Battered a year ago, 'Robocop' runs again

By Kiri Gillespie

A year ago, Te Puke Senior Sergeant Deirdre Lack lay broken and battered in Tauranga Hospital after a horrific car smash. Surgeons said it was unlikely she would ever run again. Twelve months on, Lack has her running shoes at the ready and is about to embark on her first triathlon since that fateful morning. She tells Kiri Gillespie about her road to recovery.

'Honestly, I shouldn't be here."

And if it was anyone else, they wouldn't be.

A year ago, Te Puke's top cop Deirdre Lack nearly died in a horror head-on car smash just north of the township.

It had just gone 4.30am on December 22, 2010. Lack was driving to the gym for an early morning workout. It was a trip she made at least twice a week for seven years.

She remembers pulling out of her driveway in the dark. She remembers pulling on to SH2 and heading toward Papamoa.<inline type="recurring-inline" id="1003" align="outside" enforce-sites="no" />

Lack does not remember the silver sedan sweeping down the road toward her, or it crossing the centre line near the notorious Manoeka Rd turn off. Driver Daniel Longney would later admit falling asleep at the wheel.

Lack woke days later with her devastated parents and boss, Western Bay area commander Inspector Michael Clement, at her bedside.

Surgeons said it was unlikely Lack would ever run again.

Twelve months on at Te Puke's police station, Lack celebrates the anniversary of that fateful morning by shouting cake for her "police family".

The Senior Sergeant sits back in her chair at her desk eager for her first triathlon since her world turned upside down.

A gym bag sits off to the side, ready and waiting for knock-off time.

Deep scars on her forearms are the only indication of the crash that nearly claimed her life and robbed her from taking part in the triathlon last year.

Lack runs her finger over a 20cm line that runs on the inside of her right forearm. She smiles.

"They're looking quite good, they are beginning to fade, I think."

At times, Lack jokes the scars are from a machete attack but in reality they are a visual reminder of how far she has come.

Lack's broken body was trapped in the mangled wreck of her red Nissan Wingroad for about an hour. Shocked firefighters and ambulance paramedics - all close workmates of Lack's - were desperate to do whatever they could to cut her free and get her to hospital. Inspector Clement sat inside the wreck with her, holding her hand.

Surgeons would go on to spend nine hours working on her. Lack has so much metal inside holding her bones together that her workmates have nicknamed her "Robocop". It's possibly a more flattering version of "freak" which she was initially called due to her astoundingly quick recovery.

"They called me freak, but in a good way."

Lack has returned to the Te Puke police station this week after taking a week off to spend with her mum Robyn Lack in Melbourne, who was Lack's rock during her gruelling recovery - taking her daughter to physio every day and caring for her when she eventually left Tauranga Hospital.

The pre-Christmas trip to Australia was their way of spending a summer together, since last year's was spent in a hospital room.

Lack will be working through the festive season, with the exception of Christmas Day, which she will spend with her parents in her hometown of Rotorua.

"It will be a special one," she says.

Last year, Lack spent December 25 broken, bed-ridden and barely conscious.

"I remember talking on Christmas Day to Mike [Clement] and Mum. For some reason I couldn't see, it was probably the drugs. Mum said my eyes were just staring out," she says.

"It must have just been the trauma."

Surgeons told Lack the extreme shock her body had gone through was probably at the maximum level any body could take "because of all the blood loss and broken bones".

Lack broke 15-17 bones; she's not sure on the exact number. Some bones were broken in multiple places while others almost get put into a sort of sundry category - "I think there was a toe".

"I had three [breaks] to the left ankle which has got a hell of a lot of steel in it. The femur broke in two places, my arms broke here, here and here," she says, gesturing to her upper and lower arms.

"I broke my pelvis, then my fingers ... everything."

The past year is peppered with miraculous milestones.

Lack spent about 10 weeks in Tauranga Hospital before stunning doctors with an early discharge in March. She remained bound to a wheelchair but went to the pool with her mother every day for physio. In less than a month she was back on her feet and continuing her training every day.

"I got out [of the wheelchair] about 4th of April," she says.

"I was in crutches by about the 23rd of April and marching in the Anzac Day parade here. Then by the 2nd of May, I was back here and rostered on light duties."

She confesses she probably should have waited until her leg "got the clear" but by July 7 Lack completed her police physical competency test. It was the goal she had been aiming for.

And in just three days, Lack will take part in her first triathlon since the crash.

Lack has already hit the athletic circuit since the crash. She won the women's title at the Open Water Swim at Lake Karapiro this month but almost brushes it off as if it was no mean feat. She has her eyes set on something bigger - the "Surfbreaker".

The Mount Maunganui triathlon is the same one Lack had been training for the morning the crash happened.

"I've done it every other year. I wasn't thinking of doing it this year but, well I'm feeling quite good. I might as well do Surfbreaker, just to see how I can go."

Surprisingly, the worst outcome from the horrific crash was not the broken bones or amount of metal that has had to be inserted in her skin - it was new skin forming on her feet.

The trauma was such that Lack's feet swelled to such a point they needed vitamin E cream rubbed in as the skin began to dry out and crack.

New skin came through well enough, but when Lack tried walking it was agony.

"I had painful feet for weeks, man that was painful," she says.

"It was like a little baby's feet. I had to toughen them up. It seems quite minor compared to all of the injuries but yeah, it was quite painful."

Now Lack's focus is rebuilding her muscle, and she is 95 per cent there.

Lack confesses her training routine is "regimented", but it is her saviour.

Every morning she completes two hours of bike training before work and after her shift she completes 40 minutes worth of stretches and weights on the days she doesn't run 5km.

In September, Lack attended her first fatal car crash since coming back on to duty. A small single-cab truck collided with another vehicle at the Waiari Stream Bridge and killed an 18-year-old man and injured two others.

At the time Lack was calm, confident, and very much in control as she directed emergency services and emotional witnesses gathered around the scene.

She received more than 100 cards while in hospital, and still gets asked about her wellbeing when out on the job.

"It really helps, you know. Just knowing there are people out there who care about how you are going, it makes a big difference."

Even a near-fatal car collision can't hold this Robocop down.

"I love it, I love this job."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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