SILENT WITNESS: The Story of Melissa Pierce
SHE sits alone in the corner of the darkened lounge room of the Pierce family home in Tranquility Drive, accompanied by the rhythmic sigh of her ventilator.
It is just after 3pm, and Melissa Pierce, 33, is awaiting the return from school and kindergarten of her two sons - Callum, 5, and Braydon, 3. Soon the cavernous new house in suburban Rothwell, north of Redcliffe, will contain the chaos of excited children.
But for the moment it is just the hiss and gasp of the ventilator, the music that now underscores much of Melissa Pierce’s life. She is motionless in the chair. Her head is held in a brace. She is covered up to her chin with a blanket of quaint hand-stitched flowers and pots.
Through the sliding glass doors behind her you can see in the backyard the detritus of childhood – swings, a small blackboard, a plastic table and chairs set, a bicycle with trainer wheels. On the family refrigerator, too, that magnetised map of young family life – photographs, reminder notes, shopping lists and emergency telephone numbers.
One fridge magnet grabs your attention – Meningitis: Know the Symptoms.
All this is, at first glance, a familiar tableau, replicated in housing estates up and down Queensland, until you view the room at the left rear of the house in Tranquility Drive. It is, in essence, a private hospital room, as if grafted from some health facility and attached to the back of a suburban home.
At the rear of the room is a large, blank blue wall. There are two hospital-style beds, a mass of machinery and tubes, a huge larder filled with medical and hygiene goods.
It is here that Melissa Pierce, the former Redcliffe police senior constable, spends much of her life now. She is a tetraplegic – paralysed from the neck down – and blind in her left eye. She cannot speak, and can only mouth her words.
Just after 3.15pm her husband Jason, 35, arrives home with the boys. They file in from the garage. Jason lifts each boy in turn to kiss their mother.
She silently mouths “I love you” to the children. They scamper off to play. She follows them with her eyes.
It quietens again in the dim corner of the lounge. Once more the sound of Melissa’s ventilator begins to dominate the room. In the Pierce house - which has seen so much unexpected tragedy, joy, sorrow, love, and uncertainty – the machine that keeps her alive sounds for a moment like a giant beating heart.
Occasionally you can catch the boys’ giggling from a distant part of the house. They cannot know or understand their mother’s story yet. They cannot know how many times she has arrived at the border of death.
It was not always this way. Just over two years ago Melissa Pierce (nee Cree) was a vibrant young mother, a fitness fanatic, and a diligent and valued member of the Queensland Police Force.
She was known by her childhood nickname – Bis – and had a reputation for tenacity, enjoying a good time with her girlfriends, and being a devotee of the daily television soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. She simply referred to it as “The Bold”.
In addition, Melissa and Jason, himself a police detective, owned a property in the Redcliffe area, had fulfilled their wish for children, and had started an exciting new chapter in their lives in Longreach, western Queensland. They were embracing country life. The locals knew them by sight. The kids were in a pony club.
Until one weekend in August 2003, when something so inexplicable happened that their existence was turned upside down.
BRIAN and Diane Cree moved to the Redcliffe peninsula in the mid-70s to start a fresh life. As a butcher in Moree in north-western NSW and with two young children - Melissa and Troy - Brian had notions of new beginnings. Perhaps a change of profession. Probably a better life for his wife and kids.
“I butchered here for a while, then I bought a fish and chip shop,” he said. “Melissa was about four when we had the fish shop at Scarborough. It was take-aways and stuff like that.
“Melissa was a good little kid, you know? She was always good. Whatever you asked Melissa to do she’d always do. I remember one night I got in and she came up whinging – Dad, Tina’s pushed me into the sand. I said, Melissa, I’m sick of hearing you whinge, go and push Tina into the sand yourself. The next minute I hear this screaming kid. It was Tina. Melissa was always tiny, but she had this bigger girl’s head in the sand and wouldn’t let her up.”
Since anyone could remember, she was called “Bis”. It was a simple mispronunciation of Melissa by her younger brother, but the name stuck.
Educated at nearby Frawley College, she worked hard for her results and was heavily involved in sports.
“She was very athletic, she really looked after herself,” said her mother, Diane. “She was in touch football, beach volleyball, went to the gym and walked every day. She didn’t really know what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.”
On graduation, she worked for a local law firm before being transferred to their Brisbane office. Unbeknown to her family, she applied for a position in the Queensland Police force.
“One day I came home from work and a letter had come in the mail from the Queensland police,” Brian recalled. “I thought what’s this? She must have got a speeding fine.
“I rang her up and she said open it, open it. I couldn’t understand why she was so excited. It said in the letter she was accepted to join the police force. I couldn’t believe it.
“Then again, I don’t think she was going to sit in an office for the rest of her life. She was too outgoing.”
As it transpired, Melissa Pierce was born to be a police officer. She underwent the usual transfer to various Brisbane and local stations, including Boondall, Albany Creek, Deception Bay and Sandgate, before manning the Help Desk at Redcliffe Police Station and District HQ in Redcliffe Parade.
In the middle of this, she met the love of her life.
“She was travelling in a bus heading down to Thredbo and the snow for a holiday,” Brian said. “You jump on a bus in Brisbane and pick up people on the way south, you know? From what I know of it this fellow got on the bus in Toowoomba and sat beside her. And he was a big tall sort of a bloke. He said to Melissa - what do you do for work? She told him she worked for the government. She didn’t want anyone to know she was a cop.
“As the bus trip rolled on he said – I think you might be a police officer. She said no, I work for the Department of Housing. He said he had a feeling she was a copper. She found out a little bit later that he was a police officer too.”
That fellow was Jason Pierce, an officer from Toowoomba who was so young when he entered the academy he became known as “Junior” Pierce. (He was 16). He had already substantially tasted police life, having served a stint in Barcaldine, central western Queensland.
Melissa and Jason parted ways at the end of that holiday. She returned to Redcliffe. Incredibly, he too was transferred to the district shortly after. As Brian Cree agreed, if two people were ever destined to be together, it was Melissa and Jason.
They married on October 3, 1999.
“His (Jason’s) speech at their wedding was very good,” said his mother, Annette Pierce. “He was going on about how he was on this crusade looking for the woman in his life, how he went here and there looking, and all the time she was right under his nose in Redcliffe.”
In keeping with Melissa’s hopes of having children before she turned 30, she soon gave birth to Callum and then Braydon 18 months later. She shared her pregnancies with other mothers-to-be at the Redcliffe station.
“We were all going to be Mums together,” said colleague Sharon Herd, an Intelligence Officer at the station. “She was thrilled with motherhood. It brought us all together. She doted on her boys.”
Then Jason received a transfer to Longreach in April 2003. He already had an old mate out there – policeman Dave Perry of the Stock Squad – whom he knew from his days in Barcaldine.
“Before they moved to Longreach Melissa bought all these books to help with the boy’s education, just in case they missed out on something in the bush,” her father Brian said. “The idea was to give the kids a bit of a country lifestyle.”
Diane Cree said when they first arrived in the country town their future seemed limitless. “I had never seen a couple so much in love. When Jason came home from work they’d chase each other around, tickling and cuddling.”
Around the middle of the day on Saturday, August 2, 2003, Melissa complained of a nagging earache. She had suffered occasional migraines in the past, but this was like nothing she had ever experienced.
In less than 48 hours, she would be fighting for her life.
Exactly what happened to Melissa “Bis” Pierce on that first weekend in August is still a mystery.
After continuing to complain of a persistent earache on that Saturday, Jason took her to the local Longreach Base Hospital late that night as a precaution. There seemed nothing suspicious and she took aspirin.
Jason added: “By 2am Sunday she woke up and told me it was the worst pain she had ever experienced, so I took her back again to the Longreach hospital.”
Jason’s parents were staying at the house at the time. Melissa was due to drive to Rockhampton with Dave Perry on Monday morning to partake in a police course, and Annette and Tom were there to babysit the children for the week.
“I remember they (Jason and Melissa) were going to take the kids to the pony club on the Sunday morning but Melissa wasn’t feeling well and said she’d sleep in,” Annette said. “We took the kids with Jason to the pony club and when we got back she said she felt a lot better.
“After lunch she went for a walk and played with the kids and she sort of felt she was okay. She’d packed to go away and everything.”
Melissa had gone for her usual power walk, and had played cricket and totem tennis in the backyard with the children that Sunday afternoon. Everyone retired for the evening.
Then Jason’s father, Tom, said he was awoken in the early hours of Monday morning by a “commotion”.
“She seemed to be quite okay when we went to bed that Sunday night,” he said. “I heard of a bit of commotion during the night. I could hear her groaning, for want to of a better word.”
At 2am that Monday Jason woke to find his wife was not in bed.
“I went to look for her and she’d thrown up in the kitchen sink,” he said. “It wasn’t like her. Later she was back in the toilet and she’d puked on the floor. The last thing she said to me was – don’t look in here.”
By 5am she was “shaking and not responsive”, according to Jason. She couldn’t speak or hear what he was saying to her. Jason ran into his parents’ room.
“He was very distressed. I took one look at her and she wasn’t conscious,” Tom said. “We couldn’t wake her. I said we better get the ambulance.”
The ambulance arrived within minutes. Shortly after, Dave Perry pulled up at the house to pick up Melissa for their trip to Rockhampton.
“I arrived and the ambulance was there,” he said. “She was laying on a mattress on the floor. She was not conscious of what was going on around her. She was sort of rocking and obviously in some distress.”
Tom added: “The ambulance bloke said we’ve got to get this temperature down, we’ve got to get her to hospital. I expected her to be sitting up in bed by midday that day. It was quite a shock to me when Jason phoned from the hospital.”
He had called, in tears, to tell his parents Melissa was in intensive care, had suspected meningitis, and had to be rushed to Brisbane. Her life was in grave danger.
Melissa would be transferred to the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital in a Royal Flying Doctor aircraft. Because Jason could not physically fit onto the plane with the paramedics and equipment and his ailing wife, the Queensland Police provided a jet to get him to Brisbane.
“The worst part of it was when we went to the airport,” said Annette. “Both these planes were out on the tarmac. Jason went over to her plane to make sure she was in and everything and he’s balling, tears streaming down his face. He came back over to us to say goodbye.
“Just seeing these planes, you know? The Flying Doctor took off and the other one took off behind it. It was just so sad.”
THE average tenure for patients in the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU) is of short duration. It could be up to five days. Melissa Pierce was a resident there for more than 20 months.
Intensive care specialist, Dr Neil Widdicombe, remembered when he first saw Melissa in the unit.
“She was unconscious when I first saw her, on a ventilator with an inter-cranial pressure monitor,” he said. “We were aware of some of the difficulties establishing a diagnosis and the severity of her problem.
“She had an earache, she had temperature, she had symptoms that were consistent with a viral problem. She was seen by a local doctor who wondered if there had been a bacterial infection and subscribed an antibiotic. Unfortunately she went home and deteriorated.”
Brian Cree said he couldn’t believe that his daughter was fighting for her life after an innocuous earache.
“Jason rang me that Monday morning and said Melissa was very sick… and he broke down,” Brian said. “I said - what do you mean? He said she’d gone into a coma. I said - from what? He didn’t know. She just had an earache. Nobody knows what happened. I still don’t think they know.”
When her Redcliffe police colleagues found out about her plight, they gathered at the hospital on and off throughout the week. At times there were up to 70 police in the waiting rooms.
“I still remember going up to the hospital that first time,” said Redcliffe colleague Barbara Shield. “I had never seen a person look that colour. She was a purple colour, and slipping in and out of a coma. I was a blubbering mess.”
Dr Widdicombe said Melissa was given a variety of anti-viral, -bacterial and –inflammatory treatments. No diagnosis was forthcoming.
“Whatever the process was, it was probably an inflammatory process,” he said. “We don’t know what the cause is and I can’t postulate whether the earache was definitely viral or bacterial. We’ve never been able to confirm or refute that.
“I don’t think it was something peculiar to Longreach. We’ve not had another case from Longreach. We’ve not had a similar case. We’ve not seen a case like this before.”
Something caused severe inflammation to Melissa’s lower brain stem. The resultant pressure in the area, and the body’s attempt to relieve that pressure via the spinal cord, resulted in damage that rendered her a tetraplegic. Tetraplegia, by definition, is the impairment or loss of motor and/or sensory function in the cervical segments of the spinal cord as a result of damage to neural elements within the spinal canal. It is unknown if her paralysis will be permanent.
“It’s frustrating,” Dr Widdicombe added. “People want an answer as to why. In Melissa’s case we can say how, we can demonstrate what the insult (to her brain) has been, but we can’t say why.
“I think in today’s society we want surety and precision, and we are uncomfortable with issues of chance. We’ve not seen a similar case before. It is unfortunately an issue of chance.”
Her father Brian remained nonplussed. “Why did she deserve it?” he asked. “She was one person who didn’t deserve it. If it happened to me, I’ve done enough things to warrant it, but I don’t think she ever has.”
And her future? “What would be Melissa’s lifespan?” Brian asked himself. “That’s in the lap of the gods. What’s your lifespan? What’s my lifespan?”
Her mother, Diane Cree, said she had repeatedly asked God why this had happened to her daughter. Why Melissa?
“A doctor told me it was like the September 11 attacks and the terrorists striking the Twin Towers in New York,” she said. “Those terrorists knew where to strike to cause the most damage. Whatever attacked Melissa, it was like the terrorists. It knew exactly where to strike to cause maximum damage.”
In Tranquility Drive, Callum and Braydon are happily drawing and colouring in at the dining room table. Their mother observes silently.
That Melissa is home with her family is another story of remarkable generosity and spirit, and the work of Dr Widdicombe and his team at Royal Brisbane’s ICU.
The house – with its single flame tree out the front and a doorbell that plays Oh Suzannah - was constructed with the money and labour of the entire Queensland police community, the people of Longreach and the Redcliffe peninsula, family, friends, and the goodness of strangers. A specially-fitted vehicle, a forthcoming wheelchair and money for the children’s education has similarly materialised from numerous sources, including innumerable charity auctions and golf tournaments.
“I’ve never been a person for police myself, but they’ve been astronomical,” Brian Cree said. “If anyone could bag them after this…If it’s a community thing, they are the community.”
The impact of that weekend in August 2003 has had monstrous reverberations. Diane Cree, separated from Brian, has permanently moved into a house nearby, having abandoned her retirement on the Gold Coast. Jason continues to work as a detective in the Redcliffe area. Many lives have been touched.
“It’s the terrifying thing,” said Barbara Shield. “If it can happen to Bis just like that, then it can happen to anybody.”
Melissa, despite the unfathomable turmoil she has experienced over the past two years, remains upbeat and positive.
In the early months of her illness she feared for her relationship. “She expressed to me that perhaps she could no longer be the wife and mother she needed to be, and that Jason might leave her,” said Diane.
The opposite has transpired. In December 2003 they renewed their wedding vows in a ceremony at the RBWH. (They signed the marriage certificate with the use of an official police finger-printing kit.)
Jason’s mother Annette said: “He told me - I don’t care what happens, Mum, I don’t want her to die. So far he’s got his wish.”
Jason has, in a way, become “both mother and father to the children”, said Diane. “He’s an angel sent from heaven, I think.”
It is approaching 4pm at the house in Rothwell and it’s almost time for The Bold and the Beautiful. Melissa smiles at her husband and children. Her face is highly expressive. It registers laughter and confusion and a mother’s watchful interest in her children’s activities.
“The amazing thing,” said Barbara Shield, “is that all her memories and faculties are still there.”
It’s still Bis, the girl who pushed Tina’s face in the sand and punished her body to lose weight for the police academy, the woman who fell in love with another police officer on a bus heading south, the mother who was filled with excitement at the thought of watching her boys grow up.
But something, somehow, crept in like a thief and stole the old Melissa Pierce away.
As you leave, she looks up and mouths silently but clearly – “Nice to meet you” – as the ventilator hisses and sighs.
For a moment, you can almost hear her.