Monday, October 03, 2005

A ROGUE'S PROGRESS

Published in Qweekend Magazine, Saturday, october 1, 2005.




AS you fly into Nadi International Airport, on the western side of Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu, you invariably sweep over a rugged volcanic mountain range the locals have colloquially called the Sleeping Giant.

It is not possible to witness the dimensions of the giant from the air. Only from ground level and from a certain side of the range does it come into sharp relief. Only then can you visualise its length, girth, and strange facial features. The Sleeping Giant rests flat on its back, has a huge belly, and its profile is not unlike a heavily quiffed Elvis Presley. Its mouth is agape.

It’s nice to think that the giant emits long, sonorous sounds that can be heard across the country’s 332 islands and is responsible for what is known as “Fiji time” – a euphemism for a way of life that is not dictated by the hourly strictures of Greenwich. That the giant’s snores disrupt time, mischievously play with the hands of clocks and watches, and act as an inner-call to an older, slower and more civilised mode of living.

Peter Foster, 43, the notorious Queensland-born weight loss entrepreneur, raconteur, one-time global playboy and occasional political time bomb, has heard the call of the giant.

As we enter the main hall of Nadi airport he is there to greet us. For a moment you have to look twice to make sure it’s him, out of the context, as he is, of world famous hotels, the French Riviera, the esplanade at Surfers Paradise.

His picture has dominated British tabloids and Australian newspapers for more than two decades. He has been seen in tuxedo and tie beside his one-time lover and former pop star Samantha Fox. He has been pictured in the bright orange jumpsuits of the American prison system. More recently, he has been snapped in Bond Street’s finest threads in London with Carole Caplin, former confidante and personal advisor to Cherie Blair, wife of the British Prime Minister.

But here, leading us to his old plum-coloured SUV in the airport car park, he is resplendently louche in rubber thongs, crumpled khaki shorts and an old red T-shirt. There is whiskery growth on his face. His hair is ungroomed.

After four years of government-imposed exile, Peter Foster is back in the country he has loved since childhood, and is deep inside “Fiji time”. He has returned to set in train a lifelong dream – to build a home on one of Fiji’s most remote islands. He may also develop an “exclusive gated residence” for world celebrities like Elton John or Bill Clinton or Tony Blair.

It only becomes apparent later that he is here for many reasons, some of them personal and complex. But in the car park he is gregarious, revelling in his dishevelled self. He could be a native of the islands, if it wasn’t for his pale, wintry complexion.

“Bula!” he says, lifting our luggage into the car. “How about a drink?”


*



The drive to Foster’s villa at the Sheraton Fiji in Denarau takes us away from the Sleeping Giant and through Nadi town. He navigates the SUV with seasoned agility, the roads at peak hour clogged with trucks, bicycles, heavily-laden buses and even the occasional livestock.

“It’s been strange to come back,” he says. “It’s been four years. I’ve had people come up to me and say – Peter, Peter, good to see you. You’ve gotten so fat, Peter. Is Mr Foster inside there somewhere, Peter? I wasn’t sure if they’d ever let me in (to the country) again. I could be the only person in the world who has to carry a letter from the Fijian Immigration Department to let me through customs.”

He may be right. The letter in question, issued on April 26 this year and titled Uplifting of Prohibition Notice, is signed by Mr E. Tudia, Acting Director of Immigration. It advises that the department minister has “agreed to the uplifting” of Foster’s prohibited status.

The ban stemmed from Foster’s involvement in the 2001 Fiji elections. After a politically dormant life, he made a snap decision to get behind Fiji’s New Labor Unity Party headed by former Fiji deputy Prime Minister Dr Tupeni Baba.

Foster became proxy campaign manager for Dr Baba, put hundreds of thousands of dollars behind hisbid for prime ministership, and introduced never before seen American-style political spruiking to the Fijian political landscape.

Dr Baba said from his new home in Auckland, New Zealand: “As a person genuinely interested in Fiji where he (Foster) was making some investments at the time and obviously like other citizens who loved and believed in Fiji, he appeared interested to see it had a Government that could bring about peace and stability following the Coup of 2000.
“He offered to assist and paid for whatever he organised in terms of advertisements and campaigns .This was not different from any others in Fiji who offered help. He did not break any law in Fiji as his actions were all within the law.”

Dr Baba was defeated. And Foster was ejected from the country as a “political activist”, which contravened his visa conditions.

“I prefer to have seen myself as a freedom fighter,” he says now in the SUV, heading towards the tree-lined boulevard into the Sheraton. “I still believe Dr Baba was and is the Nelson Mandela of the Pacific. I believe he’s a good man. As for the ban, I fully accept what happened and that in their view I contravened the conditions of my visa at the time.”

Foster parks the car and is greeted by concierges and bell hops. They refer to him as Mr Foster, and warmly grasp his hand.

Foster’s rented villa is the same one he was living in when the Fijians threw him out of the country. It is a resplendent white and timber-shuttered two-storey terrace house facing the ocean.

“It’s beautiful here, isn’t it?” he says, sipping a white wine and squinting into the amber light streaming into the villa. “I always feel at home when I’m back in Fiji.”

His love of the country, he says, can be sourced to a succession of Fijian nannies that helped bring him up from when he was about four years old. He recalls one – Kata – who “would kick a football with me”.

“She was mother, father, nursemaid all rolled into one, and she would have made a great front row forward,” he says.

Foster’s mother, Louise Foster-Poletti, 73, says she started visiting Fiji in the early 1960s and had an instant affiliation with the it. “Peter has always loved the place,” she says. “I do think he will end up there, a recluse, sooner rather than later. Every time he tries to do something in Australia he’s knocked down for it. He’s tired of all that. In Fiji he can be himself.”

But what, precisely, is that self?

Foster is an intriguing dichotomy. He has been perennially branded the archtypal “conman” – a phrase he loathes – since the days of the Bai Lin slimming tea scandal in the 1980s and 90s. He has been jailed for fraud and various misdemeanours on three continents. He very nearly brought Downing Street to its knees in early 2003 when, via Caplin, he helped Cherie Blair with the purchase of two investment flats.

The British tabloids ate him, and to some extent the Blairs, alive. Resultantly, Foster was hounded out of the UK and returned to the place he knew best – Queensland’s Gold Coast – where he had been brought up and schooled.

Simultaneously, Foster is urbane and well-read, is a practising Christian, and has committed innumerable philanthropic acts outside the media gaze. In person he is ineffably charming, and has the often unnerving ability, in conversation, to make you feel you are the centre of the universe at that moment in time.

It is a skill, one can only presume, that has worked both for and against him. For, in that he secures people’s attention and trust almost instantly. Against, in that in some of his past business ventures – which he freely admits were “big mistakes” – it was that very ability, learned or otherwise, that got him into a lot of trouble.

I went through part of high school with Peter Foster. We were not strangers to each other, nor were we friends, and I saw nothing of him from when he left Aquinas College in Southport in 1978, until the eve of the Fiji election in 2001, when we bumped into each other by chance.

At school he possessed an odd, exotic quality. He was far older than his actual years, and had experienced life in ways the rest of us could only imagine. By year 11 he was gone, bobbing up soon after as a boxing promoter and already labelled the “Kid Tycoon”. He has always been a man who has attracted labels.

As I once wrote of him in his school years: “It was difficult to ignore him. At about 15 he arrived at class with assorted briefcases that contained watches and shark-tooth and pig-tusk necklaces for sale. It was rumoured (and later proven correct) that he leased a string of pinball machines to highrise apartment buildings in Surfers Paradise. The pocket money of kids his age ended up, well, in his pocket.”

And in Fiji four years ago around the Sheraton pool, he had maintained that alluring frisson. He had an air about him that anything could happen. Not exactly one of danger, but of mischief and disruption. Indeed, the Cheriegate scandal was ahead of him.

He has proved, time and again, that he is one of those people who draws succour from life’s dramas. When matters are on edge and sparks are flying, he is alive. This can become an addiction. It can wear you down.

Here, enjoying a wine in the Sheraton villa, Foster appears, momentarily, to have lost his taste for elements of his own past behaviour and, more precisely, his past. “When I’m here in Fiji,” he says, “I don’t feel I have anyone looking over my shoulder. I don’t feel I’m being judged on the man I used to be. I’m sick of it, to be honest with you. Back home (in Australia) I’m always Peter Foster the conman. I can’t actually do anything because I’m the conman.

“I want to be in a part of the world where I don’t have to fear authority or perception, to be viewed as I am today. I made a lot of mistakes when I was younger. I went to jail for that. I want a chance to start over.

“My family spent our holidays here every year for as long as I can remember. When I was a young man, in my teens, I brought mates and girlfriends here. I have always loved it. Then in my early 20s I went to Europe and Fiji wasn’t part of my life for about 14 years. Now I’ve come back.

“This may sound funny to you, but this is just about the only place left where I actually feel free.”

There is something both hopeful and sad about his stark assessment. I suggest to him that he has taken a full loop by returning to a place that made him happiest as a child.

Foster looks away and contemplates the proposition. “I hadn’t thought of it in those terms. Yes. That may be right. Perhaps I’ve returned to my memories.”


*


Two days later, Foster is back at Nadi airport. A charter plane has been arranged for a 45-minute flight to the island of Yasawa-I-Rara, the northernmost island in the Yasawa chain, north-west of Viti Levu.

Earlier this year, Foster secured a 99-year-lease over 45-hecatares of the island, including the stunning Liku Beach, known also as Champagne Beach (after a nearby bubbling freshwater spring).

Liku has been described for years as possibly the finest stretch of beach in the South Pacific. Foster’s attainment of the lease involved protracted discussions with the local Matanqali or tribe. At one point he flew senior tribal members to the Gold Coast for in-depth discussions.

Having visited the island before, Foster was acquainted with the local village and its characters. He knew the then chief, and old man Tiki, and the fisherman One-armed Moses, and Moses’ cousin Ben.

He had so enamoured himself with the village – through gifts, medical care, and vital food supplies - that Ben named one of his children after Foster. The boy is known throughout the region as Small Peter.

Waiting for the seaplane Foster is showing some trepidation. He has not visited the island in four years. He sits in the waiting lounge surrounded by gifts he has bought – the traditional kava, two dozens pints of long life milk, loaves of bread, and countless bags of lollies for the children.

“For years I’ve thought that if I ever got the lease I’d develop it, build an exclusive club like Turtle Island but even moreso,” he says. “Just a few bures, and a bar, Pete’s Bar. I guess it’s every man’s fantasy, isn’t it – like (the TV show) Cheers, to own a bar where everybody knows your name.

“But now I’m not so sure. Perhaps I’ll just build a house for myself. Stuff them. Stuff everybody. This is not about money. I’ve done the profit margins on this development. It could be enormous.

“Now I’m thinking I might stick it up everybody, build a house for myself, thumb my nose at all of them and become an eccentric, a recluse. What do you think?”

The seaplane is finally ready after several delays. We are told it will be set to go in 20 minutes, then five minutes, then 30, then 10. We’re embroiled in Fiji time. At last the food and gifts are secured in the hold. The Canadian pilot, Gary, is particularly unaffable, even brusk.

“I’ve been here 18 months, working non-stop, and this is my last flight,” he says grimly. As Gary adjusts the controls and kicks the propeller to life, there is a gloom in the small cabin of the plane, and possibly thoughts of a fatal crash. It would fit well in a newspaper story – “The pilot of the doomed plane, Gary, was on his last flight…”

With the plane airborne, Foster adjusts his sunglasses and stares through the windshield at the chain of islands unfolding before him.



*



OF Fiji’s 332 islands, about two-thirds remain uninhabited, according to the Fiji government. Following successive coups, from Colonel Rambuka in 1987 to George Speight in 2000, the country’s desirability to tourism investors has waxed and waned.

Post-September 11, however, the world is again catching up with Fiji as one of the few remaining locations for a holiday free of terrorist threats and geo-political upheaval. Pundits suggest Fiji is on the brink of a tourist boom the likes of which it has never experienced.

As for Yasawa-I-Rara, it has remained largely untouched despite day trips from cruise ships, and visits from bible society representatives and supply boats. The Fiji government stated in June this year that the Yasawa-I-Rara region had been untapped “for too long now”. It added: “It’s now time for this pristine island region to come into limelight and join the mainstream tourism and to share the many benefits that the industry has to offer to the nation.”

The village at the island’s northern tip has a population of about 200. Foster’s friend Ben, one of the few villagers to speak fluent English, says his family has “always” lived in the village.

“My father is of the village,” Ben says. “And his father is of the village. And his father is of the village.”

Approaching the island, Foster asks the pilot if he can land on Liku Beach. Gary the Canadian has not heard of it. But he has heard of the Anglicised name – Champagne. The plane begins to drop altitude and Foster’s dream comes into view – it is stunning in its perfection, a half-moon arc of white sand fringed with palms, submerged basalt and aquamarine water.

Foster jumps off one of the plane’s floats close to shore. As Gary parks the aircraft in the adjacent bay, Foster’s conversation becomes effusive. He recounts snippets of the island’s history, comments on a recent fire that has razed the rear hills, and strides along the water’s edge to his proposed house site.

It sits just inside the beach’s northern hook – a clearing behind the palms – and Foster works his way through the imaginary house, outlining the kitchen and dining rooms, drawing with his hands the building’s dimensions.

Group chairman of Foster’s island development company and interior designer, Paul Jason Einsiedel, has already completed several draft plans for the home of the future hermit Foster.

“My observation is that Peter and his mother are native at heart,” he says. “He’s had a love affair with Fiji all his life. What a lot of people don’t understand is that whenever he builds anything his greatest enjoyment is giving people associated with that project a better living, a better lifestyle. There’s a side of him that has to give.”

Foster climbs the steep hillock behind the house site and stares down at his spine of beach.

“This is it,” he says.. “You swim in the morning. In the afternoons you take a nap in the house. At night the boys from the village have caught fresh lobsters for you for dinner. It’s perfect.”

Later, he visits the village, weighed down with his bags of gifts. He is recognised immediately despite his long absence. “Peter!” they shout. “Foster! Foster!”

As is tradition, the tribal elders gather on the veranda of their recently completed community hall. The new chief, Roco, sits with his legs crossed. He is wearing a Wests-Tigers rugby league jersey and aviator sunglasses.

The other elders form a circle and Foster’s cartons of long life milk are placed in the middle. There is clapping and greetings mumbled in Fijian and hands shaken all around. Within minutes of the ceremony, someone at the back of the village can be heard rhythmically crushing the kava root.

Small Peter, now a lively four-year-old, hovers around his namesake.

“Is he a good boy or a naughty boy?” Foster asks the villagers. Good, they assure him. Small Peter is a good boy. Foster seems momentarily relieved.

The women and children of the village swarm on the bags of sweets. They shout after him: “Foster! We love you Foster!” He is clearly delighted at the chaos his visit has created. “I don’t really contribute to the environment when I visit,” he says. “By tonight there’ll be 5,000 lolly papers strewn across the island.”

He warmly greets old man Tiki, and they wander off for private discussions about the lease on a small stretch of sand south of Champagne, owned forever by Tiki’s family. The old man indicates he’d like to get things formalised sooner rather than later.

Waiting for the seaplane on the beach, and surrounded by the villagers, Foster says: “Tiki is about 80 now. I’m 43. Hopefully, one day, people will look at a black and white picture of the two of us on a wall and they’ll say – these two men started all this. These two men became friends.”


*


Back on the mainland, Foster is tired.

He has arranged to meet a group of people in the Sheraton Bar but doesn’t materialise. When telephoned in the villa, he says: “I’m not up for it. I’ve hit the wall.”

One of his good Fijian friends – local music star Laisa Vulakoro – has turned up to meet him for a drink. She sits on one of the bar lounges and watches the band.

“He does this all the time,” she says, smiling. “Before I even knew Peter, I had people calling me from here and overseas to warn me – watch out, he’s a conman. The Fijians know. It’s a small place. Everyone knows about you, even when you don’t think they do. Even in the most remote village, they know of Peter Foster.

“But he was very good to me, Peter. During the campaign for Dr Baba, he gave me work when it was a very bad situation in Fiji after the coup in 2000. I heard a lot of bad things about Peter. I was told my reputation would go down if I associated with him.

“But he was like a saviour who came down from heaven for me. And now that I know everything, I wouldn’t abandon him. He’s a friend. I helped to get his visa restored. I appealed to them that there were many, many things this man had done, good things, that had to be taken into account. That they needed to look at his humanitarian side.

“It’s best to try and concentrate on the good things in people, I think. Life is short.”

Laisa, unable to resist the lure of the stage, later gets up and sings a version of Bob Dylan’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door.

The next day the Fiji Times reports that the Australian government has issued warnings to its citizens working or holidaying in Fiji to be “mindful” of the country’s political climate. The travel advisory warning relates to the controversial Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill being debated across the country.

Foster takes us to the airport and as he parks the car points out film star Mel Gibson’s private jet on the tarmac. Gibson is in town to look over his own private island – Mago – which he recently purchased. (“I was talking to his local vet, whom I know,” Foster confides. “He’s organising Gibson’s cattle for him.”)

Courteous to the end, he sits drinking coffee, waiting for our boarding call. Looking at him, you can’t rule out future surprises in the colourful life of Peter Foster. Unpredictability has, in the past, been his stock in trade.

Around the Sheraton, the staff jokingly refer to him as Ratu, or King. Many years ago, his mother dubbed him Ratu Galoot. King Fool.

As the plane ascends over the Sleeping Giant, you look down at the receding cane fields and clusters of tin house rooves and know he is driving the plum SUV around the feet of the giant and towards what?

The weight of middle age? Personal reevaluation? Or is Peter Foster journeying towards some sort of redemption, on the most remote beach of the most remote Fijian island, at the bottom of the world?


ends

SILENT WITNESS: The Story of Melissa Pierce

Published in Qweekend Magazine, Saturday, October 1, 2005






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.



ends