New start after surfing accident

By Kiri Gillespie


Three months after she broke her neck in a freak accident, Tauranga woman Amanda Lowry is finally home.

But the house isn't the same. Nothing is.

The mottled glass doors that greet you from the spacious 1980s central Tauranga unit is not the 1960s weatherboard Brookfield home where Ms Lowry built a deck with her dad or cooked with vegetables from her bursting garden patch.

Ms Lowry, her partner Gemma Holroyd, and their daughter Lola, 4, are living a different kind of life.

Little 3-month-old Ziggy is too young to realise what has happened. She was only six days old when Ms Lowry's life as she knew it was snatched from her during a surfing accident at Mount Maunganui beach.

The active and keen kiteboarder nearly died when she hit a sandbar and broke her neck. Ms Lowry has been adjusting to life as a tetraplegic since recovering at Auckland Spinal Rehabilitation Unit. Last week, she and her young family returned home.

Sitting at her dining table, Ms Lowry takes a sip of coffee from a takeaway-style cup. She uses the base of her palms and wrist movements to do so. The cup is important because she has no sensation in her palm to know if she is burning herself when using regular tea cups.

"The thing with this kind of injury is my temperature system is all messed up," she says.

Ms Lowry has no movement from the chest down, and limited use of her hands. Without stomach or core muscles she is often strapped to her wheelchair to prevent her from falling forward. But there are glimmers of hope. She can feel muted touches on her torso, where she could not before. She is also gaining more movement in her arms and hands when doctors initially said it was unlikely she would be able to. She has become an expert at manoeuvring her wheelchair with the base of her palms "because my fingers are too floppy".

But she knows, and is grateful for, how miraculous her recovery is. "Tetras" like her usually stay in spinal units for at least six months before they go home, she says.

The fact she and her family have been able to return to Tauranga is a milestone filled with mixed emotion.

She confesses she "bawled" at the couple's first visit back to their Brookfield home.

"This Tauranga reminds me of everything I was. We drive along the road, I'm like 'Lola and I used to bike along there, laughing and happy and engaged with this beautiful place, and now I'm trapped in my body, trapped in this chair," she says.

"There's some grief attached to that. That's the tricky part."

One of the hardest things is the knowledge that despite the wheelchair-friendly unit they have moved into, the family can no longer live in their home.

"This place is great but our house, it's our love, it's our passion. Gemma and I, we spent seven years creating this beautiful little place, making it all about hospitality because I'm a chef, everybody's welcome, it's all about the food.

"So now I come into this kitchen with extra high benches and all this stuff that was about the past."

Tears begin to well again as she stares from the table to her new, accessible kitchen, and shares dreams of teaching polytechnic students chef skills from her new home.

"The best way to put it is in order to move on you have to let go of what you were in order to become what you might be," she says.

Sounds of a pre-schooler laughing with her mother and baby sister bubble out from the room next door.

"I do it for them, for my babies," Ms Lowry says.

"I need to be present and the best I can be to fully engage in their lives."

It was April 7 when Ms Lowry was surfing with a friend Miguel, wasting time before his paraglide later that afternoon, when everything changed.

"I remember absolutely clear, no pain. I heard my neck snap, absolutely clear, like done and dusted. From that moment, the only thing that held my neck together was my spinal cord."

Ms Lowry was catching the last wave before they would head in and dived off her board.

"It should have been deep and it wasn't, I hit a sand bar.

"I tried to push myself out of the water and I couldn't. Then I could see my hands floating in front of my face because it was real clear . Then I realised I'm going to have to choose between taking a breath of water or holding my breath. I was thinking I'd choose breathe in water, because I heard that's a nice way to go, but all the time I'm going 'look up Miguel, look up Miguel, look up Miguel' because he's on the beach with Lola. 'Look up, look up, look up' and then he did look up and turned me over before I needed to breathe in, so there was none of this drowning business.

"He had his hands under my armpits and had my head cradled in his elbows, and yeah, he got me up the beach on the surfboard ... dragged me up the beach then the ambulance came."

X-rays of Ms Lowry's spine revealed an S-bend-like break. The vertebra was severed to such an extent the doctors called it a 110 per cent dislocation - either end had come away so far they were no longer touching.

On the black and white copies of the X-rays, Ms Lowry's vertebrae resembled lego pieces with her spinal cord running through the centre.

Ms Lowry confesses she struggles with being so dependent on caregivers and her partner, who balances running her business Movement Unlimited, while looking after baby Ziggy, Lola and Ms Lowry.

"I just want for her to have some joy without having to look after me all the time." A major part in Ms Lowry's recovery, and the family's ability to live again in Tauranga, has come from the efforts of the community, she says.

More than $46,000 has been raised. Ms Lowry says the support and love shown has been overwhelming.

The couple attended a fundraising event in their honour on Thursday night. ACC helps pay for 80 hours of care a week.

It's still too early to say if Ms Lowry will walk again but she is determined to do everything in her power to make it so, including booking in for a possible hand operation to allow her better dexterity and grip.

"I have absolute faith I will not stay like this, nah. I have time, we have time."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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