no injuries and the father was injury free, which was a miracle given the nature of the accident. Usually when I see accident victims involving a semi-trailer it’s to pull the sheet over their faces and notify relatives. Of course, then we found the mass in his brain.
They kept asking me the question all doctors hate about coma patients, “Can she hear?”
There’s no reliable science to indicate coma patients can hear and understand, but every so often there’s a story about a patient who woke and claimed they could hear everything but just not respond and I know the idea of it gives comfort to families. Still I think it’s a matter of diagnosis rather than a miracle and I’m not in the business of giving false hope. I felt this woman was brain dead and would never feel anything again. But I remember telling them they should talk to her all the same.
The boy was the one holding the other two up. Did you say he was sixteen then? That would be about right. He talked to his mother about flowers and how they’d made a deal with a florist to bring her favourites regularly. I think he joked about hospital food too. Everyone does.
I think I remember the nurses saying the mother was a writer, a journalist for an arts magazine and the father was a musician. They’d been coming home from a concert when the accident happened. My memory isn’t bad is it? I wondered how they’d manage. I hoped there was other family around who could step up because they were going to need help to get over this. Something like this was almost impossible to get over. Seems they did okay from what you’re saying.
The girl was too young to lose her mother. She probably hadn’t had a first boyfriend yet, probably hadn’t had a first kiss or been dumped or had her heart broken. A girl needs her mother for those things. And she would have scarring, fortunately not in places that were usually visible, so it could’ve been much worse—it could’ve been her pretty face—but still there was that to get over as well and young girls can be so sensitive.
I remember I called the hospital social worker and Father Reece so the family knew there was professional help available, but the dad was too disoriented to know what to do. He was going to need to make a decision about his own care. He’d need surgery but even with it, there was no guarantee he’d have long. No wonder I remember this one.
Funny thinking about this now. You promise me you’re not quoting me anywhere? My strongest memory of all is the girl breaking down. I’d seen the father in tears, and the boy, but the girl was stoic, partly because of the drugs but shock too. We were all worried about her. It was a relief when she finally cried.
Verbatim transcript: Father Reece, St Patricks, Sydney, Australia
Background for Rolling Stone article: “Ice Queen – Origins of an Icon”
Yes, I’m happy to help you. It was a long time ago though. But I have a good memory for these things. It’s the job. And of course they got very famous, didn’t they? Are you recording me? What happens then? Rolling Stone, fancy that. Oh okay. This is just background you say? I’ll give you an email address. I tweet now, too.
The husband, Ben, invited me to be with the family, but the two kids were hostile. As soon as they saw the little crosses on my collar and knew I wasn’t a doctor or nurse they got agitated.
Not that I could blame them—they were young and this was a heartbreaking thing they were going through. Ben looked very ill, though Dr Novarty said it wasn’t the effect of his illness, but from the stress of the last five months barely leaving his wife’s side.
The daughter was the most hostile, or rather I should say, she was hurting the most. She took one look at my bible, limped over to the window and didn’t look at me or at her mother until the end.
The son was angry too, but he was busy trying to look after everyone else: His father, who I guessed was a shadow of his former self; and his sister, still convalescing from her own injuries. There was no other family, so they were alone with this.
Margaret had shown no signs of recovery. Her physical injuries had healed but her brain injury was considered catastrophic. The doctors had tried all manner of tests and they were reasonably sure she was brain dead and only being kept alive artificially. Ben had wanted to wait, he wanted to give her time to come back he said, so we’d waited.
When Dr Novarty came into the room they all tensed. It was time. She made a point of speaking to each of them separately, though the daughter wouldn’t look at her, and then she turned to me.
She said, “Father, when you’re ready,” which was my signal to read last rites.
I was just about to start when the son said, “What happens if she doesn’t die?”
I told him that the last rites were essentially just a prayer and would do no harm if Margaret continued to breathe on her own. People often ask this, it’s as though they think prayer alone has the power to kill someone.
I went through the prayer, keeping everything Ben had told me about Margaret foremost in my mind. He’d said she was a talented writer, a wonderful mother, and a loving wife. He’d told me how they met at a concert and how he’d romanced her and married her and never ever thought about returning home to the US again.
He said the kids were the centre of her life and how proud she had been of them. He told me how they’d planned to build a house and take a holiday. He told me ordinary things like how Margaret liked her eggs cooked and what her favourite movie was. I let him talk for a good hour or more when we met; he was a man in need of love and care, with a tremendous hurdle in front of him.
He told me religion hadn’t been important in his life but that it was for Margaret. How she’d never tried to force him to believe in God the way she did. He told me he didn’t think he could believe in a God who would leave Margaret like this, that it was too cruel. He’d apologised for that and said he understood if it made me angry or made me pity him. I guess I did pity him; he had no comfort and no shelter from the storm.
The room was very quiet except for the shushing sound of the ventilator and the beeping of the heart monitor, and nothing about me being there was a comfort for them.
When I finished, Dr Novarty put her hand on Ben’s shoulder. He was slumped in his chair and when she touched him he jumped like she’d shot him full of adrenaline. The son had gone to stand by the bed. He held his mother’s hand.
Dr Novarty told them that she would turn off the ventilator and remove the tubing and that if Margaret was able to breathe by herself, her body would know what to do. She told them that once she did this she couldn’t undo it, and she asked Ben if he was sure this was what he wanted.
I watched while Ben went to his son and hugged him, the two of them roughly the same height and very alike. He didn’t seem to have the same closeness with his daughter. Such a tragedy for her to lose her mum.
The three of them clustered around the bedside and Ben said, “Maggie, we love you, but we need to let you go,” and he put his head down on Margaret’s shoulder and sobbed. The son held his mother’s hand and patted his father’s back. The daughter held her mother’s other hand.
Dr Novarty released some straps around Margaret’s face and switched the ventilator off. It made one last shushing sound. Now there was just the beep of the heart monitor.
Margaret never took a breath and the heart monitor beeped once, twice and then three times in quick succession and fell silent. I remember the look on the girl’s face, for just a moment she thought her mother was going to come back.
Dr Novarty and I stayed with the family until they were ready to leave the room. She really is one of the most compassionate doctors I’ve ever worked with, though I know she professes not to believe in God either.
In the end, the only one who didn’t want to leave was the daughter. She kept telling us all to go away and let her alone. She was fierce about it.
We left her and outside Ben told me he was having trouble dealing with his daughter. Well you could see that. I thought losing both parents, even though her father was still alive, was an awful burden for a young girl.
Verbatim transcript: Cressida Dally, social worker, Eagle Rock, Los Angles.
Background for Rolling Stone article: “Ice Queen – Origins of an Icon”
My supervisor really said it was okay to talk to you? Okaaay then. If you buy the coffee, I’m all yours. Two sugars, honey.
You know it was more than ten years ago. But I remember it. Hard to forget those two even before you factor in the fame. I remember I didn’t like it one little bit.
I had this horrendous case load. I mean files sliding all over my desk and the overtime piling up and my husband yelling at me about the amount of time I was spending at work, and my Da was sick. Anyway you don’t want to know about that stuff. It was an awful time, and then I score these two kids on top and right from the get go I know it’s gonna to be a trick and a half.
Rand was due to turn eighteen, so legally could be Rielle’s guardian, but I’d had bad experiences with this sort of thing before and I didn’t want to go there again, you know what I mean?
I thought he was a nice enough kid. He was polite, well spoken if you could get past the awful accent. He’d done well at school, had the grades for college even though he’d missed a lot of classes because of the father’s illness. I interviewed the principal and a bunch of neighbours. They all said good things about him. He looked after his father, mowed lawns, carried groceries, helped old ladies cross the street, that kinda stuff, you know. But when we first met he was still only seventeen, covered in tattoos and in a rock band so you can see why I was worried.
I might’ve been happier if Rielle hadn’t been such a problem. It’s hard to put my finger on what I thought about that girl. But she sure spooked me out. She was obviously intelligent, never missed a class and had outstanding grades. She was this tiny little thing, not like her brother physically, though they both had these really big green eyes. He was tall and kinda lanky, looked like the dad in photos I saw. She must’ve taken after the mom.
Maybe it was the way she dressed, all in black with lots of chains and safety pins, like those old punk rockers from the eighties. Maybe it was the fact that she had a tattoo already, a pierced nose and dyed black hair, plus I remember she wore more makeup than I did.
But you know, I could’ve forgiven that. You see all that kinda thing and worse in this job. The stories I could tell you [laughs]. She was just experimenting with her look, that’s what sixteen year old girls do.
I think the reason she made me feel uneasy was the way she looked at you. Like she was sixteen going on fifty. Like she’d already had all the heartache her little body could take. She wasn’t exactly rude, but she wasn’t polite either. She was the type of kid you hoped your kid wasn’t friends with. She just smelled like trouble.
She only needed to be in foster care for two years and then she’d have her legal majority as well. It was only two years. I thought if I could get her into a home with a strong female influence it might make a real difference to her life, might settle her down. Not that finding a suitable foster home for her was going to be easy. It’s never easy. Especially with how she looked and acted.
There was no other family. The dad was an American citizen but the kids were born in Australia. There was an accident and the mom was killed and Rielle was hurt real bad, too. I’ve read about it in other stories, you know, how the mother was on life support and how they had to make the decision to turn it off. How that’s when they found the dad had a tumour. I can tell you that’s all true. Not like some of the trash that gets written. Sorry, I don’t mean to suggest... yeah, right [laughs].
You know there was some gossip at the time about how Rielle was alienated from the dad, but I don’t know anything for sure about that, so you can’t say that in your story.
But what I can tell you is that when the father’s tumour didn’t respond to treatment he brought the kids home. He thought his mother would be able to help out, but he didn’t know her dementia was so bad she wasn’t well enough to care for herself let alone two grandkids she barely knew.
The dad died kinda sudden and that’s how it all became my problem. From what I remember, there was very little money and a lot of debt from medical expenses.
Anyway, they were determined to stay together. They said they’d hire a damn lawyer to fight to stay together. They’d done the homework, had all the facts and figures about previous cases, legal precedents and arguments. Even my supervisor back then was impressed, and she was a tough ah... never mind. Don’t write that. Lordy don’t write that. If you’re buying, I’ll have another cup.
I went round to the house they were renting and I expected dishes in the sink, no food in the refrigerator and worse, you can imagine. But it was neat as a pin and they made me afternoon tea with homemade cake and they basically tried to sweet talk me into letting them stay together. When I said I didn’t think it was in either of their best interests that’s when they brought out all the evidence.
It was pretty remarkable for two kids. But I still didn’t like it. I thought maybe if I could get Rand into a regular job with a regular income and regular influences it might be better. I remember he said, “Ma’am,” real polite now, “I can make more money as a musician than I can pushing paper, bussing tables or flipping burgers.”
And I told him that the chances of him making a viable career out of playing guitar were smaller even than me losing weight anytime this century [laughs].
Isn’t that funny now? What a joke. I wonder if they remember. And I never did lose any weight [laughs].
Rand said he had contacts, that his father had helped set things up for them, that he had a job as a recording session musician and that he knew how to work hard and you know, I really got to like the kid and maybe if his sister was less weird, I’d have felt better about the whole thing.
Anyway, you know how it is, your case load is so high and some situations are more urgent than others. Neither of these kids was in any immediate danger, and if they went ahead and hired a lawyer they could still lose and then they’d have the court costs to front as well, so after a few weeks I gave in and I signed off on it. Then I basically forgot about them.
I never put two and two together till way later and then seeing what they did with their lives, I figured maybe I’d did the right thing for them after all.
GETTING REAL IS OUT IN APRIL -