Monday, January 18, 1999

Near-death experience gives pause


A heart attack is the mid-life fear of every businessman — tightness in the chest, a queasy feeling in the pit of the stomach, a sensation of heartburn.

The symptoms are classic, and Desmond Murphy is no hero. The Montreal engineering consultant reaches for the phone in his Calgary hotel room and dials 911. He doesn't know it at the time, but that gesture of prudence on a Sunday morning in late October, 1998, will save his life.

Within minutes he is in a hospital emergency room, hooked up to monitors. The emergency room personnel note the asymmetrical beat of his heart. Then it stops. For 30 seconds, Murphy is clinically dead.

While doctors and nurses act with frantic urgency to bring him back to life, Murphy is undergoing a near-death experience — passing through a golden light with a mosaic of frames playing out the scenes of his 52 action-packed years on this earth.

He immediately sees his Mexican-born wife, Guadalupe, and his 11-year-old son, Ricardo. But the scenes stretch way back — to Inchecore, the Dublin suburb where Murphy was born into a working class family of fishermen.

A sense of well-being and peace wash over him as he views the images of a tall, gangly boy in the 1950s with brown bushy hair and a driving ambition to succeed in the material world.

Early on in life, he displayed the dichotomy which would go on to distinguish his private life and professional career. There he was with one of his four brothers caught in a youthful indiscretion, breaking into the local Dublin post office to help supplement the family income. On the other hand, there was the A student in high school studying the principles of entropy and thermodynamics which would eventually lead to a degree in mechanical engineering.

He was a champion swimmer in college who in his spare time would visit the pub for a smoke and a brew while listening to the American rock music of Bill Haley & The Comets. His other persona was that of a budding entrepreneur who started working part-time at age 11 and managed a corner deli before he was out of high school.

While working at one of his first jobs as an engineer at Ironbridge, England, in the late 60s, he manufactured hand-made candles using ice molds in his apartment. He made more from selling the candles — the equivalent of about $1,000 a week — than he did from the job.

Murphy went on to become an accomplished engineer who was paid substantial amounts of money to work for major companies setting up power generation projects around the world. But he never lost his yen for getting involved in start-up businesses.

And he never lost his keen eye for feminine pulchritude. Was ever an Irishman born who could resist the call of exotic romance in far-away lands?

There he was in the spring of 1974 sitting in The Craic (the Gaelic word for "fun") pub in Liverpool — where The Beatles used to play — reading the career section of the newspaper. Murphy, who was working as an engineer at the Fiddler's Ferry power plant in Liverpool, noticed an ad from a Canadian engineering company, which later became Asea Brown Boveri (ABB).

The Canadian company was looking for 16 engineers to relocate to Montreal. Six hundred British engineers applied for the 16 positions. Murphy was among those invited for an interview with the brass at a pub in nearby Manchester, England.

It's hard to say whether the brass was more impressed with his knowledge of aspect ratios and coefficients of heat transfer for coal-fired boilers or his prodigious ability to spew out correct answers to technically complex questions while consuming 24 pints of beer during a six-hour interview. Murphy remembers the interview as one big hiccup. When it was over, he was one of 16 chosen to start a new life in Montreal.

He arrived at Dorval in October, 1974. As soon as he landed, he was smitten with his new-found home. Three items in particular drew his attention — a mechanized dummy waving traffic down on Highway 20, the belles mademoiselles of Montreal in their chic attire and the freshly-brewed, strong black coffee.

"I thought Montreal was really sophisticated," he recalled. "The women, the was paradise."

But everyone knows you don't unpack your bags in paradise. Just keep moving and take in the delights. The engineering firm sent Murphy on assignments throughout Canada. He stuffed his two big suitcases into a locker at the Berri bus terminus and returned to get a clean pair of underwear every time he came back to Montreal.

In the late 70s, he quit his job and went to the "best carnival" in the world at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. He landed a six-month engineering contract and stayed in the country for 15 months.

He returned to Canada in 1980 as a senior steam and power specialist with SNC. For the first time since his arrival in Canada six years earlier, he rented an apartment — on Fort Street. He invested $20,000 in a downtown bar called Club Nubia and worked the nighshift as a bartender. His specialty was a Strawberry Daiquiri. By day, he worked as an engineer.

Within four years, the wander lust struck again. He was off to a new job as Projects Manager for Latin and South America with the engineering firm of Babcock and Wilcox of Cambridge, Ont.

Within months, he was transfered to Maracaibo, Venezuela, to oversee a project. He teamed up with another engineer from the same firm who showed him a deed of sale to a piece of land he had bought in the lush area.

Murphy, who speaks fluent French, Spanish and Portuguese, proceeded to tell his friend the good news that the deed of sale for the 60,000 square metres of land also contained a licence to operate a whorehouse — which is a legal business in Venezuela.

Within a few months his friend had built a classy establishment employing 10 prostitutes in five bedrooms. With Murphy's help, he recruited a Welsh sea captain who had lived in the area for 30 years to be manager.

Murphy, ever the engineer, knows about mass flow and heat transfer. So he came up with the idea of installing a big dance floor with good music and cheap booze to attract the clientelle. And it worked — within a short while his friend's business had 50 prostitutes and 15 bedrooms. He called it Las Palmas (The Palms).

Meanwhile, the engineering project ended. Murphy returned to Canada in 1986, got married and started his own company, Desmech Power Inc., which acts as a consultant for steam and power generation projects around the world.

By the time the last out-of-body scene was played out on that Sunday in late October, the emergency team at the Calgary hospital had managed to bring his heart back to life with electro-shock. All of 30 seconds — and a lifetime — had passed.

The near-death experience has prompted Murphy to reassess his priorities, spending less time on business and more time with his family, looking after his personal health.

"The real value in life is the well-being of your loved ones," Murphy says. "Successful business people need to learn how to balance the stresses in their professional lives. That means taking a break and finding the time to appreciate the love of friends and family."

His long-term professional goal now is to work with international companies or with western governments to help introduce non-polluting, renewable energy technologies around the world.

Warren Perley is a former Gazette journalist who is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a graphic design and marketing company.