Sunday, May 07, 2006

Good luck, Sophie

Accident victim Sophie Delezio will be on a life-support system for at least three weeks as she battles multiple injuries.
Sydney Morning Herald

In 2003 little Sophie Delozio was on the front pages as she was horrifically burnt after being hit by a car outside a childcare centre. "She suffered burns to 85 per cent of her body, lost both her feet, an ear and some fingers and faced an uphill battle of years of surgery to cope with her burns." See Girl who inspired a nation

Then, on Friday, she was hit by a car again and is in a critical condition in Sydney Children's Hospital. Our thoughts go out to Sophie and her family.

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Personal recollections of a Sydney Children's Hospital PR guy

When I awoke this morning, a few minutes ago, a radio news item about Sophie was the first thing that came to my ears, apart from my 'alarm clock' -- the pecking of my Gouldian finches in their feeder on the floor next to my bed. I thought of poor Sophie, and, oddly, I thought of the poor Public Relations Manager of Sydney Children's Hospital. And the wonderful staff, nurses and doctors of that excellent institution. (I refer not to some of the managerial class.)

I held the position of Public Relations Manager for two or three years, when the place was called The Prince of Wales Children's Hospital. The job of the PR officer was varied with many functions (even to bring in entertainers for the kids, but that's another story for another time, with some rather interesting reflections on the nature of minor celebrities, good and bad), but it was a very hectic one whenever stories like little Sophie's came along, as unfortunately they did with terrible regularity.

There were often tragedies that came in doubles. I was in the foyer of the hospital one day when a woman ran in screaming, with a baby in her arms. "My baby's been burned!" she cried, and I directed her to the Casualty/Emergency door several metres to my left. About 30, maybe 60 seconds later, another woman with babe at arms ran in, bellowing the same awful words. The Medical Superintendent and I looked with alarm at each other as he sprang into action. We both thought there must have been one big horrific accident, maybe a car on fire. But it wasn't so. They had been two separate accidents, simultaneously, in two different homes. Life can be a bitch.

One morning I had an Italian man cry as he spoke to me. In my job I got to know many children and parents very well, and was already on friendly terms with this lovely gent and his son, who was very seriously ill on one floor of the hospital. Overnight, the man's other son had been seriously injured in a bus crash, and Papa was now rushing between floors to hold hands and pray at the side of two iron beds.

I knew another woman who had a little girl on one floor suffering badly from cystic fibrosis (a life-threatening disease), and another near deeath in the leukaemia ward. The two diseases, as far as science knows, as far as I know, are unrelated. Life can be a bitch. "I'm a parent myself," I said, and added rather foolishly, "I know how you feel, dear". "No you don't," she shook her head ruefully and spoke with the teary voice of a poor woman whose state of heart was almost beyond human endurance.

This morning I felt moved also for the current PR manager at the hospital. When there's a story like this, the PR guy/gal takes phone calls all day at work and also at home, from late at night to early morning. Phone calls from Sydney, interstate, overseas. No one in the hospital, not even the Clinical Director, was allowed to speak to the media without the approval of the PR Manager -- not to TV, radio, not even the local newspaper, and the media knew that so they rang me first, then I had to ring the appropriate experts and "groom" them for media contact. It was an odd situation for me to be in, as I have no medical training, and often had to field questions from some very astute and experienced medical reporters.

On the whole, though, the reporters were neither astute nor experienced, and my job was to help them hold their crayons and show them how to spell words like "infection" and "critical condition".

I remember writing an average of one media release a day, and seeing 90 per cent of what I'd written repeated verbatim by TV, radio and newspapers. That is very often what is called journalism these days -- the reproduction of media releases written by PR people (who are usually unemployed journalists). It was at the hospital and another institution I worked for as PR guy, that I learned that the media are 49 per cent run by advertising guys and 49 per cent by PR guys. The rest is "journalism". If you have read my stuff before, you will see that I have a certain cynical perspective on the media which might seem a little unusual to you. May I say, I have it because I have worked on both sides of the editorial desk. You need to work for some years as a magazine editor and a PR manager to get a certain perspective on the mire that is called 'the media'. I actually feel lucky that I have had both views of the media. PR rules ..., everything, from your local car dealership and hospital, to the US Army and the White House (see the funny video 'The Speechialist' for another hilarious view, on Presidential speechwriting, which is simply PR).

So many memories rushed back as I listened to the radio in bed this morning. Like when Channel 7 was so broke that they sent out a cameraman -- no reporter -- to interview the Clinical Director. He was your usual looking cameraman ... tubby belly, balding, old T-shirt, shorts, sandals with socks. I was standing there with the distinguished Harvard professor (making sure his hair was combed; advising him on what to say and what not to say -- that's what PR people do for a living), and the cameraman was standing there -- with a TV camera in one hand and a phone in the other. Back at Channel 7 head office, the Chief of Staff was feeding him the questions.

I recall writing a long report to the board of The Prince of Wales Children's Hospital advising that they change the name to Sydney Children's Hospital. I worked hard on that report. The idea was dismissed out of hand. The Chairperson of the Board said "Over my dead body". A couple of years after I left, I noticed the big sign out the front: "Sydney Children's Hospital". I wonder which jumped-up little bureaucrat took the credit for the name change.

I decided to organise a competition among design students at the local technical college, for a new design for the entrance, which at the time was as drab as an entrance to a bottle factory. I thought it might be a good and free way to get some improving ideas. I held a wine and cheese night to display the students' innovative designs. On display in the hospital foyer was a brilliant idea ... since the hospital is only a mile from Coogee Beach, why not use yellow, blue and waves as the corporate livery? A few of the bureaucrats strolled around, had some wine and cheese, nodded to me and the design students, and went home to their McMansions.

However, if you drive past Sydney Children's Hospital today you will see that it's all blue, and yellow, and over the driveway is a big awning that looks like a rolling surf wave from nearby Coogee Beach. I wonder if that same jumped-up bureaucrat stole the credit that was deserved by that kid from East Sydney Tech College?

Many memories from my years at the hospital. Lots of bus crashes and dying children who you get to love for a short time. Play therapists who closely bonded with dying children but were not permitted to attend their funerals. Phone calls at 3 am about an abused baby or a teenager with a bullet in his chest. Enough to write a book. But too much for a blog post, so I'll shut up now.

Anyway, I have to go and get some breakfast. My last word: I can picture Sophie this morning, and the frantic wonderful doctors, nurses ... and PR officer. My heart goes out to all concerned.

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