Been a while since I last posted anything ‘substantial’. I guess the time needed to be right.

Text written whilst I waited in the ICU on November 12th 2013. The afternoon Melanie collapsed. © John MacPherson

Some of you may have previously read the backstory to all of this, and some of my subsequent observations on the situation that enveloped us, particularly this post, about the power of photography. Jörg’s quote, which I finished that piece with, was apt:

“Instead of whining about the limitations of the medium, we need to start appreciating those very limitations. It is right here that the promises lie. Right here. And the promises are plentiful, much more plentiful than the limitations.

We take photographs out of this world we live in, and the moment we have done that they become something else entirely.”

The images I’d mentioned were intended to help my partner, and sent at my request by her friends and colleagues, in case it turned out that her memory had been seriously damaged. Luckily, despite some short-term memory loss, she’s got full recall of most things from before her collapse, although her recollection of the two weeks immediately preceding the event are gone. But all the images sent by her acquaintances have not been ‘wasted’ –  far from it – they have helped cement relationships, and allowed individuals to articulate their feelings and express what Melanie means to them.

Melanie’s initial slight physical coordination problems have improved – she’d fallen, or almost fallen, several times in the first couple of weeks after release from hospital. The most notable fall was on the 2nd January when she went face-down on tarmac, very heavily, severely bashing her nose and lips and spraying blood everywhere. This was an unpleasant incident, but it had it’s darkly humorous side too.

I’d managed to get an emergency appointment with our GP practice. The doc looked at Melanie’s face, then at my right hand knuckles, at the fresh bruises and deep cuts across them (caused by an altercation with some wood I was chopping a few days earlier). We’d never seen this particular doc before and as he sized us up he muttered “Hmmm…. ah yes…..fell on the road eh….ah right…” and had obviously decided it was most likely some booze-fuelled Hogmanay altercation and that Melanie was the victim, and my presence with her for the consultation was to keep her from speaking about it. There was a long awkward silence as he read the medical notes, then his demeanor changed, as he realized exactly what he was being confronted with. A very lucky woman, rather than a very unlucky one.

William, Melanie and Melanie’s mum – Melanie’s first walk in the woods after coming out of intensive care © John MacPherson

The statistics are stark: 80% (yes eighty percent) of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests die. Of the remaining 20% who survive, a very high percentage have serious and often irreparable brain injury, fundamentally affecting many aspects of their lives. The odds are stacked heavily against you, should your heart suddenly stop in the street. I didn’t know that back then. I know it now.

Melanie was incredibly lucky. She owes her life to quick-witted colleagues and a fire and ambulance crew who acted immediately.  She has been fitted with an ICD device, inserted just under her collar bone, and wired into her heart. This is basically a safety-net’ should her heart stop again. There has been no proper diagnosis – she did not have a heart attack, nor any blood clot, simply some electrical malfunction which caused her heart to abruptly stop. It may be a condition called ‘Long QT Syndrome’.  We await the result of blood tests that have gone off for genetic analysis to find out for sure. But the genetic implications are worrying – if it is Long QT we’ll have to get William checked to see if he has the condition too, as it has been linked with SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and cot deaths. I have to confess my night-time checks of the wee man have been more cautious as I find myself listening closely to make sure he’s still breathing. And if he has unaccustomed long-lies in the morning I get rather nervous.

My ICD is under here © John MacPherson
My ICD is under here © John MacPherson

But William talks about mummy’s hospital stay quite happily, laughs at the photos of us all in the ICU, as if it were an easy ride.   Just how desperate the situation actually was, we only found out in the last couple of weeks  – apparently the two paramedics that had raced to Melanie’s aid in their ambulance had had such a desperate job keeping her alive in the back of it that they could not drive the vehicle. It was the woman officer from the Fire Brigade who had jumped into the driver’s seat and driven it back to the hospital. And from conversations with several of the rescue personnel from the various services, it’s become apparent that they’d all found it a very traumatic experience, confronted with a young fit woman apparently dying in front of them, despite their best efforts to save her, and with no obvious sign of what might have caused it.

Over the last couple of months I’ve realized that the photographs I’ve taken during this period are not just helping Melanie gain some insight to events, but helping me too. It was an emotional rollercoaster blur for several weeks. And had I not taken so many images I doubt if my recollection of much of it would be very good. One of the first images I took is at top – of the text message I used as a template to send multiple times to family and friends so they knew what was going on. It was taken just after I’d taken a picture of a cup of cold tea, then the view out of the window, followed by an arty image of the pattern of light and shade cast across the wall by the half-open door of the ICU waiting room. This was a few hours after Melanie collapsed, and at that point I’d not yet been allowed in to see her. Using the camera as I sat alone, was a crutch, something I ‘know’ and can use instinctively, but also know from long experience, can be a welcome distraction. Since then there have been many more images.

Some of the most ‘useful’ ones for Melanie show her circumstances when she was in a coma, nothing ‘personal’ simply her hospital surroundings, the view from the window, and the machinery required to keep her alive and to try to prevent even worse brain damage. Having no recollection of anything that occurred for almost two weeks has bothered her, and the images have given her a sense of ‘place’ and some understanding of the situation she was in. This image of only one side of her bed for example – the other side had just as much ‘kit’ all humming, beeping and ticking. And there are many more images of her when she first came out of unconsciousness and was surrounded by family, events she has no recollection of, and she finds it odd to see herself fully immersed in ‘being’ in what are obviously hugely emotional events, smiling and hugging, yet unable to recall any detail of those moments.

Life support. © John MacPherson
Life support. © John MacPherson


Last week Melanie, not one for publicity usually, happily agreed to do a PR piece with the Fire Service for the local press, to highlight the importance of  first responder skills and workplace First Aid. Her colleague Peter who had initially administered CPR on her for several minutes on the ground in the rain until the Fire Crew arrived, also joined her for the press call. It was odd seeing the headline on the newsstand and outside our village shop, but William had fun practicing his reading skills on it as we went to school and passed it by. “That’s my mummy!” he’d gleefully proclaim.

Local news © John MacPherson
Local news © John MacPherson


But there’s one image I didn’t take. To do so would have seemed such an intrusion, and an unnecessary one. Sometimes it’s worth ‘being in the moment’ rather than outside it looking in through the eye of a camera.

It was the day we visited the fire brigade to thank the four personnel who had rushed to Melanie’s aid: a firewoman and three firemen, none of whom we’d met. We didn’t make an appointment, simply called in on the off-chance they’d be there, Melanie clutching a cake she’d baked for them. We were lucky – all four crew who’d assisted were on duty that day. They were surprised and delighted, then emotional, as we thanked them, and Melanie handed over her cake. A cake might not seem much thanks for saving your life. But they knew just what it signified, and were hugely grateful for it. They mentioned how ‘patient confidentiality’ usually prevents them from finding out what happens to the people they are involved in rescuing, and how delighted they all were that she had thought to come and see them in person.

The Fire crew have invited our wee lad William to come in and see them and have a sit and play in the Fire Engine. William was delighted to hear this, and has made a fire engine out of Lego to show them when we go down. I did take a picture of that.

Remember that quote from Jörg:

“We take photographs out of this world we live in, and the moment we have done that they become something else entirely.

A Fire Engine, made by William © John MacPherson
A Fire Engine, made by William © John MacPherson

….well this is only a simple image. A snap of some Lego in a lorry shape, made out of imagination in the way that only a five year old can. It will no doubt be ‘found’ online by some other small boy and, shorn of it’s story, will wander on amusing, entertaining and maybe inspiring. I like that.

But of course, for us, behind this unassuming image lies a story that our wee lad may reflect on as he grows older, and which with time will take on a deeper significance as he better understands precisely what has happened. Often the story we seek to capture extends far beyond the edge of the frame. And the simplest images sometimes have the most to offer.

  • Ed

    As always John, a powerful and thought-provoking piece, and a well weighted one too considering how personal this is. All of these photographs embedded in the article, and the many more you made are important but one in particular struck me hard.

    That image of William, Melanie and her Mum walking in the woods. For someone based in a rural area, and as connected to the land there as you are, to get out and do that together must have been an highly emotional moment (I am putting that onto you, I may be wrong). But even more tellingly is how that image and its weight, are connected to the history of photography.

    Most people who come here I am sure will recognize the similarities to W. Eugene Smith’s “Walk to Paradise Garden.” Many of those, I am sure, will have made their own version. But maybe not quite as many will have connected the mental and emotional state that his and your photographs are connected by. I was very, very moved.

    All my best,

    • Thank you Ed. The wood is an important place for us – it’s right beside the house and easily accessed. William spent most of his ‘pram-days’ as a toddler in there being pushed around. In fact the first day we took him to the beach he cried and cried and cried. So we walked to the back of the beach where it adjoins the forest, and as soon as we were under the trees William stopped crying and stared contentedly at the familiar: leaves and branches. Melanie walks in the wood every day, and her first walk there after the incident was significant. But the images I wanted to take to record the moment needed to be non-intrusive. I’d stopped to take a picture of something else and when I looked up the slope they were right in front of me and the composition just made itself, with Melanie ‘higher’ than William and his nana. But I’ll be honest – until you mentioned the Smith similarity I’d not even thought of it. But yes it was a very important walk. Three generations all moving forwards together, emerging from the darkness towards the light.

  • Hi John, I can only second what Ed wrote. Very glad that Melanie is continuing to recover. Best wishes for all of you.

    • Thanks Tony. Doing fine, back at work and taking it one day at a time. Could have been very very different.

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 27 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

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