At Home with The Sutherlands
A one-time lead singer in a band, an avid ‘Street Outlaws’ viewer, and a driver of a restored HT Holden panel van, is not how many locals would picture Moreton Bay’s Mayor, Allan Sutherland. But when struck down with a life-threatening vascular illness early last year, this rebellious, former electrician discovered solace in the quiet, stolen moments of life, along with the support of close family and friends.
Diagnosed in early April 2016 with Microscopic Polyangiitis (MPA), this rare, autoimmune condition causes the body to attack itself, where even the smallest of blood vessels can become inflamed and burst. Predominately affecting the kidneys and lungs, and sometimes the joints and muscles, it can cause irreparable and permanent damage, leading to death if not diagnosed early enough.
Allan’s twelve-month battle with this condition began in November 2015 when he experienced constant fatigue and joint pain before, during, and after his 2016 election campaign. When doctors and specialists were unable to pinpoint the underlying problem, his symptoms worsened with bloodshot eyes, joint pains, insomnia, and the passing of and coughing up of blood. Allan eventually ended up in hospital.
“There were points where I was in so much pain that I couldn’t even get out of a chair. My hands would swell up randomly, and my skin lost its colour. I remember vomiting on a footpath from the pain of severe spasms after having my muscles manipulated from what they initially thought a muscular problem. Thank goodness my wife, Gayle, was with me - she took me straight to the doctor, who later referred me to a rheumatologist. I just don’t know what I would have done without Gayle.”
Along with close work colleagues, friends, his GP, and his children, Allan credits much of his recovery to his wife, who helped and supported him through what he describes as one of the most difficult times of his life. “Gayle was both gatekeeper and my constant moral support. With her health background as an Occupational Therapist and now Director of Allied Health at Redcliffe Hospital, she was able to explain the medical side of things to me, and also give me hope when I thought all was lost.”
With a broken kettle element and air conditioner at Redcliffe Hospital being the magnets that initially drew this couple together over 30 years’ ago, Gayle reminisces about her first encounter with the ‘rough-around-the-edges’ hospital electrician and then owner of an electrical contracting business. “Allan was a 30-year-old Tradie wearing stubbies, who repaired my defective jug and had a go at fixing my air conditioner. I thought he was cute, and he was very different to what I was used to growing up. He was a bit interesting and exciting… and very persistent.”
These inherent qualities of loving a challenge and never accepting no for an answer put Allan in good stead when becoming a Redcliffe Councillor in 1994, Deputy Mayor of Redcliffe in 1997, Mayor of Redcliffe City in 2004, then Mayor of Moreton Bay Regional Council after the 2008 amalgamation of the Pine Rivers, Redcliffe, and Caboolture Councils, of which he was re-elected last year. With Moreton Bay now considered the number one economy in Queensland and the fastest growing region in Australia (according to the Australian Local Government Association in 2015), Allan says that it has been a lot of hard work to create the platform for which the area could display its potential, but it has been worth it.
“The 2008 amalgamation in particular has been a case of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Without it, we wouldn’t have had the money to put good infrastructure building on the ground such as the AFL centre at Burpengary, the South Pine Sports Complex in Brendale, and the Caboolture Hub. We also wouldn’t have had the new Redcliffe Peninsula railway, and if we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t be having the new University of Sunshine Coast campus at Petrie. Getting great infrastructure outcomes for the whole region is what, I believe, has set us apart from many other regions. Community pride is part of my DNA, and we’ve tried to focus on getting the job done.”
Growing up in Redcliffe all his life, fishing from its jetty, and enjoying the freedom only the Peninsula can bring, Allan says that whilst he was never a good student and was often in strife from police from hanging out in the pinball parlours late at night, his fierce independence has helped carry him through life, his career, and illness. “I have always been a Master of my own destiny – preferred being my own boss - and so I was determined to beat this sickness. When I was finally given the answer as to what was wrong with me, both Gayle and I were relieved. It then became a challenge. I hated being a burden to everyone around me, and by thankfully being diagnosed early enough before there was permanent kidney or lung damage, I knew I could battle the illness.”
Now in remission, medication and a change in lifestyle are the two key factors in Allan recovering from an illness he believes was bought on by 25 years of stress and long work days. “I no longer work ridiculous hours anymore, have improved my diet, and practise a bit of mindfulness by having a fish along the pontoon or driving to the same old pine tree, at the same old beach, in my Holden panel van listening to a replica Fleetwood Mac CD from my youth. I very much enjoy a few moments by myself now much more than I ever did – gardening, fishing, and having a glass of wine - where I can sit down and experience a bit of self-reflection.”
With his most recent blood results coming back all-clear and the prognosis looking good, both Allan and Gayle offer the following advice to others who finds themselves in a similar, ill-health situation. “Pay attention to your doctors. The reason we’ve gone through this journey and illness quicker than most is because we didn’t just treat the condition with the drug; we also treated the autoimmune system through lifestyle changes. So whatever you do, don’t give up… make sure you master your own destiny.”