Posted on 10 February 2020
My name is Jake Coupar Duncan, I’m 36 years old, and I grew up just across the border from Canberra in Queanbeyan, New South Wales. I have wanted to be a plumber for as long as I can remember, but I never expected it would lead to a skin disease that would change my life. This is the story of how a lack of self-care almost cost me my arm.
A country kid who loved the outdoors
I had a great childhood. My maternal grandmother had a farm 30 minutes south of Canberra and I spent most weekends with my father and mates at the farm, fishing and dirt bike riding. I went to school at Queanbeyan High but hated the restrictions of school – I’ve wanted to be a plumber for as long as I can remember and couldn’t wait to leave. School was such a bore to me that I didn’t even receive my High School Certificate – I hadn’t completed my homework for so many years that the Education Department sent my mother a letter saying it’s probably best if I leave before the end of year 10 as there is no point in continuing. My mother cried for days because she thought I would end up on drugs or on the couch and become unemployable. She got the phone book and told me to write to every Queanbeyan/Canberra plumbing company in the Yellow Pages. I wrote to fifteen businesses and received an offer for an apprenticeship with a local plumbing company. However, they pretty much just used me as a trench digger for 12 months. My father made me stay and “do the hard yards” until I was able to join another local businesses – O’Neill & Brown Plumbing who had a great reputation. They put me on as an apprentice in the year 2000. Life was great. I was finally learning the trade I always wanted.
Things amp up quickly when potential risk is made known
Although I can’t quite recall the exact moment it started, I do know it was sometime in 2015. Being a plumber and working with tools, dirt and liquid meant I’d finish up at the end of my day with an incredibly dry pair of hands. To my surprise, my infection started as an inflamed elbow that turned red, swelled up and had a tingle-like sensation when touched. It might have been a coincidence but my elbow became inflamed, sore and hard to bend after a bump at work. At first, I didn’t really take it seriously. Like any illness or injury, you just assume you will go see the doctor, come away with medication and assume it will be fine. But I certainly took notice when I was told the rest of my arm could be amputated if the infection continued to spread from my elbow. Cellulitis can develop quickly and advance rapidly. It became a pretty scary time as I had a mortgage, a partner who wasn’t working and two little girls to support. I was treated with over the counter oral antibiotics for 10 days but they had no effect—the infection continued to travel up my arm. I kept working but found it increasingly difficult while tolerating the pain.
Infection of the bloodstream, known as Sepsis, is a real concern for people with Cellulitis. It can lead to shock and potentially, death. Unfortunately, the disease continued to spread so each day during my daily checkup, the doctor would draw a texta mark around the perimeter of the disease to monitor its spread. He was concerned it was travelling so fast it would reach my heart and bloodstream and had me visit the hospital each morning for five days to have an intravenous antibiotic drip attached. If this didn’t work, I was told I would most likely need my arm amputated.
I got lucky, but I wasn’t all in the clear
After some time, I was lucky that the IV antibiotics began to work. For now, I was in the clear, but my specialist told me I must maintain good hand health from now on and not allow any nicks or cuts where bacteria can enter and another skin infection takes hold. For the first few months after my partner and mother were always onto me about taking the specialist advice seriously. At first, I had no real attitude change, I just treated it as just one of those things. Belinda and Mum bought every hand cream on the market but there wasn’t one I would use … I found them all to be greasy. I had to wipe my hands after using them so couldn’t see the point of using them. It wasn’t that I was totally dismissive, it was just that there wasn’t a product that ticked all the boxes – non-greasy, not expensive and didn’t make me smell like nanna. I wasn’t opposed to the idea of using a hand repair cream but it wasn’t high on my priority list. My specialist told that I would need to always take better care of my hands: keep them hydrated to ensure no nicks or cuts where a skin infection can easily start again. Dry skin ,in particular, is an open invitation for cuts and scrapes. If you have Cellulitis once, you are at increased risk of getting it again. Legs, feet, arms and hands are the most common sites and being a plumber, it was hard to avoid situations where I needed to work in less than ideal conditions.
Self-care uncommon as construction is ‘still a blokey culture’
When I first started as a plumber 20 years ago, the construction industry definitely did not encourage the use of a hand repair cream. Tradies are known for having tough hands, a can-do attitude and doing whatever it takes to get the job done. Thankfully times have moved on and now the guys are all into the beard oils and the hair gels and all over the skincare regimes. Nothing is off limits. You only have to drive past a work site and you’ll see a trendy looking construction worker – mostly the younger guys – in his branded trousers, hi-vis and a hard hat. So it was only a matter of time before it crossed over into skincare. However, it’s still a ‘blokey’ culture. There are tight deadlines and schedules, so most of the guys on construction sites just want to get in, get the job done and move on to the next one. The younger guys on site nowadays are likely to be more aware of their appearance. They like their branded workwear, their beards, their haircuts. They earn good money and they aren’t afraid to spend it on themselves.
But when it comes to mental health or men talking about personal issues on site, there’s still a long way to go. Fortunately, there are some great organisations like Hope Assistance Local Tradies (HALT) that visit construction sites giving out a free breakfast and talking about the impact of mental health issues and the over-representation of tradies in suicides. I think any forum that spreads the word about mental health awareness can only be a good thing. There are a lot more female tradies nowadays, but it can be hard for them to break through the barriers – Steph, from the Tradie Lady Club in Victoria, is doing a great job supporting the girls but it doesn’t seem easy.
Self care and mental health among tradesmen
This is a tough one. My uncle, a carpenter, actually lost his battle with depression and addiction. He was a great father, husband, and friend to everyone. He was also a brilliant carpenter. He had so much offer in the way of teaching the trade, and would have made a great mentor to a young chippy, but he became homeless and lost his battle with alcohol and pill addictions four years ago. Despite all our attempts to provide help in the way of rehab, counselling and money, he drowned and died alone. Over the years he had spent nearly $200,000 on alcohol and pills to help him cope with his depression.
I also have three cousins in construction and they all suffer with depression. They manage their illness the best way they can, but it’s still not something that is openly discussed in a conversation at smoko. If it was your best mate you would absolutely ask how they were doing, but tradies are sometimes there one day and gone the next. There are some great organisations out there and they are breaking through the barriers. There’s a lot of advertisements promoted on job sites, with signs are all around with a number to call if you need to talk. It’s not hidden which is a good thing. here isn’t the stigma there once was around mental illness. Everyone on site would know somebody in their lives who suffers from depression or anxiety. The construction industry awareness around mental health is definitely headed in the right direction for sure. And that’s absolutely a good thing.
For men who don’t like cream, tradies are surprisingly fussy
Once I was discharged from hospital, my partner Belinda and mother Maree bought every available hand repair product on the market. We found they were all too greasy and or too thick and took a long time to be absorbed. Mum in particular couldn’t believe there wasn’t a product available that was formulated to be fast absorbing and non-greasy—and no fuss. Tradies aren’t real big on pampering, as mentioned earlier, so she spent around 12 months researching the use of natural ingredients. After speaking to more tradies, mum that they were actually quite fussy … They don’t want a product that makes their hands ‘too soft’ because they like having tougher skin and callouses which protects them against injury. So it was quite a dilemma creating a hand repair cream that keeps hands hydrated, is non-greasy and uses natural ingredients. After speaking with a number of chemists, I worked with a compounding pharmacy in Sydney, and after about five attempts, we finally hit upon the perfect formulation. Mum later found a pharmacy in Sydney who fine tuned our recipe and that’s the story of how my hand repair cream was born. Aussie Man Hands really grew from there. Before long, my mates started to ask for it—that’s how I knew it was a winner.
Simplicity was key, once you rub it in
Initially intended for me alone, it wasn’t long before my mates started to ask for a tub of Aussie Man Hands. Mum’s husband, a plasterer, was giving them out from the floor of his truck. The tradies loved us! They loved our simple branding and they loved the non-greasy formulation. The response has been nothing short of amazing. Totally exceeded all our expectations. Since then, we’ve sent tubs to Belgium, France, USA and six tubs to one of the most remote places – Ranken Inlet – native Inuit country in far north Canada. As to why, who knows? But my guess would be that they read the product description and liked what they saw. No fancy claims, just does what it says. Ranken Inlet can get down to -30 in winter so the guys probably need a hand repair cream to keep working. New Zealand tradies are also huge buyers, as are young, female tradies. Surprisingly, we also have a following among nurses, florists, landscapers and hospitality workers. Later this year we’re hoping to release an Aussie women hands product.
A learning curve
My biggest lesson was how quickly life can change. One week I’m on a job, and the next I’m in hospital with an IV drip stuck in my arm, and a specialist telling me they might have to amputate if the antibiotics don’t work. With a mortgage, a stay-at-home partner and two little girls to support, it was a pretty scary time—one I never want to repeat. It has certainly made me more aware of taking better care of myself. Before the infection I wouldn’t have probably thought about using a hand repair cream but now I use Aussie Man Hands every single day. Steel cap boots can be pretty hard on your feet so I also use it on my feet if needed. To those tradesmen still sceptical, I say give it a go. You will be so surprised at what’s products are available now. Why not take care of yourself a little better? I have a mate who uses it on his bald head – reckons it’s never felt or looked better. Tradies hate ‘soft’ hands but they can’t afford to neglect their best trade tools either.