Island Life by David Slack

Morbid Tourism

You wouldn't call it the highlight of the holiday, but last week I took my family to the spot in Dargaville, where I once keeled over with a heart attack.

Call me sentimental, but I like to share my past with them.

'Keeled over' isn't an entirely accurate description of what happened back then, actually. If you'd been standing next to me, (and one poor guy was) you'd have watched me more or less crumple into a small pile against the front panel of the hospital reception desk.

It was a pretty surreal way to spend your 27th birthday, even before you count the morphine. In those days I had two - well, more actually; but let's start with these two - idiosyncrasies. Firstly, I spent more than the occasional Saturday at the races; secondly I didn't possess a wallet. So when the nurses helped me out of my suit and onto the bed, they also obligingly emptied my pockets. Which were fat with twenties.

The pile of bills had found their way there thanks to a horse called Modra Rua which, as it turned out, never managed to repeat the trick, and ended up costing us a lot more twenties in training fees over the next two years. But that would be getting off the point.

Anyway, one of the nurses started counting out the twenties. After she'd counted a dozen or so, she stopped and said: "Would you like me to get someone else to witness this for you?" I told her I trusted her with my life. She counted up the rest and went away to get a very big envelope.

Meanwhile I had bigger things to worry about, although I hadn't entirely registered that yet. My best guess was indigestion, so I was still approaching this in a George Costanza frame of mind. Which meant I was thinking about my underwear. You know that old line about never knowing when you might get knocked down by a bus? They're right on the money. That morning, the last pair in the drawer was an orphan from a multi-pack of briefs I'd bought on holiday a month before. Lurid doesn't start to describe the rainbow fabric, but G-string would not be a million miles off the mark if you had to describe the cut. Folks who work with the sick and needy don't tend to be judgmental, and God bless them, they didn't seem to leap to any conclusions about me.

They do make judgments about what's prudent to tell a 27 year old who's had a heart attack, though. What they decided to tell me was that they were running "tests" and they'd be keeping me there for a while. Which they did, for about twelve hours. Then, when they judged that I was stable, they told me they were sending me over to Whangarei Hospital where they could take a closer look.

Call me dense, but it wasn't until they wheeled me into an ambulance and two nurses got in, that I sussed that something might be up.

So off we rolled, out of Dargaville hospital, down the hill, and out of town to make the trip back to Whangarei and into the Coronary Care unit, where I would spend the next two weeks getting over an honest-to-goodness heart attack. Could my day get any worse? Well, in a bizarre fashion, yes. Elsewhere in Dargaville that evening the National Party were having their candidate selection meeting for the next election. They chose a really top sort for the job by the name of Meurant. You may remember him.

The road between Dargaville is quite a winding one. And a pretty long one, especially if you should try to make the drive while your chest feels as though it's being squeezed by a giant fist. That's what I'd set out to do, and if it hadn't been for the road signs saying "Hospital" that I decided to follow, that's where I would have headed. I asked my doctor later what would have happened if I'd taken that choice. He said "You'd have just got sicker and sicker." I love the way doctors choose their words.

Otherwise Mrs Lincoln, how did you like the play? I've been ambivalent about Dargaville ever since. I visited Northland quite often in the first few years afterwards, but I didn't bother going back there. But then this Christmas our friend Adrian said, as he did last year: "You should come over to the place I'm looking after in Dargaville. You'll love it."

And so after we'd had a few days in Leigh and Sandy Bay, that's what we did.

So how was Dargaville after all those years? Well, Adrian was right. We did love it. His friends have a home just out of town, surrounded by old trees and a sprawling lawn. There were chooks for Mary-Margaret to feed, a little dog for her to play with, a trampoline, a swing, and just enough of the feeling of farm life for her to get the idea of it.

But the best part was a drive to Maunganui Bluff. We drove down at about six in the evening with the sun glowing, and waded around the rocks to haul off some mussels and bring them back home for dinner. You look around on an afternoon like that and you're reminded why this is a nice place to live. The water was warm, the beach was vast and almost empty, and there were more mussels than you could count.

We even dug up a toheroa to show Mary-Margaret how they burrow their way back below the sand. She thought it was hugely entertaining.

If you drive into Dargaville when there's a strong wind blowing and it's gray and overcast and the river is its usual colour (the locals explain that it runs upside down) you can think it's a bit dismal.

When you can add to the list 'had heart attack there' you might feel inclined to leave it out of your tourist tips.

But I wouldn't. That afternoon at Maunganui Bluff changed my mind. So did our trips to the Kauri trees, and the Kai Iwi lakes and the little settlements on the road to the Waipoua forest, and a great breakfast cafe in Dargaville.

And oddly enough, so did the sentimental trip to the hospital. The reception desk has gone, and I could only stand with Karren and Mary-Margaret in the foyer and try to describe what had happened, but it was enough. Some provincial towns look backed against the wall these days, especially when you poke around what's left of their hospital facilities. But Dargaville's hospital actually seems to have more going on there now than it did in 1987. I could be mistaken, of course, because I didn't actually ask anyone about it, but the car park was full and there seemed to be other primary care facilities there. If that's what they've managed to achieve, good on them.

We had a great time. And my heart didn't miss a beat.

David Slack's father was a farmer. His father was a farmer, and his father was a farmer and as far as the records show, it's farmers all the way back. It was only a matter of time before one of them became a speechwriter. He runs from his home in Devonport.