This is what it says on the back of Sandra Pankhurst’s business card:
‘Excellence is no Accident’
Hoarding and Pet Hoarding Clean Up * Squalor/Trashed Properties * Preparing the Home for Home Help Agencies to Attend * Odour Control * Homicide, Suicide and Death Scenes * Deceased Estates * Mould, Flood and Fire Remediation * Methamphetamine Lab Clean Up * Industrial Accidents * Cell Cleaning
I first saw Sandra at a conference for forensic support services. A gaggle of public servants, lawyers and academics had just emerged from a session on offenders with acquired brain injuries to descend on urns of crappy coffee and plates of sweating cheese. I passed a card table in the lobby where brochures were spread out next to a sign inviting you to drop your business card into an ice bucket for a chance to win a bottle of shiraz.
Next to the ice bucket— silver, with a stag’s head on either side—a tiny TV played scenes of before and after trauma-cleaning jobs (which brought to mind the words ‘faeces’ and ‘explosion’). Sitting behind the table a very tall woman, perfectly coiffed and tethered to an oxygen tank, fanned her hand out and invited me to enter my card. Hypnotised by her smile and her large blue eyes and the oxygen mask she wore like jewellery and the images on her TV, I haltingly explained that I don’t have business cards. I did, however, pick up one of her brochures, which I read compulsively for the remainder of the day.
Sandra is the founder of Specialised Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services Pty Ltd. Each day for the past twenty years, her job has led her into dark homes where death, sickness and madness have suddenly abbreviated the lives inside.
Most people will never turn their mind to the notion of ‘trauma cleaning’. But once they realise that it exists—that it obviously has to—they will probably be surprised to learn that the police do not do trauma clean-up. Neither do firefighters or ambulances or other emergency services. This is why Sandra’s trauma work is varied and includes crime scenes, floods and fires.
In addition, government housing and mental health agencies, real estate agents, community organisations, executors of deceased estates and private individuals all call on Sandra to deal with unattended deaths, suicides or cases of long-term property neglect where homes have, in her words, ‘fallen into disrepute’ due to the occupier’s mental illness, ageing or physical disability. Grieving families also hire Sandra to help them sort, disperse and dispose of their loved ones’ belongings.
Her work, in short, is a catalogue of the ways we die physically and emotionally, and the strength and delicacy needed to lift the things we leave behind.
‘Hi Sarah, it’s Sandra. I believe you contacted me for an interview. If you could call me back on [number] it would be appreciated, but possibly not today as I’m just inundated at the moment and I’m on my way to a suicide. So if you could just call me back tomorrow, maybe, on [number], thank you. Bye for now.’
When I return her call, I learn that Sandra has a warm laugh and that she needs a lung transplant. She asks me when I would like to meet. I tell her that I can work around her schedule. So she says, ‘Okey dokey,’ and flips open her diary. ‘How about the cafe at the Alfred Hospital? ’ she suggests, explaining parenthetically that she has a couple of hours next week before she sees her lung specialist. It struck me then that, for Sandra Pankhurst, death and sickness are a part of life. Not in a Buddhist koan sort of way, but in a voicemail and lunch-meeting sort of way. Over the next few years, she would reveal to me how this unrelenting forward orientation, fundamental to her character, has saved her life.