The Bickerstaffe Record

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Thanks John

09.18.09 | 5 Comments

Quite by chance, in that slightly spooky kind of way when you even think it may not be completely by chance, I happened upon this photo-journalism coverage at the New York Times.

It’s all about John Trotter, an American photographer who was attacked as he worked in Sacramento back in 1997, suffered major head injuries and loss of memory, and has spent half an adult lifetime recovering.

His work looks great, building on his experiences of the attack and the aftermath, but now years on seeking to grow beyond them.

I met John many years ago, and he helped me turn my life around.  I was running an emergency hospital on Kutub Dia, an island lying out in the Bay of Bengal, in the aftermath of the devastating 1991 cyclone

A cholera-like E coli bug had struck because of the destroyed water supplies and sanitation, and our job was simply to pump as much IV fluid into people, usually children, to keep them alive till they stopped losing fluid at the other end.  A bit of electrolyte balance based on educated guesswork, but pretty straightforward if you could first find a line into tiny dehydrated veins; that was the big challenge, and it was pretty exhausting.

It was also pretty exhilirating in a selfish kind of way – the US Navy helicopters (stopped over for a few days en route to Japan after the first Gulf War), the warlike conditions, all that kind of thing.

John arrived unannounced on a helicopter one day.  He’d seen the news on TV, knew his dad had once worked on polio vaccines in Bangladesh, packed his cameras and set off from his home town of Sacramento, just feeling he had to pay witness.

That afternoon, a little girl was carried in by her dad.  She was maybe 10.  She was more or less dead, but we went to it with CPR and getting lines in and after about 15 minutes of thumping and breathing and poking, she spluttered, and she came back.  Her dad carried her home the next day, alive.

John was there to record it, though I didn’t notice at the time.  That night, a big storm – the ‘second cyclone’ – came over, and we lay under tables on the first floor of what had been the island’s school and was now the hospital while it raged.  It was strong, but it wasn’t as big as the first, and the tidal wave didn’t come.  Next morning, John shook hands and jumped on a departing helicopter.  I’ve never seen him again.  No reason I should.

A few months later, John had the courtesy to send over the article he wrote for the Sacramento Bee, in which the centre coverage was how we’d got the little girl, whose name I’ve forgotten, back more or less from the dead.

Reading it, I realised that I was full of shit at times.   Unlike John, I hadn’t really cared enough about the little girl, what had happened to her, and why it had happened, why there’d not been a cyclone shelter on an outlying island.  I was turning into a hardened aid worker,who’d end up living in a big house in an impoverished capital city ordering people about and being gently or not so gently cynical about the work I did and the country I worked in.

I’m not saying John’s article changed everything, but I soon moved away from health work towards more general ‘community development’, ended up in Tanzania running forestry and agricultural stuff, before making the big split from the comfortable-amdist-the-misery overseas life in the late 1990s.  I came back to England to start again.

I reckon John had something to do with that, and for better or for worse, I”m grateful.  I’m glad he’s got his life back together, and that his photography is benefting others now, however subtly.

That’s it.  No big political theory this time around.  Just something I wanted to say.   It’s my blog, and I’ll cry if I want to.


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