LIFE AFTER LOSS 10 YEARS ON
KAREN KISSANE A decade of mental and physical agony has been one woman’s Port Arthur legacy, reports Karen Kissane.
EVERYONE thinks of a bullet wound as simple, says Carolyn Loughton; extract it, and then the person is up and about in the next scene of that movie or television show. For her, though, it has not been simple at all.
Ms Loughton had to move from Victoria to NSW for the warmer weather because her back was so fragile she could not wear the overcoat needed in a Melbourne winter. She has had more than 30 operations in seven hospitals. For one six-month period, where she could not walk properly following surgery involving pins, she crawled out of bed every morning, crawled into the base of her shower to wash and then crawled into her lounge room where she lay on a couch for the rest of the day.
She has had to pick out of her skin shattered pieces of glass and shrapnel that are still working their way through her body. She has chronic ear infections because her eardrum was shattered by the explosive noise of the barrage of bullets from an Armalite semi-automatic rifle. She tries not to take painkillers until late in the day because they cloud her mind, but her hip and her leg, where doctors cut away bone to be used in grafts in her back, often ache badly.
It is her heart that gives her the most grief – not that her heart is formally on any list of medical complaints. But it has never been the same since the moment her 15-year-old daughter, Sarah, was killed as Ms Loughton lay on top of her trying to protect her from the gunman in the Broad Arrow Cafe at Port Arthur on April 28, 1996. Thirty-five people died.
Ms Loughton had seen the gunman and thrown her daughter to the floor. He at first walked past them: “I could have touched him, he was so close. He had the gun up and was shooting people behind me. Then he goes up to the other end of the cafe, and then he came back past us – I maintain because of the locked exit door – and then he saw her and he saw me. When you throw yourself on top of someone you don’t cover their head.”
Ms Loughton was shot through the shoulder blade. She was in hospital for two out of the next three years. She has multiple complications, including a bone infection called osteomyelitis, which, she says, causes her bones “to melt”. “My whole left side has been affected by this. I will never work again. I can’t deal with this pain. I never know how I am going to be from day to day. Then you throw in things like nightmares and depression and insomnia . . . I am bouncing off walls here.”
It has been 10 years now but Ms Loughton’s story comes tearing out of her urgently, testimony to the lingering intensity of the horror and loss. That gunman, says Ms Loughton bitterly, has taken her daughter and her health, “and he’s had a damn good go at taking my sanity”.
At the time, Ms Loughton had just turned 40. She was divorced and working as a public servant in Melbourne. She and her daughter were tourists at the Port Arthur site. In retrospect, her life had been blessedly normal. “When you have been a participating, functioning person in the world and you have a handle on things, and then all of a sudden it’s not the world you thought it was – I have never been interested in the question of why. It doesn’t help with all this stuff now.
“But there is nevertheless a point to it, in that there wasn’t a point to that day. We weren’t at war; we weren’t in a bank hold-up. It was just deliberate, preconceived horror for no reason. There never could be any explanation for it.” She brushes aside questions about evil, other than to say: “There are things in the universe that don’t fit with the way we think things operate.”
Ms Loughton has so many memories – too many memories – but she feels that she is one of the forgotten people. To this day, she remains touched by the public donations that resulted in a $3.5 million fund that was divided between a total of 300 victims and relatives of victims. “It was truly remarkable generosity; all I am able to say is thank you. Thank you.”
There also were crimes compensation payouts from the Tasmanian government to a maximum of $20,000, and the gunman’s money, $1.3 million, was seized and given out to his victims. Ms Loughton is angry, though, that she has had to rely on hand-outs and wonders why there was no insurance payout involved for the tourists who were wounded. She says that no government, state or federal, took responsibility for long-term care of victims.
“I do feel a great injustice has been done to a lot of people by the lack of care after the event. Where is the body in Australia that even exists to do anything? I think people don’t realise how problematic it is. There are very real needs out there.
“What if there had been twice as many victims, if the public hadn’t responded as benevolently as they had? What about public liability insurance for that site? Where do I sit now, even just trying to get private health insurance with all these pre-existing conditions?”
Ms Loughton wonders what happened to the recommendations from Tasmania’s Port Arthur report in 1997, which said there should be continuing packages offering health and social programs for those left permanently damaged by the shooting.
A Special Commissioner for Port Arthur, Max Doyle, reported that in many cases the financial aid offered had not been enough to meet the medical and legal costs involved.
He warned that the Port Arthur tragedy and its continuing effects on the health and lives of families would be comparable to those veterans of the Vietnam War, where stress and trauma-related issues were still causing misery after 30 years.
His comments gave Ms Loughton hope: “Doyle summed it up. It’s not money (you need), it’s services. I thought I would have received a letter saying: ‘What services do you need?’ Have those recommendations been implemented? And if not, why not?”
Rod Wallis, a spokesman for Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon, declined to answer Ms Loughton’s questions when they were put to him by The Age. He wrote in an email response: “There are still a great many raw feelings related to Port Arthur. For that reason, we will decline your invitation to contribute to your article.”
Ms Loughton says: “I do feel a great injustice has been done to a lot of people by the lack of care after the event.” She reads out passages of transcript from the sentencing hearing for the gunman, Martin Bryant, in which the prosecution talked about how victims had been affected: relationships had broken down; some people had started drinking; others suffered from depression, uncontrollable crying, traumatic flashbacks or agoraphobia. Many had feelings of isolation and entrapment, while others reported feeling guilty when they found themselves enjoying life.
Ms Loughton’s voice trembles as she reads out the list. She says, “What hit me when I re-read that transcript was that very little has changed; it’s all still there (now).”
Currently, Ms Loughton herself is in counselling. “To see what we saw in that cafe was enough, but to lose your daughter as well . . .” She finds it expensive, though. “Psychologists are not reimbursed by Medicare and you are talking about $100 a visit.” She also cannot walk very far: “The pain in my hip is excruciating. I get tears in my eyes.”
She does push herself to go out occasionally. “At some point you have to tell yourself, ‘You have to make an effort.’ ”
And she would like more help with services to make her life easier. “When you are broken, psychologically and physically, you haven’t got the wherewithal to access services. It requires a lot of patience and telephoning and a lot of explaining, and I haven’t got that in me. I take the days quietly. I have learned not to push myself, because if I do, I fall in a heap.”
What mental energy she has is taken up with other issues: “I’m trying to get a handle on things like: Is there an afterlife? Am I ever going to see my daughter again? Am I ever going to be well again?”
Ms Loughton does not regularly keep in touch with other survivors. “It’s really hard for me to have continuity in my life just from one day to another just dealing with me.”
She does plan to come back to Melbourne for the 10th anniversary memorial service here on April 28. But Carolyn Loughton says she will never, ever, go back to Tasmania.
First published in The Age.