Life can be full of surprises
I woke with a cold rush of sweat into a cramped, dark painful place and tried to remember how I got there. It wasn’t the cool cement floor of Mary’s outdoor toilet after way too much tequila years ago. Some guy was patting me on the shoulder. He told me not to move, “the rescue squad’s on the way”.
Move? I was jammed in somewhere dark, hardly breathing, in a spinning, screaming black fog of pain. I had no idea where I was or how I got there. I couldn’t move.
“You’ve been in a motor, vehicle, accident”, the voice said, slowly and clearly. I wondered why he used such big words, and didn’t believe him. But, apparently he was right. I passed out anyway.
The noise of the helicopter landing on the road nearby got my attention and I was back. Bright lights at night, some coloured and flashing, voices, machinery throbbing, over there, away, and then someone spoke to me and I realised they were there for me.
They covered me with a blanket, to keep off the sparks, they said, while they did some cutting. I’d worked out by then that I was there, it was real and there was nothing I could do but live through it, so I left them to it. I knew by the calm confidence in their voices that I could leave my life in their hands, so I passed out again. They cut the side off the car, cut the seat, jacked up the dashboard and eased my body out of there. It took over an hour, I’m told, partly because one of their ‘jaws of life’ broke. That would explain the driver’s door looking a bit hacked up.
By the time I woke up on the stretcher, lying in darkness and a cool breeze, about to be slipped into the ambulance, I’d worked out that I’d had a car crash. I asked someone to straighten my leg so it would hurt less and he said sorry, can’t do that, and gave me more morphine.
The other driver got the chopper. Apparently Holden Commodore airbags don’t necessarily work after ten years. He was hurt worse, and ended up with twice as many pins and plates as me. Skyline vs Commodore, and Skyline wins!
He’s back home now, where they drive on the other side of the road. When he came around the corner and saw my headlights he tried to drive to the right of them. I swerved off the road but he hit me anyway, head-on. Shit happens. Sometimes very suddenly.
Waking up in a car wreck can happen to anyone who gets in a car. I’m very grateful that when the unlikely happened there were competent and experienced professionals and volunteers to gently extract my battered body and take me to hospital, to be put back together.
I came to enough when we got to the hospital to ask if a friend of mine was on duty. I babbled a bit. Her son was to have visited the farm tomorrow and I wanted to let him know I wouldn’t be home. So word got out that I’d had a big car crash. It was interesting later to track the news spreading. Now I have emergency contact numbers in my wallet and phone.
It was Friday night and I was stable so they left me sedated overnight and I had six hours of surgery the next day. Ankles, knees and wrists mostly, but there was no part of me that didn’t hit something hard. It was like falling into a car interior from a fourth floor balcony, while the car folds up around you. Brace for impact.
I woke up in a hospital bed, plastered, drugged and bandaged, with a high-pitched screaming in my ears that no-one else could hear. I couldn’t even look at the floor without headspins that left the room pitching and rolling. I hurt all over, but I was alive. They asked if I was thirsty.
“Take my Skyline” he said, “I’ve just had the air-con fixed.” So I left the Ford Festiva at home, and destroyed a beautiful Nissan Skyline Silhouette. I had repaired the front bumper bar and spoiler twice, keeping it beautiful. First when Simon hit it with a go-kart, and later Pete used it as a grader blade down a steep dirt road. But the day I drove it into Trevor, it looked great. And the air-con worked fine. Sorry, Pete.
That’s February 2009, and I’m still getting better. From the moment of impact my life became “someone else’s problem” and for years belonged to the medico-legal industry, but I’m over that now, free again.
A car wreck’s a hell of a place to wake up. Worth avoiding. But if you do find yourself the centre of flashing lights and sirens, relax, get good advice, and follow it. It can be a tough journey, but there are good people who can lead you home.
That was years ago. I sometimes bandage my ankles in the morning to get through the day better, and the tinnitus would drive me crazy if I thought about it too long, and a dozen other things I could complain about, but I’m still here and living a good life, at least for now. I’ve been working hard enough at healing. I had a loop of seat belt strap tied to a post, and pulled my ankle bones into place bit by bit over months, gently stretching and sometimes cracked back into place with a twist and heave. Very satisfying, Then bandage it tight and keep off it a while. I’m still working on it. So far so good. Although there are things I’ll never do again, I’ve found other things that are even more fun. I’m pretty happy with my life. Most importantly, I know that when the shit hits the fan, I have mates to stand by me, and medical and legal systems in this country that actually work.
A big car crash is a life-changing experience, like a reset button. You don’t get your life back how it was. There will be physical and emotional scarring. The challenge is to get your health back the best you can, and be properly compensated, and these are long-term goals. So first, relax. It’s a journey.
Lucky me, I was hit by someone properly insured, and it wasn’t my fault. Friends had a hard time believing I’d had a car crash, at first, but the explanation was simple. Tourist. Nice enough guy (we keep in touch) but it only takes a moment to make a really big mistake. That’s why motor vehicle insurance is compulsory. Cars are bloody dangerous, and even nice people can mess up.
After two weeks of lying around in hospital eating OK food and being X-rayed and monitored, a friend brought me a wheelchair, a red one with a sticking-out leg brace, and I was mobile. I probably should have, could have, ordered one up for myself, but I didn’t. The insurance company would have paid, but I was new at this, and simply thankful to my mate for the wheels. I could escape the noxious bowel disorder of my roomy. There was no point in lying around in hospital, so I got out.
My sister picked me up to take me home and care for me while I settled in to my newly-crippled life-style. It would be months before I could stand and walk, or totter. There are no prizes for healing quickly, just the risk of not healing properly. Healing takes time, and plenty of it.
When we got home, mates were finishing the ramp to the back door and the chain hanging in the bathroom, between the toilet and the bath. They had to take the door off the bathroom so I could get the chair in. With my one ‘good’ hand I could swing around a bit.
I was finally home from a day trip to visit friends, weeks late, and my Border Collie, Buddy, was not happy about my disappearance. He was desperately pleased to see me home again. Me too. He was a good dog.
I live just outside the hospital’s regional boundary, so they suggested I organise my own physio, occupational therapist, and psychologist. These things should be organised before leaving hospital. Before they would let me go I had to sign something saying I’d do that. They have a checklist. They like to have someone look at the place you’ll be staying and then get someone else to arrange handles in the bathroom and ramps and all, after applying to local council for a Development Application and applying for funding etc. Meanwhile, Back in the Real World, I was outta there asap.
Mates fixed up my place quickly and my sister stayed until I got into a routine. I live alone, but friends and neighbours visited to check on me and give a hand, and people I had not seen for some time turned up with food. Excellent. I had earlier stripped out the kitchen, polished the floors and was rebuilding the interior of the house, so there was a kitchen set up in the shed while the work was going on. It had been going on for a couple of years, so I also had a lounge and fireplace, satellite TV and sound system in the shed, and was pretty comfortable out there, on the cement floor, with a ramp up to the house. The renovations could wait.
I saw my GP. I had to order up a taxi that could take my wheelchair, and the sticking-out leg brace made it hard to get into his surgery, but after knowing him for so many years it was like asking advice from a mate. His advice was, like an old black dog crawling under the house to lick his wounds, I should go home and relax and take time to heal. So I did that. He gave me referrals to several physios, psychs and OTs and I rang them and made appointments with some.
I also rang lawyers. I was way out of my depth and, with head injuries, mentally sub-par. I needed help to get through this.
I got good advice from a friend who had been standing behind his ute beside the road, taking a leak on a big night out, when a young woman drove straight into him, and mashed him. The insurer made him an offer while still in hospital and he just signed and took the money, which was a lot. He had no idea of the problems he would face and did himself out of about a million dollars he ended up really needing when a post-op infection got into his spinal cord. He gave me a reality check, and I got a good lawyer.
The fourth firm I rang was the right one for me, and the woman I spoke to told me straight what I needed to know. She flew up from Sydney to see me and we talked and signed forms. It was obvious she knew her way around this strange land, and I felt in safe hands. Yes, there are good lawyers, and I found one.
The job of insurers is to avoid paying out. They work for their shareholders, to make a profit. Some health care professionals get on well with insurance companies, to mutual benefit. It’s an industry with its own reality, and I had landed in it, almost completely ignorant. Now that I am through that dark valley and back in the sunshine, I know that behind me, the same creatures feed on the next crop of unfortunates. Beware. Be very ware.
I had great support: physio twice a week, an Occupational Therapist with right attitude, an audiologist, and a psychologist I’d have had as a friend. I had a housekeeper, a shopping assistant, a gardener and a guy to deliver and chop wood. Sometimes I had to go through a few people before I got the right person for the job, but I soon had a good team, headed by a lawyer worthy of my admiration.
I had dozens of specialist visits, some arranged by my lawyer, some by the insurer’s lawyers, and some by my GP.
I took lots of taxis, and had a dozen flights to Sydney, sometimes tailed by a private investigator with a video camera. Yeah, I saw you, twice. I don’t resent paying for your services (I paid all the insurer’s expenses out of the settlement) but I’m annoyed that I had to fly to Sydney so some medico could ask me if I can read a book, after you watched me read outside a coffee shop. The insurers paid a neck specialist to ask if I could read, and he made it plain enough with his long preamble about how he was only interested in my neck mobility, that he was not happy about the extra question. It was demeaning for both of us, but standard practice in the insurance industry.
Some people fake injuries, and that’s fraud. Insurers are obliged to look closely at every claim. However, I saw no reason to put on a happy face for them. When they made me fly to Sydney, staying overnight, seeing a few specialists, taxis here and there, they never got me at my best. I was pretty sore and cranky. By the time some quack bent my knee to see how much it would bend I was ready to bend him. On the bright side, though, crutches are good for bypassing queues at airports.
The law (in Australia) says that a year after the accident I could be officially assessed, so a year and a day after, I had my first assessment. I had lots of injuries, and they were all listed and quantified as a percentage of ‘Whole Person Impairment’. All those little percentages, and a few larger, added up to 47%. For insurance purposes over 11% allows a higher range of compensation. My lawyer and I were pleased. Hurray, I’m fucked up! I was still the same person, with the same challenges, but the legal case was shaping up well.
Two things I wanted: my body back, and cash to take care of it into the unknown future. Then I could start living my life again. When a specialist said I’m about half the man I was, I was pleased, for my lawyer. Meanwhile, Back in the Real World…
I did the exercises and stretching, and it hurt. I tried to eat well and not smoke too much. I got sick of the wheelchair. My legs got skinny from lack of use. When I stood my ankle sounded like ZI was standing on dried Cornflakes. Crunchy. I strapped that ankle tight. I used pain medication so I could move naturally and not get into cripple habits, like limping. I got walking and driving again. I bought an automatic Subaru with cruise control and lots of airbags.
Before the crash I was fit, so I did well in the ‘brace for impact’ competition. I couldn’t do it again. Every bit of me got pushed to breaking point, or over. But I survived, and now I’m back.
When my OT suggested I get a clearance from my GP to drive again, I did that without question. Get good advice and follow it. I’ve known my GP twenty years. When he was filling out the form he asked about my eyesight and I joked that I could make out oncoming cars enough to miss them, and he said “obviously not.” Funny guy.
When the insurer accepted that compensation was inevitable, and only the amount was in question, they paid an advance of ten thousand dollars. I should have asked for at least twice that. I was going broke quickly.
Friends helped me out with loans. I got by, and could afford to wait for suitable settlement rather than take an early offer. I left that to my lawyer and got on with getting better.
It was good to get driving again, but one day on a quiet bit of freeway, just driving along, my busted bits ached like a physical memory of the crash. I got over that, but it was interesting. Once when I walked into a local shop they said they were surprised to see me. They’d heard I died. Someone with a similar name was buried soon after the crash, hence the confusion. It was interesting to be ‘back from the dead.’
Thankfully I didn’t have to get driven places any more. I really didn’t like getting into a car with a driver with beery breath, like the shopping guy I had to let go. Then there was the woman who drove me in a limo to a psych appointment with her arms crossed, hands on the wrong sides of the steering wheel. I pointed out that she’s not really in control of the car like that. She disagreed. I said that I’d been flown overseas a couple of times to drive for a wealthy American (in NZ) because he liked the way I drove, and that as a paid driver I watched my passengers for tension. She didn’t care that I was recovering from a big car crash. Incompetent. She got to drive because she owned the company, but she wasn’t good at it.
I lost two years of my life, but I could be dead or severely crippled. Every time someone gets in a car there’s a chance they won’t get where they’re going. When accidents happen there are systems set up to make things better. These systems aren’t the kind of thing where you wander in and get what you want. You must have good advice, and follow it. I found a good lawyer and did what she said, when she said. I worked with my physio, talked to the shrink and listened to the OT. Gotta do what ya gotta do.
My main mission in life was to get better and get satisfaction. I got good advice and followed it. Not just any advice, I shopped around for competent professionals that I trusted personally. Sometimes I had to do stuff I thought was dumb, but I did what I had to do and got on with my life. It was a great day when I got my life back, with settlement and a fat cheque. One trip down that dark valley and I’m outta there. I photocopied the cheque and framed it with a picture of the wreck. Been there, done that. Move on.
I have a new appreciation for my body and how it works, and the medico/legal jungle and how that works. Get good advice and follow it. Then, when you get your life back, live it, because life is to be lived. I had a bucket list with scuba diving, skydiving, car racing, motor bikes, catamarans, land sailers and other stuff and I’d done it all before the crash. When I first met my lawyer she said she’d make me enough money to get well and go paragliding. Now I own a paraglider, got my license, and I fly.
Remember, the most dangerous part of paragliding is driving home afterwards, so please take just a little more care. The life you save might be mine, and there is much fun yet to be had.
With special thanks to:
Kristel Hacker, of CMC Lawyers
Nigel Pitman and the crew at Ocean Shores Physiotherapy
Ilse van Oostenbrugge, physiotherapist and trainer
Kieran Riordan, psychologist, of Infinitely Well at Mullumbimby