Former Australian swimmer Alice Tait (née Mills) might be described by some as a sporting ‘hero’, not least because she won two Olympic golds for her country at Athens 2004. Having since retired to become a theatre nurse at a children’s hospital in Brisbane (AUS), however, the 32-year-old Olympian believes her exploits in the pool pale into insignificance when compared to the heroism shown on an everyday basis by organ donors and their young recipients.
A 4x100m freestyle and medley champion in Athens, and a 4x100m freestyle bronze medal winner in Beijing four years later, Alice retired from her sport in 2012, having won a total of 20 major international medals. Awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2005 for services to sport, she has devoted the past five years of her life to her current profession, which has made her an entirely logical choice as ambassador to the 2018 Australian Transplant Games, to be held in Gold Coast from 30 September to 6 October.
“I just felt like it was a really good fit,” she explained. “I want to see how these patients that I’ve possibly crossed paths with in the past are now living their lives in a very active and healthy way. They jump a lot of hurdles for the rest of their lives just to maintain that transplant. I think it’ll be really uplifting to see them living the best life they can.”
It is a role to which she is looking forward: “During the Games we’re invited to do anything. I’m going to try and see as much as I can, especially the swimming and the children’s programme over the last two days. I want to get to know them and talk to them about my career. While it might be painted as ‘heroic’, they and the people who donate are the proper heroes. What we do as athletes is not ‘heroic’, but battling life and death is. I want to talk to them more about the life that they live than the life that we live.”
Explaining how her Olympic experiences will inform her ambassadorial duties, she added: “I’ll be passing on advice about sticking to race plans and enjoying yourself. It might be their Olympics, the pinnacle of their athletic and sporting lives, and I want to give them the opportunity to speak to us about what it’s like to compete at that really top level.”
Alice, who has been working at the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane since it opened its doors at the end of 2014, began planning for her new career while she was still competing, taking a nursing bachelor’s degree that she finally completed a year after retiring. It was a course that fulfilled her interest in the human body, with her last placement as a student coming in the operating theatres.
“I just loved it,” said Alice. “I pigeonholed myself with my postgraduate applications and just wanted to do theatres, which is what I got. I was very focused on that objective, which is something I’ve carried through from my swimming career, that single-mindedness.”
“One day I might be in the neurosurgery theatre and another in orthopaedics, emergency or paediatric general surgery, or ear, nose and throat,” she continued, explaining what her job entails. “It’s physically draining and mentally challenging. The key role is to anticipate the surgeon’s next move. There are always nerves, but performance under pressure is one of my strong points. People say I look calm but it’s the same as when I was swimming: you keep that strong, focused exterior when on the inside you might be having a bit of a moment.”
Another important part of Alice’s work involves assisting with transplants: “We mainly do liver and kidney transplants and we have about one a month at the moment. It’s nice when a liver becomes available for these kids because they’re pretty much at the end of the road when they finally get to the operating theatre. It’s a last-minute thing.”
“You get called up and told there’s a liver transplant happening. Operations usually start early in the morning, about 7 o’clock; but preparation takes about three hours, so we have to be there about 4 o’clock. The length of surgery can vary, and it depends on whether they’re receiving a split liver or a full liver. Actual surgery takes about eight hours, and then there’s the clean-down and pack-up. It’s tiring because you don’t stop moving the whole time.”
Describing the emotions aroused by her work, Alice said: “To be there in the moment when they’re receiving the organ is very humbling and probably one of the more special things that we do. The only downside is that we stitch them up and send them on their way, and we don’t actually see how they handle it. That’s why I was really interested in the Transplant Games, because I want to see how they get on after the operation.”
And when she finally meets the athletes, she will be reminding all of them of their achievements, regardless of whether they pick up medals or not: “These people are already winners. They’re living with someone else’s organ inside them, and it’s working, and they’re able to be athletic. It doesn’t matter: win, lose or draw they’ve already won because they’re living. I want them to be happy with silver and bronze and not be disheartened if they don’t win gold.”
Alice’s first-hand involvement in the lives of transplant recipients and the ordeal they go through has made her acutely aware of the need for people to donate their organs. It is for that reason that she has joined fellow Olympic gold medal-winning swimmers Brooke Hanson and Melanie Wright in an organ donation campaign run by Transplant Australia.
Keen to take up more ambassadorial roles in the future, Alice would like nothing more than to become involved in the Olympic Games again, the arena in which she made her name as a teenager. Recalling her glory days in the Greek capital, she said: “My life was swimming and my dream was to be at the Olympics; and to walk out in Athens and race well was the fulfilment of that dream. I was 18, and I won a gold and helped set a new world record on the very first night. What more could you ask for?”