10 years after Cyclone Larry: Dad's Altruism

On March 20, 2006 my hometown was destroyed by a category 5 cyclone. Cyclone Larry took away a lot of things - our houses, our school, our farms, our banana crops, my ability to fall asleep without sleeping tablets. But this is a story not of taking away, but of giving back.

When the winds and rain died down 2 days after the cyclone hit, my dad, a pharmacist, announced we had to go to town to open the pharmacy. I was unimpressed - we had a destroyed house, a destroyed farm, no electricity, no food- why couldn't we stay and fix things for ourselves? Dad said that people, especially the local nursing homes needed their medicine, and he needed me to help him.

We had to take one of the four-wheel drives from the farm rather than dad’s car as the roads were covered in water and dangerous. At one river crossing we had to sit and wait for an hour for the water to recede. I kept suggesting we turn back home but Dad was insistent - there were people who needed us.

The pharmacy is in the main street of Innisfail which took the brunt force of the cyclone. Many shops on either side had their front windows smashed in but we were lucky. Although the water damage to the structures was significant and would cause problems for years to come.
We opened our water logged shop. We had no electricity, no computers, no lights. We’d brought in a gas lamp from home and 2 torches. Our Monday morning supply delivery obviously never arrived as the roads were cut to Cairns and to Townsville.

Without a computer, Dad did hundreds & hundreds of prescriptions by hand. He'd painstakingly write out the patients details and drug instructions on labels under the light of a torch.
Everyone's paper prescriptions had been destroyed in the cyclone but Dad assured them it didn't matter and we'd sort it out when everything was back to normal in town.
He wouldn’t accept payment either - the banks were closed or destroyed, the ATMs down and EFTPOS unavailable everywhere - he insisted people needed their precious cash and we would sort out payment later.

By chance, the cyclone hit on a morning we were due to deposit cash at the bank so we had money in the safe. Realising everyone would need cash to buy food, Dad set aside envelopes of money for each of his staff. He also gave them first aid supplies, toothbrushes, toilet paper - a cyclone care package of sorts.

On the first day we opened, an elderly couple came into the pharmacy. They were regular customers and when they saw dad they both burst into tears. Their house was destroyed, they had no money, no food, no medications. They were staying with hundreds of others at the town hall. Dad gave them a months worth of their tablets (it’s a little bit hilarious how calming being handed a box of cholesterol tablets became - people were just so desperate for normality) and $300 in cash. They kept kissing his hands and saying he was their son.

The days after the cyclone were a chaotic emotional turmoil. Most people had lost everything - their houses, their farms and businesses, their livelihoods. The schools were too damaged to open. Many essential services in town like the hospital were held together with tarps and duct tape. In hindsight, everyone was in shock and desperately clinging to any sense of normality. Getting their blood pressure tablets seemed to reassure them things would eventually go back to normal.
Many of  dad’s regular customers came into the pharmacy and broke down - he became a mix of pharmacist - counsellor - advisor - confidant. But maybe that’s what he’d always been and I’d just never seen it.

A few days into ‘post cyclone life’ the town hall where most of the newly homeless residents were living developed a headlice outbreak. A young mother came asking if she could pay us back later for some headline treatment - dad gave her every headlice product we had in the shop to take back to the hall.

Around this time it became clear that it would be a long time before things like electricity and regular school classes would be restored, and dad bought me my own gas lamp and told me I needed to start studying again. For the next 12 months I studied by the light of that gas lamp until our electricity was turned back on, and 6 months after that I finished year 12 and got accepted into medical school.

Today is 10 years since Cyclone Larry, and amongst the terrible and heartbreaking memories, this memory of my dad stands out. His belief that even when your world comes crashing down, you should put other people first is still the centre of how he lives. His altruism has shaped my life and ultimately my career in medicine. You’re my hero, Dad.

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