Thursday, April 17, 2008

If Peter Costello was our economic brain, for 10 years Phil Gaetjens was his uber-brain

And then, last June, while walking from Canberra's Hyatt Hotel to Parliament House, he was hit by a car.

Danielle Cronin, the Canberra Times Health Reporter, takes up the story:

Former Treasurer Peter Costello’s top aide Phil Gaetjens, 53, is described as a “brilliant brain’’ with an “incredible mastery of details’’.

But Gaetjens draws a blank when he tries to remember the accident that almost claimed his life and the 10-day aftermath in Canberra Hospital’s intensive care unit.

He was hit by a car and critically injured when he crossed State Circle about 7pm on Friday June 29 last year. The accident captured national attention given his senior, strategic role in the second most powerful political office in this country.

“I recognise that [ICU staff] saved my life. It’s a bizarre circumstance because there you are in a life-threatening situation and you have absolutely no awareness of it because you’re unconscious,’’ Gaetjens tells The Canberra Times in his first extensive interview since the accident...

The father-of-one hopes this will encourage others to support the Intensive Care Appeal, which aims to raise funds for research in the field of medicine where a spilt-second decision can have profound consequences.

Gaetjens was hit by a car when he and friend Nigel Bailey – who was a senior economic adviser to Prime Minister John Howard at the time – were returning to Parliament House after they had a few drinks at the Hyatt Hotel.

The accident rocked sections of the Canberra community who were outraged when the driver, Nealle Andrew Simpson, was fined $2000 after he pleaded guilty to failing to stop to render assistance at the scene of an accident.

Gaetjens hasn’t heard from the driver and declines to drawn into the debate over whether Simpson got off too lightly.

“I have no memory at all of the accident. I don’t think, therefore, I am in a position to comment,’’ says Gaetjens who can’t recall what happened from noon on the day of the accident until he regained consciousness from a medically-induced coma about 10 days later.

Costello’s former media advisor David Gazard vividly remembers.

“I would have always described Phil as a mate,’’ Gazard says. “But when I got the phone call on that Friday night to say he’d been hit by a car [and] was in a coma, you suddenly realised how actually he was more like … family than anything else and how actually close I was to him.’’

Gaetjens is a lean man with shortly-cropped hair and a face relatively unmarked by the striations of time.

A small scar and dent on the right side of his skull are the only visible signs of the trauma. He suffered a fractured skull, multiple broken ribs on his left side and two fractures in the right shoulder. Gaetjens experienced problems with his pancreas.

“I had to have my stomach opened up while I was in intensive care to have some fluid removed,’’ he says.

Gaetjens spent about 10 days in the ICU. He says this period was hardest for his wife Catherine Piper and their son Jack who turns nine soon.

“Jack was a bit spooked by the whole thing but Cath, I think, felt comforted that as much was being done as possible and I think also realised that they were telling her as much as they could without … ever lifting expectations,’’ he says.

Costello was also impressed with the care provided to his long-time aide.

“The intensive care unit did an outstanding job in treating Phil … in 2007. I visited him on a number of occasions and saw the wonderful work they were doing. I personally thank the staff for their wonderful efforts,’’ Costello says.

Gazard describes visiting his “mate’’ when he was hooked up to machines and unconscious in the ICU.

“I was a weird place to go because there were all these people in comas in these beds but I was very impressed with the staff there. There was someone with him 24 hours a day,’’ Gazard says.

Gaetjens went back the ICU on Christmas Eve – this time as a visitor rather than critically-ill patient.

“I had said to Cath that I wanted to go to see where I was. The place was just nothing to me because I can’t remember a damn thing about it,’’ he says.

“I think they are very much unsung heroes in terms of what they can do for people. Just to be there especially on Christmas Eve, it was nice to be able to go back and show them that some people recover.’’

A few days ago, Gaetjens returned to the ICU and met up with some of the staff who looked after him.

Night ward clerk Kristin McClymont recalled “I got calls from some very important people wanting to know your condition’’. Registered nurses Felicity Cummins, Jo Lindbeck and Carly Silberberg were among those who monitored his vital signs around the clock. Senior registrar Dr Jill Van Acker treated Gaetjens when he came in on the first night which was “very busy’’ by all accounts. Dr Anne Leditschke was one of the intensive care specialists who oversaw the treatment of his extensive injuries.

“He’s made an excellent recovery. It’s very exciting to see someone sort of basically back to a normal level of functioning because, I mean, some of our patients aren’t so lucky,’’ Leditschke says.

“The other thing that we really get a big boost out of is when people come back and see us when they’re looking well because usually when they leave us here they don’t look like that.’’

After his stint in ICU, Gaetjens was transferred to the wards.

“Basically, you are on a bed lying on your back and I am a very light sleeper at the best of times so I found it very hard to sleep because I couldn’t roll over on to my left side because of my ribs and couldn’t roll over on to my right side because of my shoulder,’’ he says.

“I didn’t eat very much. And it really wasn’t … quite learning to walk again but you really did have to learn to be stable on your feet.’’

About a month after the accident, Gaetjens was discharged from hospital and moved into the Rehabilitation and Independent Living Unit for about two weeks.

He worked out in the gymnasium to regain movement in his shoulder. He went through a battery of tests to make sure his vocal chords were undamaged by the tube stuck down the throat so he could breath and to check if the head injury had affected his mental capabilities such as memory and ability to recall and understand words.

“Did they ask you what’s the meaning of fiscal conservative?’’ I ask. He responds with a hearty laugh: “no’’.

“Other people don’t seem to think there’s too much difference. Some people wanted me to change but I didn’t,’’ says the 53-year-old who has healthy sense of humour, which is self-depreciating in most cases.

His shoulder had taken some time to heal but he has suffered no other lasting physical problems from the accident.

But Gaetjens has gained a “lot more compassion’’ since the accident, saying he was struck by the level of support from loved ones, friends, colleagues and complete strangers. At least 100 emails and tributes were received as well as telephone calls and flowers.

“I remember the first Saturday I was home actually, I spent the whole Saturday afternoon just reading what was provided and it was very humbling,’’ he says.

“It was much, much appreciated. I hope I don’t have to burden anyone again.’’

He returned to Costello’s office in early September, working about three hour stretches on three days a week. Howard called the election a few weeks later.

“I always kept within my own tolerance even on the election campaign when I went back,’’ Gaetjens says.

“I was making sure that I never had to leave at a time because I was feeling tired. I was always left before that ever became a concern because again some of the people who had written to me said ‘don’t go back and do much too quickly because it will be to your long-term detriment’.’’

Gazard says he has made a “spectacular recovery’’.

“The relief that I felt … that he was going to be okay. You could see he was getting better and better,’’ Gazard says.

“Then in the subsequent days and weeks he recovered to the point where he was able to help out in a very substantial way with the campaign and you could just tell that we was really sharp again. It was great.’’

Howard lost his seat. The Coalition was swept from office. Costello now sits on the backbench, saying “I will be looking to build a career post-politics in the commercial world’’.

Gaetjens is tight-lipped on what the future will hold for his former boss. “I’m not going to get into that. Whatever his future is, I wish him all the very best because I certainly thought he was a great boss,’’ he says.

The senior political adviser was a public servant for 20 years before he joined Costello’s office in March 1997. In his role, Gaetjens played a part in hammering out 11 budgets, introducing the GST and fighting four federal elections.

He returned to the Treasury in January, taking on the role as chief adviser in the competition and consumer policy division. Its focus is on structural reform in infrastructure areas.

He misses the “relationships’’ within politics after moving from an office with 20 people to a department with hundreds of employees.

“It’s just different. It’s not critical of this organisation or anything like that. It’s just different – it’s a different atmosphere and it’s a different environment,’’ he says.

The husband and father is keen to craft a “long and happy future’’, saying there are “few more years of work left in me’’.

He hopes sharing his story will drum up support for the Intensive Care Appeal, which runs from April 14 to 27.

“What they do in one second or five seconds or 10 seconds can save a life,’’ Gaetjens says.

Leditschke, who has been a doctor since 1987, says the appeal raises money for crucial research.

“It’s really important because a lot of things we do we’re just starting to build up evidence for,’’ she says.

“A lot of things people have done historically because they seem like a good idea and there are new treatments emerging all the time. We’re meant to do research to make sure that they actually are effective and make a difference to people’s outcomes.

“There are a lot of little things that potentially might make a difference but we don’t now whether they do or not because we haven’t enough funds to ask the question.’’

A range of research projects are already underway at Canberra Hospital’s intensive care unit, including studies on blood sugar levels among patients and delivering dialysis to the critically ill.

“All of the staff in here are here because they care about trying to get people better, back to a good level of function. All of the guys work really hard and it’s a big team effort,’’ Leditschke says.

Putting up a basketball backboard for his son and heading to a Raiders game with his friends were among first things that Gaetjens did after he was discharged from hospital, according to Gazard.

“We all went out to a football game,’’ he says.

“He sort of sat there still with bald patches on his head. It was really, really good to get out and just be in a normal environment with him again and just that relief of kind of thinking ‘gee, it’s just good to see him again’.’’
He was ecstatic when his mate returned to work.

“The thing … you’ve got to understand is Phil is a brilliant brain. He is just a brilliant policy guy, has an incredible mastery of detail and the thought that could just be wiped out with a road accident was horrendous to contemplate,’’ Gazard says.

“We’re all really, really thrilled with his progress. I think he’s back to his dazzling best.’’

People who want more information about the appeal can visit or telephone 1300 650 254.