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 * Odor Control *
Homicide, Suicide and Death Scenes *
Deceased Estates * Mold, 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 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.
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. Hypnotized by her smile and her large blue eyes and the oxygen mask she wore like jewelry and the images on her TV, I haltingly explained that I didn’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 the Australian cleaning company, Specialized Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services Pty. Ltd. For the past 20 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 realize 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. Other agencies and private individuals call on her 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, aging 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.
Her advertising materials emphasize compassion, but that goes far deeper than the emotional-intelligence equivalent of her technical skill in neutralizing blood-borne pathogens. Sandra knows her clients as well as they know themselves; she airs out their smells, throws out their weird porn, their photos, their letters, the last traces of their DNA entombed in soaps and toothbrushes. She does not, however, erase these people. She couldn’t. She has experienced their same sorrows.
On my voicemail: “Hi Sarah, it’s Sandra. I believe you contacted me for an interview … 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 … Bye for now.”
When I returned her call, I learned that Sandra has a warm laugh and that she needed a lung transplant. She told me that she had a couple of hours to meet the following week before seeing 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, had saved her life. Through the early violence of her childhood — she was born male — through her times as a young husband, father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker and now, businesswoman.