how to save a life

It is a truth universally acknowledged that not all heroes wear capes.

Some are the ladies who come out of the cubicle in a public toilet and tell you there’s no toilet paper before you go in and find out for yourself when it’s already too late.

Some are the tradies who help you carry a heavy suitcase up the stairs at Central Station because they see that you’re struggling and also operating off four hours’ sleep because you made the mistake of booking a 7AM flight back to Melbourne to save money.

Some are the cars that slow down for you even though it’s not technically a pedestrian crossing, but you’re really just in a rush to get to the other side and so they let you in anyway.

And some are me. That’s right – more than just a pretty face! I save lives. Or, at least, one life. So far. But who knows how far my influence could spread, given a little time and a few willing listeners?

round white and blue ceramic bowl with cooked ball soup and brown wooden chopsticks
Photo by Buenosia Carol on

It all started two weeks ago when I had a dodgy looking pork dumpling. I was out with my vegan friend, who recommended this place she’d been to in Chinatown a hundred times, so I had complacently assumed it was a safe bet. However, obviously, with her being vegan and me being aggressively not so, we ordered separate dishes. In that sense, I suppose I only have myself to blame for what came next.

About five hours later, my stomach started churning. By that time, I had helped myself to approximately half a tub of ice-cream and some leftover Thai from the fridge, so my initial thought was that this was just another classic case of overeating. I took a lie down, my usual recovery tactic for such strenuous activity, and waited patiently for it to pass.

To summarise, it didn’t.

What followed was, in short and without exaggeration, the worst eight hours I, or any other human, has ever had to endure. To euphemise it, it left me wondering about many science-related things, such as the many mysteries of the human anatomy, and whether it was possible to create a black-hole type vacuum in the stomach, if, say, its contents were to be simultaneously expelled from both exits in a short period of time.

By the next morning I was lying in a sickly puddle of my own sweat on the bathroom floor, after several midnight showers and more toilet time than I would have liked to spend of an evening. I was thoroughly exhausted, but ultimately still alive. Definitionally, at least: I may have physically recovered, but the psychological trauma of what I had undergone would take much longer to fade. So I did the healthy thing and called my mum to tell her all the gruesome details.

Now Mum is no stranger to these phone calls. Being a doctor, any time any of her children experience anything out of the ordinary, she gets a panicked call, tells us to take a Panadol, and hangs up. You know, normal doctor stuff. We think we have cancer, she politely tells us it’s just constipation because we haven’t had fruit or vegetables in two weeks. Or whatever.

Anyway, I told her my symptoms and then declared that a quick Google search had told me it was cholera. She laughed, told me it almost definitely wasn’t cholera, and almost definitely was the dumpling I had had for lunch the day before. And then she thanked me less-than-genuinely for the detailed report of my bowel movements while she had been having her breakfast.

Little did she know, soon she would be thanking me for real.

See, the thing about Mum being a doctor is that she has patients, as all doctors do. And those patients have illnesses, as all patients do. Specifically, Mum is a paediatric surgeon, so she works with children. And children are notoriously difficult to work with, especially when it comes to communicating.

Two weeks passed (in which I recovered nicely, thanks for asking) and the world kept turning. Save for the occasional graphic recount of my food poisoning over lunch or coffee with friends, even I managed to move on. It reached a point where I had all but forgotten about the ordeal, when suddenly, one Friday afternoon, my dearest mother called to remind me of it.

“Remember that food poisoning you had the other week?” she said. “More specifically, remember how you described to me every detail of your poo, from the sensation of it coming out to how it looked in the bowl afterwards, colour, texture and all?”

Who, me?

“Yes,” I answered.

“Well I had a boy come in today. About eleven, very sore tummy. He told me all of his symptoms, but when I asked him about his poo, he went bright red and wouldn’t tell me. He was too embarrassed.”

Sigh. Just another way in which society has stigmatised organic bodily functions and inculcated a culture of shame. I have written passionate articles on this exact topic (almost).

“How sad,” I said. “What did you do?”

“Well, I told him how you called me the other week, and described to him what you described to me. Sparing no detail.”

Wow. You really think you can trust someone, and then the next minute they’re off telling the whole world about your diarrhoea.


“And then I told him to guess how old you are. And he guessed seven. And I shook my head, and I told him you were twenty-one.”


“And he laughed. A lot.”


“And then he told me all about his poo.”


“And it turns out he has a stomach ulcer.”


“But the point is,” Mum said, “it would have taken a lot longer to find that out if it wasn’t for knowing about his poo. So I guess, what I’m saying is… thank-you. For time and time again inspiring me and the rest of the world to be open and honest and true to ourselves. And for being by far my favourite offspring.”

Nobody’s memory is perfect but I’m 99% sure that’s verbatim.

“You’re welcome,” I said graciously, and the conversation ended. But the point of the conversation – and the point of this very blog post in fact – hung in the air like the smell in the bathroom someone has been up all night in.

I was a hero.

So forget what you’ve been told about toilet talk and potty language. Kids, listen up! Tell that poo joke! Laugh at that fart noise! Don’t let the prim and proper face-cloth of adulthood stifle you with its chloroform of social decency! Together, with our graphic diarrhoea recounts, we can change the world.

One stomach ulcer at a time.

boy child clouds kid
Photo by Porapak Apichodilok on

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