This love story starts with two students from Tasmania writing letters to each other in the early 1980s to share their devotion to the sports-comedy radio show, The Coodabeen Champions. Mark Green and Rowanne Brown had grown up in neighbouring suburbs, but it wasn’t until they were both at the University of Tasmania that they became friends.
“We played sport together, and we’d just sit and have a chat. There always seemed to be something a little bit special between us,” Mark recalls.
Row was studying for an Arts/Law degree, but most importantly she was the type of person who loved to help others, and she did it behind the scenes, without fanfare.
“She was always there for those who needed help, but in a very gentle, quiet, understated way,” Mark says. “I remember we were working on a bit of uni stuff together and I just looked across and she tucked her hair behind her ear. It’s a pretty ordinary gesture that she’d probably done a thousand times before, but from that moment I saw her differently and knew there was something extra special about her.” He chuckles. “It took a few years before all the stars aligned.”
After university, life took them in different directions, but they kept in touch. Row went overseas for 18 months, and it was when she returned that she and Mark knew they wanted to be together.
From then on, they were never apart. Eventually they welcomed two children – Joe, now 16, and Lara, 13 – and returned home to Hobart to put down some roots. When COVID arrived, they hunkered down like everyone else. Restrictions in Tassie weren’t as tough as they were on the mainland, but life had changed.
An unexpected illness
One Sunday, in mid-2020, Row began to feel slightly unwell, but not enough to cause alarm.
“We umm-ed and ahh-ed about whether to go to emergency,” Mark says. Row was feeling “a little bit funny in her chest” but she had no cardiac issues or risk factors for heart disease.
When things hadn’t improved a little later that day, they decided Row should go to the local hospital for a check-up. COVID meant Mark couldn’t go with her, but he wasn’t expecting the doctors to find anything. Then he got a call from Row. There was a problem with her heart, and she was being sent to the Royal Hobart Hospital for an urgent operation.
“They expected it to be a relatively straightforward operation. Of course, like all operations you never quite know how things are going to go until they’re doing it,” Mark says.
Row went into surgery at 9pm and Mark expected she’d be out around midnight. It was an agonizing wait. “Twelve o’clock came. Nothing. 1am came. Nothing. 2am came. Nothing. I’m getting even more stressed, knowing the longer this takes, that’s not a good sign,” he explains.
When the doctor finally called, Mark had trouble processing what he was saying. Row had a rare but serious condition known as SCAD, spontaneous coronary artery dissection. It mostly affects women in their forties and fifties and occurs when an inner layer of the blood vessels in the heart tears.
“Each time they tried to repair it, there were more tears happening.”Mark Brown
Row was in a coma on life support.
“I would go in to the hospital and be with her as much as possible,” he says. “I’d read to her, play her music, talk to her, anything to be there for her.” He didn’t know if she could hear him, but he says, “She squeezed my hand once when I told her that I loved her.”
The saddest news
The team at the Royal Hobart said Row would have to go to The Alfred in Melbourne to receive a higher level of care. Ultimately, she would need a heart transplant. The news was extremely distressing for Mark and the family, made worse by the fact that COVID restrictions meant they had to stay behind.
Even now, despite her receiving the best care from The Alfred’s staff, thinking about Row alone in Melbourne causes anguish for Mark. He called the hospital frequently for updates, and estimates he spent about 10 hours on hold during hundreds of calls he made over the weeks that Row was being cared for. Each time he had to listen to the same music.
“It makes a huge imprint on you,” he explains. “You’re trying to hold out hope, but you know things are very grim. You’re expecting that any phone call could be the time that they tell you that she’s just not going to make it.”
Mark’s voice shakes when he describes the dreadful day that phone call came. There was nothing more that could be done for Row, and Mark arranged for her to come home so she could spend her final days with her family. In time, the machines keeping Row alive were turned off. “It was as awful as you can get, really,” he says.
There is a lot to do after someone dies, and Mark frequently found himself on hold in his dealings with different organisations, often hearing that same generic music he’d heard on The Alfred’s phone system. It took him right back to those desperate hours, waiting for news about Row. The music upset him so much that he often had to end the call. A year after losing Row, things weren’t getting any easier. His grief shifted and revealed new depths.
“The realisation hits that you’re faced with this life now without this person who you absolutely adored and meant the world to you. It’s a pretty difficult thing to deal with,” he says. He continued to get up each day, caring for his kids, but he felt hollowed-out and joyless. “Emotionally, it was just a really dark time.”
Amid all this, Mark continued to encounter the hold music. It was a torment. But he was hearing something else too.
“It was Row’s voice saying, ‘If you’re going to be so sad, at least do something with that,’ and I thought, okay.”Mark Brown
Mark wrote to The Alfred, explaining what he was going through and asking if they would consider changing their hold music. He felt sure there were others in his position. He was prepared for the hospital to say they were swamped with more pressing issues. However, Mark’s email found its way to Alfred Health’s chief digital health officer, Amy McKimm, who immediately understood the profound impact hospital hold music could have on someone like Mark.
Amy was moved by Mark’s story and promised to change the hold music. She also wanted to commission an original composition that would play on The Alfred’s phones so that anybody who called would hear something comforting and beautiful. She told Mark she wanted the piece to be created in honour of Row, and she requested his help to create something that would capture her kind spirit.
“I spent most of the phone call in tears because I thought maybe Amy’s the only person in the world who would have had the vision and the heart to say, yes we can do this,” Mark says.
A healing project
Amy got to work. Through the Alfred Foundation, she was introduced to Stephanie Exton, who introduced her to composer Jess Wells. Mark worked with Jess, telling her about Row’s kindness and the type of music she liked. Together they created a beautiful composition called A Portrait of Row.
Amy describes the emotional moment she walked into the recording studio and heard musicians playing the tribute to Row. Mark was there with tears in his eyes.
“It was so uplifting to hear the musicians play the music that went beyond both Mark’s and my wildest expectations,” Amy says. “We can all hear different things in it. For me, I get a real sense of the different seasons and the cycle of life. I keep thinking that, in health, you don’t always get to create miracles, but you can always create some moments of magic and that’s what this is for me.”
The music now plays on Alfred Health’s telephone system.
For Mark, working on A Portrait of Row became an important turning point. “I could see a light from that. Even with loads of support, it’s still ultimately a long, cold, dark road you’re walking down without that person who you thought you’d be with for eternity. But to have a stranger say, ‘We can do this’ … it still gets me quite emotional.
“I play A Portrait of Row regularly and talk to Row about what’s happening in our lives and in the world. Hearing that music makes me feel closer to her. Row was very much about bringing people together and achieving great things by everyone doing their bit. She lit up our lives like a billion stars. If this song helps people have a moment of calm, it’s done its magic, and that would be Row.”
To learn more about SCAD and how you can help find a cure go to scadresearch.com.au