Imagine if, one day, you nearly died

By Annemarie Quill


Imagine if, one day, you nearly died. ANNEMARIE QUILL meets three local ladies whose spirit of survival is a reminder to savour each moment and not sweat the small stuff.

Writer Jenny Rudd lives at the Mount with her husband, 5-year-old son and 3-year-old twin daughters. Eleven years ago in her hometown in England, she nearly died in a head-on collision between two motorbikes. She was riding pillion. Both riders died. Jenny was left with serious injuries and her right arm was paralysed. Many who know Jenny don't even know it, such is her zest for life.

Jenny: It was a dark December afternoon. I shared a flat with two other girls. Our friend Wiz had passed his motorbike test a week earlier. He had come over for the evening and suggested we go for a ride before dinner.

Watching me do up the helmet, my flatmate Rachel came outside and readjusted it to fit properly.

I don't remember the collision. I was lying on the pavement and people were running around me.

I could only hear water - I thought I must be in a river. It was the sound of rain pouring down a drain. I remember the ambulance men cutting off my clothes and I was upset about my favourite jeans being ruined.

I couldn't think properly and didn't know if I was answering questions with speech or just in my head.

My mother and brother had been called to the hospital as my parents lived nearby. The staff gently told my mother it was entirely possible I might not make it and that it was likely I'd be left with brain damage. My father drove up from his work Christmas party in London.

When my mum said she didn't know where Wiz was, I didn't question it. My brain couldn't make the connection. My Dad told me I was going to have an operation to put plates and screws in my right arm and leg. I was frightened. When I asked my Dad if the operation would hurt, he said: "You've already had it. It took 10 hours and now you are going to be in intensive care for a while." My smashed rib cage had punctured a lung and it was hard to breathe. [I asked] "Where's Wiz?" My mum leaned over and said: "It was a really bad accident, Jenny."

When I came off the bike, I had smashed my head on the ground, the helmet came off and the force wrenched the cord of nerves from my spine leading to my right arm. Both bones in my forearm were broken and the wrist dislocated. My right thigh broke, several ribs were broken and my lung was punctured and collapsed. I was lucky to receive fairly new surgery where nerves were removed from both legs and placed in the damaged nerve cord in my neck to encourage new growth. The arm has remained mainly paralysed but I have some good movement in my fingers.

So many people I have known for ages don't even know about my arm. When they find out, they often think I'm kidding and are then embarrassed they hadn't noticed. I don't mind at all. I made a decision soon after the accident to get on with life as soon as possible. Happiness doesn't depend on each body part working to full capacity, but rather your brain being well. Equally, there is quite a lot of sadness tied up in my arm from my friend's death at just 19 years old, so I moved to London, worked as a trader, then went backpacking and met my husband here in New Zealand whilst travelling.

It was hard at the beginning with my son as I was nervous about picking him up, feeding him and bathing him, but my husband did most of it until I got the hang of things. I feel incredibly fortunate to have a loving family, a house to live in and a full life to lead.

***

Early childhood teacher Sara Bullick lives with partner Pete and baby son Hunter in an idyllic farm setting in Galatea. But three years ago, Sara lay hooked up to a ventilator in intensive care when she was struck by a mysterious virus that almost left her paralysed for life.

Sara: Back in 2009, life was going great. I had started training as an early childhood teacher. I was thinking of going travelling around the world when I finished as I had never done the big OE. I had been with my partner Pete for eight months.

I was sitting in the floor in the baby room where I worked when my joints felt sore. I noticed I was having difficulty getting up and down. I just thought I must have pulled a muscle. The following day I went to reach something and could hardly lift my arms above my head. I went to the doctor and was sent to hospital. They thought it was tonsillitis and sent me home with antibiotics.

That night, I could hardly move. My mum called an ambulance. They suspected Guillain-Barre - a rare virus that affects your whole system. I was taken to ICU where I began to deteriorate. I struggled to breathe. Pete was there and I remember saying goodbye to him. They told me they were going to ventilate me - I thought they meant put on an oxygen mask but it was the full Monty, with tubes, and I was rushed to intensive care. I didn't know, but my body was shutting down.

I was in a coma for two weeks and then transferred to a high-dependency unit in Waikato.

There, the bleak diagnosis sunk in. Guillain-Barre syndrome can even cause death or, at least, paralysis. People who recover take years and rarely return to their former selves. There was a woman there who had been in the ward for a year. I thought there is no way that will be me.

I forced myself to do exercises and raced through the rehab. I had to relearn how to do everything - right down to learning to talk, walk, and dress myself.

I started back at work about six months after I got sick. Then I fell pregnant nearly straight away.

Pete and I were shocked but happy at the same time, as we think everything happens for a reason.

Hunter was born on August 23, 2010, by caesarean section, 8.5 pounds (3.8kg), a healthy boy.

Now my outlook on life is different. I'm currently in the last year of my teaching degree. Life is way too short and if you're not happy, do something about it. Make some changes and be positive.

***

At 50 years old, Karen Holmes might be the envy of other women her age. She looks years younger. In the last seven years, she has completed the Coast to Coast and run three marathons - New York, the Great Wall of China and the Mototapu in Wanaka. Remarkable given that seven years ago, her body lay crushed under the wheels of a truck in a cycling accident that almost took her life.

Karen: It was the week before Christmas in December 2004. I'd been training for my first Coast to Coast, seven weeks away - a 243km race from the West Coast across the Southern Alps to Christchurch.

It was a blustery, drizzly day. As I was approaching the harbour bridge, the traffic was stationary. I rode past a truck and, as it merged into the traffic, it clipped me. I remember sliding under the truck, seeing the wheels come towards me. In a split second, I flicked my head out of the way but the wheels ran over my right side. I didn't feel pain at first but when it kicked in it was horrendous.

I broke my shoulder, my collar bone, hip, pelvis, sacrum, ankle, foot, ribs, dislocated my knee and lacerated my liver. The worst was the metal frame of the bike tore through my femoral artery and vein.

Looking back, I could have bled to death right there. By amazing luck, following a few cars behind was urology surgeon Mark Fraundorfer.

My blood pressure was dropping alarmingly and when the paramedics arrived, he wouldn't let them move me until more fluid was given to me. I was told later it probably saved my life.

In the hospital, they didn't think I was going to make it. I was told they might not be able to save my right leg.

We had lost Dad nine months earlier and while I was in intensive care, it felt as if he was there with me.

I had to have several operations and was in hospital for a long time. In January, Coast to Coast organiser Robin Judkins agreed to let me transfer the $835 entry fee to the 2006 event.

If I couldn't do it then I would lose the fee. It wasn't about the money, but at that moment I set the goal - I would be ready to compete in the Coast to Coast in a year's time.

Rehab was excruciatingly painful, but by May 28 I went for my first cycle. I was terrified to get back on the bike. From then on, I trained hard.

In the end I completed the race in 21 hours, eight minutes and 10 seconds. Tears were shed at the finish.

I haven't let the accident define me, but it has changed my outlook on life.I appreciate family and friends and each moment, as life is all too short. When it's a beautiful day, I take time to go out and enjoy life.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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