Written by Anna…


Susan Palmer

Posted 20 Feb 2019 - 14.7 minute read

November 21st 2015 will be a date forever etched in our memories. A day where time seemed suspended, and life as we knew it was turned so unexpectedly on its head. My husband Craig was involved in a hit and run accident on the outskirts of Geelong (Victoria), only ten minutes from home, finishing up a training ride for one of the upcoming ironman triathlon events. He had loved his triathlons and the dedication required, a necessary escape from the stressors of work.

There had been so many ‘near misses’ with cars on previous training rides that there was always the unspoken assumption that an accident was only a matter of ‘not ‘if’ but ‘when’’, but the optimist in us would always expect it would be a broken limb or something superficial, nothing ever so devastating or life-changing. But the accident that Craig was involved in that morning was just that. A car running a red light on the freeway to Melbourne took Craig out in horrific fashion, and the injury list was long and confronting- a bleed on the brain, multiple facial fractures, skull fractures, thirteen rib fractures, both lungs punctured, a stable C2 fracture, a complete dislocation of the vertebral bodies at the T4/T5 segment (over thirty fractures in total) and the most devastating and residual injury, spinal cord damage at the T4 level rendering him paralysed from the upper chest, downwards.

The morning of the accident was like any other typical Saturday morning. Our girls, Siena aged three at the time and Amelie, eighteen months, had accompanied me supermarketing that morning and we had just been pottering in the garden when I came in and re-dialled the missed number on my phone. Obviously you can never prepare yourself for those words that you hear at the other end…

Craig was airlifted to the Royal Melbourne Hospital where he underwent spinal decompression and realignment of his spine that evening, and from there was transferred to the Austin Hospital Intensive Care Unit. Craig’s surgery went as well as possible and once ‘stable’ after 48 hours was transported to the Austin Hospital Intensive Care Unit. The Austin Hospital Spinal Unit is the national specialist centre for spinal cord injury, and it would be here that he would continue the remainder of his medical/rehabilitation journey in the acute spinal unit and then onto Royal Talbot Spinal Rehabilitation Unit once well enough to leave intensive care.

With so much chest trauma, it was a long and rocky two weeks in ICU, and probably emotionally some of the toughest days we’ve ever experienced. Rates of ICU delirium can be as high as 80%, and Craig unfortunately fell in this majority.

I have never felt such helplessness in witnessing the man I love beset with such fear and anxiety, at the lowest points, that look of unfamiliarity as he gazed up at me, unsure of who exactly this person was comforting him and keeping vigil by his bedside.

Seeing him grappling with such a hostile environment where tubes and lines arose from every orifice and beeping machines lorded over him, and watching that withdrawn sadness in his eyes in those lucid times when he was realising the true extent of his ‘broken’body, coming to terms with the fact that he was unlikely to ever walk again was utterly heart-breaking.

I have never sobbed so publicly and loudly when in the cubicle he wrote on his communication board “stay with me” (I initially thought he was simply referring to that evening, before it dawned on me he meant forever) – so fearful he must have been that I would no longer value him for the fact that he could no longer walk and the potentially ‘lesser’ life we might lead. The ICU and Acute Spinal Unit stays were the hardest in that he was now dependent for absolutely everything. Feeding, washing, turning, and all bodily functions. With his mechanical ventilation and the tracheostomy in place (a hole in your trachea through which the ventilation tube sits), he was unable to speak to voice his worries or concerns, instead having to resort to painfully slow pointing on a sign board and eventually taking to using an ipad to type out his side of our conversations.

In those early days I could just see in his eyes that at times all he wanted was to leap out of that hospital bed and run as far from it as he could, but of course the nature of his injury prevented that. We made sure that someone was always by his bedside and my mum-in-law, Ann, Sister-in-law, Kirsty and I would be present in shifts from 8am- 11pm every day in those first few weeks – the necessary emotional support to help him get through what was undoubtedly the most challenging time of Craig’s life.

Once Craig was eventually weaned off the ventilator, his rehabilitation took off at lightning speed, a quick one week in the acute spinal unit followed by a record eight weeks at royal Talbot rehab unit – learning so many things from scratch. As I write this, I can’t help but feel a sense of awe at my brave extraordinary husband, who after 45 years of existing as an able bodied person had the fight and tenacity and determination to learn to ‘move’ and ‘exist’ again in an entirely different body.

Until faced with it, you take for granted how easy and natural it is to step out of bed in the morning, walk and sit at the toilet, walk into the shower, step your legs into your clothes… activities that would take you and I collectively 5-10 minutes in the morning turned into two hour affairs . One of the crucial steps to independence is learning to ‘transfer’. When the wheels of your chair are your new legs there are so many transfers in the day: from the bed into wheelchair, from wheelchair to shower bench and back again, from chair to toilet, eventually wheelchair into car.

Mastering the transfer was a big step closer to an independent existence which meant discharge from hospital to home. The ‘dependence’ in hospital was what most ate away at Craig and he fought fiercely to regain independence as quickly as possible, and do whatever he could to get back home.

Throughout Craig’s rehab it was always about goal-setting, little wins each week that would eventually add up to him being well enough and fit and independent enough to return home. One of our first major goals was getting Craig home for day leave.We were extremely fortunate to have a single level home with wide entry ways which meant Craig could return for day leave quite early in his rehab period.

While inwardly I was joyous at the fact that he was finally home after an eight week absence, for Craig it was a day of very mixed emotions – while he was so happy to be back after such a long absence, at the same time he found it extraordinarily confronting and sad. He was confronted by the thought that the last time he had been in the house, he’d been able-bodied, confronted by the overwhelming fatigue he felt from the hour’s drive from Melbourne to Geelong (a trip he would have undertaken several times a week for work in his pre-accident existence and not think anything of it), confronted by how different his ‘new body’ felt in this previously familiar space – the difficulty in mobilising around in his chair, the inability to use the taps and appliances which were now at a height he could hardly reach in his wheelchair, having to use a temporary shower commode to undertake his toileting and showering, unable to access parts of the garden.

Day leave turned into regular weekend leave, which enabled him to be part of precious milestones, like being present for Siena’s first day of school. Eventually, three months from the time of his accident, he was home for good.

The past two and a half years have been as expected an emotional rollercoaster as Craig has had to encounter so many situations where things were previously so easy in his pre-accident life juxtaposed with the difficulty of trying the same tasks now in a wheelchair, the inaccessibility of some places and spaces – playgrounds, the odd café, homes with steps. But each and every time, Craig has found the strength to just push on with such determination and optimism, always seeing the opportunities and not the obstacles.

Returning to work at Telstra after six months, driving a hand-modified car, flying interstate independently, finding new sporting endeavours like hand-cycling and track chair and sit-skiing, being able to holiday both locally and interstate and abroad to a similar level of travel to what we used to achieve before the accident.

Craig is now fully independent and while we certainly lead a ‘different’ life to the one that we had envisaged, it is no ‘lesser’ but is perhaps more full and rich for the fact that when you go through something as devastating as what Craig was faced you tend not to “sweat the small stuff” but instead come to see what is truly important in life – and for us, that would have to be family and friends.

It’s always a matter of which tinted glasses you choose to view the world, but from the outset, we always have said that Craig was ‘lucky’ – lucky to have been hit where he was and not in some isolated back road, lucky to have had three separate nurses on site as well as an anaesthetist present attending to him, stabilising his neck (a dislocation with damage at the C2 level would have rendered him quadriplegic with possible respiratory failure on site) and immobilising him while the MICA arrived, lucky that despite his subdural and subarachnoid haemorrhages he didn’t have an acquired brain injury, lucky that he maintained full mobility of his upper limbs, lucky he had a desk job (as a lawyer turned commercial manager at Telstra) where all that was required was his brain, the voice, and hand function, lucky to have the financial support from TAC, and luckiest I think of all to be surrounded by the most generous, supportive network of family and friends.

The sense of being cocooned in such a large network of love and support really does go a long way in ‘times of need’ and in that, we felt what could have been a horribly isolating experience made us feel instead such a deep sense of connectedness and the good fortune of being part of such a caring community.

What was the most difficult challenge about keeping your day to day life going?

The most difficult challenge for me in those first couple of months was having to juggle time at the hospital with Craig (which would constitute the majority of my day in the early weeks) with needing to try to spend some quality time with the girls, as well as allowing them time in hospital with Craig. Being so young, Amelie in particular still needed her day sleeps, and in general, hospitals are not the friendliest environments for kids to spend hours on end (there were many hours spent waiting outside Intensive Care or on the ward when procedures or investigations were being undertaken). Uprooting ourselves to Melbourne for those first two months of Craig’s hospitalization and living out of a suitcase did make us feel somewhat displaced, however the generosity of my brother as well as a friend’s Mum who lived round the corner from the Royal Talbot who opened their doors to us obviously lessened that feeling of alienation with how welcoming and supportive they were.

I look back at that period and think with wonder at how adaptable both Amelie and Siena were at the time at their young age, so resilient in the face of such change and upheaval as well as relative separation from their Daddy. Once Craig was settled in rehab, we spent the final six weeks in a to-and-fro existence between Geelong and Melbourne. I wanted the girls to return to some resemblance of routine and normality, and for myself was keen to get back to part time work to regain some balance to my own life. While Siena was at school five days of the week, Amelie and I would spend some of those days in Melbourne at the hospital with Craig and the rest of the days at work and at childcare, and the challenge during that phase was most definitely the physical distance between our home in Geelong and the rehab hospital, with so much rushing around between locations, ensuring pick ups were done on time, and making sure we were all fed and well-rested.

How did you coordinate the help that you received?

I don’t feel that I actively coordinated help but rather that it came more spontaneously when friends would call to see how we were going or find out if there was anything they could do to support us. My Mum, brother and sister-in-law and best friend who was Melbourne-based were probably the most instrumental support in the early weeks in that I was able to drop the girls with them; they made sure we were all fed and that I was as rested as I could, and being family there was no hesitation in being able to ask them and not feel ‘guilty’ for help at any time.

There were some natural ‘gatherers’ that sprung up from our friendship group, and we were blessed with coordinated food drops and book and activity drops from friends, both in the early weeks but also in the first couple of months after Craig’s return home .

What was the emotional impact of coordinating the help that you needed?

I remember feeling overwhelmed in those early days. I was so emotionally and physically drained and lacking in sleep, that even the smallest of decisions such as whether the girls should stay the night in Melbourne or Geelong, or what they would eat that night, was too difficult for me to decide, let alone larger tasks such as relocating to Melbourne and potentially finding a primary school for Siena for the first term of school (Siena was due to start prep that January).

It took some perceptive family members to see that I was struggling and I remember being so relieved in that first week when my sister-in-law told me that I shouldn’t worry about the girls, that they would co-ordinate their care among our extended family and friends, to allow me to turn my focus on Craig. Likewise, my work colleagues were so incredibly supportive, rescheduling my patients, seeing my urgent patients for me or undertaking any surgery I had on upcoming lists. It was such a relief in those early days to hear from them: “Don’t worry about work, leave it to us, just focus on Craig and the girls”. So to answer the question, the emotional impact of coordinating help in those early days I would have found extremely draining and to have that taken out of my hands by others was a huge relief.

How would Gather My Crew have helped you had it existed? How would Gather My Crew have changed the way that you asked for, received and coordinated help?

Throughout Craig’s hospitalization through to the early months after his return home, there was such an immense flood of support and offers of help from all spheres of our lives. We were surrounded by such a generous network of family and friends who were so keen to help in any way they could.

Never wanting to inconvenience anyone, however, in the early days I initially shied away from many offers of help, but I soon realized that to keep up my own energy levels in order to be the best support I could be for Craig, I really couldn’t do everything on my own including addressing all the girls needs. I soon became much better at saying ‘Yes’ to offers of support. In the months after, people would comment that they wanted to do something to help but weren’t sure what was needed or how that help might best be delivered.

I think a platform such as Gather My Crew, where the needs are set out so clearly, and selected by those who are happy to help with that particular task, at a time convenient for them, would have been fabulous at the time of Craig’s accident. For us, Gather My Crew could have helped in coordinating babysitting for the girls, meals, visits from friends in hospital or to the home once Craig was discharged, and on the home front, mail collection and gardening, and later on, when Craig was still in rehab and the girls were back at school and childcare, Gather My Crew would have been useful coordinating drop offs and pick ups.

I was definitely in a fog in those first few weeks, and knowing that those day-to- day things that needed addressing would be taken care of, would have taken a big load off my mind and allowed me to focus my time on Craig and getting him back home as quickly as possible. I think we would have felt more at ease to list more specific tasks. When friends offered help, it would have been very handy being able to introduce them to the Gather My Crew concept and ask them to join as a ‘Crew Member’ (leaving it up to them to select from the list the specific help they wished to give).