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Recovering in Waves

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By Jane Armitstead

Lystra Bisschop can hear the piercing sound of alarms ringing as she lies helpless on her hospital bed. A swarm of medical staff surround her but she can barely keep her eyes open to see what’s happening.

The mother-of-two has just emerged from her second surgery in three months after suffering a triple prolapse a year earlier. It should have been a straightforward operation but there’s a complication.

She can’t breathe, her 35-year-old body is shutting down and her lips are blue.

“I don’t think you’re going to make it, unless you have two blood transfusions,” the doctor tells Bisschop, as she lies there wishing her husband, Ray, and two kids, Zoe and Bob, would hurry to her side.

“I just lay there thinking this was it, I kept thinking that I could really die here,” Bisschop recalls. “It was the first time in my life I’ve actually had to face fear of death right in front of me.”

In that moment on September 12, 2011, Bisschop makes a promise to herself. She pledges that if she survives, she will never play it safe again.

“When I was lying there, I thought about surfing – out of all the things,” she says.

“I thought, if I’m going to get through this, I’m going to learn to surf. Ray had always surfed but I never did because I was scared of sharks and big waves but when you face the fear of death, you can face anything.”

Waves were unfamiliar territory for Bisschop. She grew up in indigenous communities in far north Queensland as a descendant of the Guugu Yimidhirr and Birri Gubba people.

What followed that life-threatening moment, were two more operations and years of rehab. Through that physically and emotionally difficult time, she held on to her resolve to face her fears. To take risks.

That resolve led Bisschop to move to the Gold Coast with her family, where she discovered the two hobbies that saved her life – surfing and writing.

The now 41-year-old, who lives at Elanora, has kept her promise and combined her two vastly different passions to pen her first book, The Upwelling, a surfing-themed novel which she started writing 12 months ago. The unpublished novel recently won the national 2018 black & write! fellowship for Aboriginal and Torres Strait writers. Bisschop was one of two writers to receive the $10,000 top prize, which includes manuscript development and publishing opportunities.

On August 13, 2010, Bisschop woke up ready for a busy day with the family. Ray was pottering around their Brisbane home and kids Zoe and Bob, aged one, and 10-weeks, at the time. A few moments later, she screamed out to Ray for help, crippled by the excruciating pain taking hold of her body.

Bisschop was suffering a triple prolapse, her bladder, uterus and bowel had fallen, as she describes, “out of her body”. A prolapse, which can often be caused by weakened connective tissue, is common for women in their 60s or 70s, who have had children. Doctors were unsure why it happened to Bisschop so young.

She needed surgery but having just given birth to their second child, Bob, the hormones from childbirth prevented her from having the operation for 12 months.

Over the next three years, the prolapse left her bedridden and requiring four operations, the second of which was one that nearly killed her.

“I was in constant, excruciating pain 24/7,” she says. “I wasn’t allowed to lift anything over 5kg, and I had an 18-month-old and a 10-week-old.

“I’ve never been allowed to lift my children, or able to pick them up if they hurt themselves. I couldn’t play a woodwind instrument, sneeze, blow up a balloon, play any sport or run, or put any downward pressure on my abdomen area in case it set off my prolapse again.”

In early 2013, Ray sat in on a doctor’s appointment. After he heard everything his wife shouldn’t be doing, he asked one simple question – which changed Bisschop’s life. “Ray turned to the doctor and said ‘is she allowed to surf?’ and the surgeon said ‘yes’ and we’ve never questioned it,” Bisschop jokes.

A year later she caught her first wave.

Not much later, Ray gave his wife her first surfing lessons for Mother’s Day, which is when, she says, she found her purpose.

“I grew up in all of these places where waves didn’t exist,” she says of the indigenous communities.

“I know all about crocodiles and tides, but waves, I had no idea, I had probably been in waves about 10 times in my life before I started surfing.”

Ray, 47, who works at Surfing Life magazine, has always been a surfer, spending the better part of 30 years out on the water. He tried for years to get his wife to join him. Now, she won’t stop.

“Surfing can save your life … all these problems you had before going in the water, all go away,” she says.

Lystra Bisschop surfing on the Gold Coast

“I’m not an awesome surfer – don’t have any misconceptions there – but they say the best surfer is the one having the most fun, so I’m Kelly Slater when it comes to that.”

The new-found love for the ocean combined with her health battle inspired Bisschop to write T he Upwelling, young-adult fiction about a young surfer, Kirra (her favourite break), who slips into an imaginary land without European influence.

The story is one Bisschop hopes will teach others a different side to Aboriginal culture.

Bisschop was born in Brisbane but grew up in Gordonvale, Innisfail and Cairns.

A large part of her early years were also spent in Bamaga, a remote town in Cape York Peninsula, with no bitumen roads or shops, where groceries were delivered by barge every three months. She’d hunt for crabs in waist-deep water with her dad, while friends or family stayed on the beach with a spotlight watching out for crocs.

By the time she was 21, she’d moved 21 times living all over Queensland, following her mother’s work as a teacher.

Eventually, Bisschop became a teacher herself, where she worked with deaf children in remote indigenous communities.

Throughout the years, she learnt of her family history and of her great-grandparents, who were part of the Stolen Generation.

Yet writing her book was never going to be about the politics, but a way to keep one of the oldest cultures in the world alive.

“(In my book) you can get into some of the wonderful things of Aboriginal culture through story,” she says.

“I’d love to be able to see a young adult indigenous novel in the high school as part of the curriculum, as a way for non-indigenous people to comfortably learn about our culture.”

Bisschop spends her days homeschooling her children, Zoe, now 9 and Bob, 7.

But first, she wakes at 4am to get in a few hours of writing and a surf, all before the kids wake up.

“Every wave I catch, whether it was my first or my latest one is pure fun. I just want to do it again and again until my arm muscles won’t work.”

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