Our People: Pastor takes disability in his stride

By Jill Nicholas

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ACTIVE: Pastor Timothy Lee enjoys "strolling" in the Redwoods.PHOTO/STEPHEN PARKER
ACTIVE: Pastor Timothy Lee enjoys "strolling" in the Redwoods.PHOTO/STEPHEN PARKER

Who doesn't sympathise with our newest columnist Laura Stuart - the victim of the horrendous accident that's paralysed her? Timothy Lee goes further, he can truly empathise with her plight.

On May 31, 2010, he too crashed off a mountain bike, also in the Redwood Forest; it left him with tetraplegia. Make note of that word, Timothy insists we use it. We're under strict instructions not to brand him a tetraplegic, he can't abide the term, to him it implies he's a helpless cripple.

"In my profession [he's a registered Baptist church pastor] it's important people are loved and accepted for who they are, that they aren't put in a box." It's a statement he delivers with the "don't-mess-with-me" determination that Laura's already exhibiting.

He may be confined to an electrically operated wheelchair equipped with all sorts of electronic gizmos and gadgets, but name an action-man activity and Timothy's bound to have had a crack at it, or intends to. He sails, "strolls" in the Redwoods, is a physio pool regular "I can now stand up in the water for five minutes unaided", has para-sailed, holidayed on the Gold Coast and been up in a chopper (hauling him on board was as tricky as completing a Rubik's cube blindfolded).

He's a "frequent flyer" on the gondolas, (he's realistic about the luge "but never say never") and has free-wheeled from Ngongotaha to town to keep a mate on a mobility scooter company.

We could go on - but you'll have the picture. Timothy Lee's body may be immobile but so what?

To return to that word "empathise". As soon as he read this newspaper's account of Laura's admission to the Otara Spinal Unit he did what he does best - personally delivered realistic words of encouragement.

"I told her how I wrestled with frustration, grief, that you need time to process the grief because of the losses you experience, they're very real and continue to be so."

The two hadn't previously met but Timothy knows her present abode well - it was his for three and a half months after 42 days in Middlemore Hospital's ICU, 10 in a coma. "It was touch and go, horrendous for my wife Jenny and sons."

For quite some time his survival was doubtful; he suffered severe spinal cord and neck injuries, broke his nose, peeled back his scalp, dislocated his jaw and his left eye socket was rammed into his face. "I had no broken limbs that's a miracle, God was in the detail ... definitely, another miracle was when this Samoan cleaner put her hand on my shoulder and said 'God's not finished with you yet', it felt as if He was speaking to me directly. I was convinced she was an angel, a reminder God hadn't deserted me."

If there are any pluses to his mega smash, they're that he was biking with a surgeon neighbour, albeit of the ear, nose and throat variety. Another neighbour was the on-duty anaesthetist when he arrived at hospital. "We've lovely neighbours, two of them kept me alive."

Catastrophes of Timothy's kind are best recounted first-hand. This is his graphic account of the crash that robbed him of the use of his limbs and trunk.

"I was coming down the exit trail, had three options, took the most daring. I believe I went right over [the handlebars], smashed into a tree, I remember waking up down a bank in a very uncomfortable position, couldn't move, knew something was seriously wrong. I didn't feel at all agitated, I felt at peace, the presence of God was with me ... firemen came and fished me out.

"When I was in theatre they told Jenny if I survived I could be on a ventilator for the rest of my life."

Rotorua Hospital could only do so much, Middlemore was where he needed to be but a slow road trip was out. "The weather was against us, it was two days before the helicopter could take off."

The high point (if it can be called that) of Timothy's ICU stay was the day his tracheotomy tube was removed.

When he could again talk, Jenny and her sister broke the news he'd never walk again. "I said, 'I'm content with that as long as I can still preach'."

When Timothy crashed, the Lees had been in Rotorua almost two years, arriving when he was appointed to a senior pastoral position at the Malfroy Rd Baptist church. He stepped down last September, but his work continues.

"I love serving people: I took two weddings this summer, enjoy relationship coaching, am presently training for clinical pastoral work at the hospital."

A committed Christian since he was 11 "when God touched my life", he trained at the Palmerston North-based Bible College of New Zealand.

His previous working life had been as an agricultural diesel mechanic, that was until he and Jenny went on their OE.

"One of my jobs was fixing London taxis, their engines are the same as Massey Ferguson tractors." Now that's a wee gem for Trivial Pursuit enthusiasts to store away.

He takes us back to his post-accident days and the type of spinal unit care Laura's receiving.

"It [the unit] is holistic, they assign you a whole team of specialists, physio, dietician, social worker, occupational therapist, psychiatrist; I had a full shrink test, I'm stubborn, I passed."

Timothy sends us on our way with a stern command: "Make it plain I'm just a Kiwi bloke, I don't want accolades for myself but, if I can make a difference for others, that's one of the greatest of God's purposes."

- Rotorua Daily Post

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