Three weeks after his twenty-first birthday a young man entered a pool competition at New South Wales’ Southern Cross University bar. He’d been drinking with friends throughout the afternoon but his mind was clear. The pool cue was steady in hand. He was not a highly accomplished player but, for whatever reason, on this evening his every shot was a winner. He laughed, joked, drained beer after beer, eliminated all comers and, as surprised as anyone else he made his way into the final match. He won.
Cheered on by his friends at the bar he climbed onto a nearby table to perform an impromptu celebratory victory dance, but the table was less stable than had been his pool playing. His weight shifted as he slid across its slick, beer-covered surface. As the table began to tip beneath him he moved to steady himself against the adjacent window, not realising that on that particular warm, subtropical autumn evening the long, sliding glass wall had been retracted. Out he went, landing gracelessly on the concrete almost 30 feet below.
His family, scattered around Australia, learned gradually of this incident, via a series of relayed phone calls from the university to the young mans father informing him there had been an accident in which his son had sustained a broken arm. The second round of phone calls began a few minutes later. Apparently he had sustained more than a broken arm. The third, now frantic call was to confirm that the injured man had been airlifted to Brisbane and the family should come to the hospital. No more information was given.
It is well understood in Australia that it takes a lot more than a broken arm to get a free helicopter ride to the nearest state capital. Also well known is that when a family’s presence is requested by a hospital, but no specific information is given over the phone, the patient in question is dead, or expected to be very soon.
From all directions, the family mobilised. I was with my girlfriend in outback Queensland. We called a few friends and colleagues, informed them we wouldn’t be at work for a while, threw some clothes in a bag and five minutes later we were in the car. It was about 10pm. There was no time, luckily, to think. Rather, I concentrated on the road as we tore across the Queensland plains, stopping only for fuel, caffeine and one speeding ticket. Covering the 1200 kilometres in less than nine hours we reached Brisbane with the morning sun.
Having not slept for 24 hours I was running on autopilot. As functional and lucid as could be expected, I felt very much awake, though numb at the same time and everything around me was a blur. One thing I do remember very well though; upon mentioning my brother’s name at the front desk, the attending hospital staff looked at me in a manner I had never seen before.
My girlfriend and I were immediately taken to see another doctor who quietly told us to prepare ourselves. We went into the room. My only brother had suffered a broken neck and fractured skull. His spine was crushed, most ribs broken and both legs, in various places, smashed. He had also, defying all doctors’ expectations, survived through the night.
My girlfriend had been brilliant, keeping the car stereo cranked, cracking jokes, feeding me cans of Red Bull as I drove like a maniac, and reassuring me that everything would be fine. She was not prepared for what we saw now however and had to leave the room.
My brother was completely immobilised. His head was locked firmly in place by an awful looking metal device. His body, we were told, was strapped firmly to the bed under the sheet that covered him from the neck down. Almost unbelievably, had not so much as a scratch on his face. After just a few seconds he opened his eyes. He regained focus, found me above him and gave me a weak smile.
“Hey… man! How’s it going?”
“Not bad mate,” I said. “Thought we’d drop in and say g’day. How you doin’?”
“Bit fucked up, I reckon”.
“Yeah, I heard”.
The doctor looked us back and forth, apparently having expected a very different interaction. She didn’t know my family however, or how we deal with crisis. I on the other hand had known my brother all his life. He was my best friend, and I saw something the doctors could not.
His body had been smashed. He’d already undergone surgery through the night, acquiring a shiny new titanium bracket in his neck, and would be having several more major surgeries as soon as the doctors thought his body could handle it. They would later quietly admit their astonishment at his survival (though this was already obvious). I was no longer worried. I knew immediately when he opened his eyes that morning that the thought of dying hadn’t once crossed his mind.
He opened his eyes again and his immobilised face somehow contorted with pain I could never imagine. He could only move his eyes, and one thumb, which frantically pressed the time-release morphine button taped to his hand. He couldn’t speak. A few seconds later his eyes glazed over and he passed out. Five minutes later he awoke.
“Hey… man! How’s it going?”
“Not bad mate,” I said. “Thought we’d drop in and say g’day. How you doin’?”
We repeated our 15-second conversation every five minutes for much of the next few days as he lapsed in and out of consciousness. The immediate family arrived from various parts of the country, and my brother’s girlfriend from uni. We took shifts with him around the clock, having been told that visiting hours did not apply to us. The doctors were still unsure he could survive.
Later my brother would confess to having no memory of that first week, except for some inspirational conversations he’d had with a mysterious, elusive man who had shared wisdom, humour, giving my brother hope and the resolve to survive. Mine is not a religious family, though I personally do believe in something unknowable, and far greater than our opposable-thumbed selves. Whatever the case, it would be a while before my brother learned that the wisdom, humour and the resolve to survive this ordeal had come from within. Delirious on painkillers, he had from the corner of his eye been conversing regularly with the large oxygen tank standing next to his bed.
We were told that my brother was now a quadriplegic. Astonishingly, four days after his injury the doctors had him standing and slowly walking on his smashed right leg, in an agony I could not bear to watch. The doctors explained that the technical diagnosis of paraplegia/quadriplegia is related to injuries to specific sections of the spinal chord. While damage to the cervical spinal chord at the segments named C1-C8 (resulting in quadriplegia) almost inevitably results in paralysis from the neck down, this is not always the case as is commonly believed. My brother, who now looked increasingly like surviving his injuries (I did not doubt he would), was now one of the world’s very few functional quadriplegics. We were also told however that one small shock could still paralyse him permanently, if not kill him.
As astonished as anyone was a cousin of ours, who is a surgeon in Sydney. Furious at the doctors’ unconventional approach (getting the patient standing and walking so soon – I guess as a measure to ward against atrophy… not sure), he demanded my brother be airlifted to another hospital in Sydney, which had a well reputed spinal unit and where he would be closer to friends and family.
I won’t go into detail about the next couple of years, spent in intensive care, then living in the spinal unit at Prince Henry Hospital, then intensive hydrotherapy, then being released and living with family in a wheelchair.
“Watch this,” he said, the first time I took him out. “They’ll only talk to me through you”.
He was right. People would open doors for us, say hello to me, and smile at him. At a bar or restaurant, staff would ask me what he would like to order. It was weird. He almost always stayed in good humour, and only occasionally got annoyed, when he felt overly patronised.
“They think I’m a fucking imbecile!” he’d tell me. Then to them…
“Do you think a guy with a broken leg somehow isn’t capable of ordering his own fucking beer mate?” After flustered apologies, my brother would then return an apology for his rudeness, and raise his glass to them.
After the wheelchair came the walking stick… and always more operations, putting various brackets and metal parts in him, but more often taking them out. He still has some kind of special card or something from the hospital, instructing airport staff not to strip-search him because he is somewhat metallic.
There was a court case of course. The university and its army of lawyers set about proving their duty of care; that they did not break any laws relating to the sale of alcohol to intoxicated persons, and that the large section of missing wall in the second-floor bar was not at all hazardous to the constant horde of drunken university students (coincidentally enough though, they did almost immediately bolt shut the huge section of sliding glass wall, and extended the outside deck around that side of the building). One of my brother’s tasks during all of this was to take an intelligence test, to determine whether his injuries had caused any long-term neurological damage. I was in Sydney at the time.
Our mother told him, “Remember, you have an important test tomorrow, so get plenty of rest and I’ll make you a healthy breakfast in the morning”.
“You’ve got to be kidding, mum!” I said. “I’m taking him into the city – we’re gonna get hammered!”
My mother realised what I meant… it would not be in my brother’s best interest to ace this particular test.
“Oh… well you just bring him back in one piece,” she said with a wry look.
I did bring my brother home in one piece that night, at about 4am, a few hours before he had to go back to the city to take his IQ test. The results were soon made available, and they were not encouraging with regard to their usefulness for his court case.
“What the hell do mean, genius level? Are you fucking stupid or what?!” I yelled at him.
We all had a good laugh – even mum, who isn’t a fan of excessive swearing.
Anyway, that fateful game of pool happened in 1997 and the reason I tell this story now is because my brother took up karate as a hobby a couple of years ago. His natural sense of determination and focus was already not under dispute, and as it turns out he also has a bit of a gift for karate. Only a few months into his new hobby, he began working part-time as an instructor for beginners. A few months ago, he punched through wooden boards for the first time (I had always thought one needs to study and train for many years to achieve this feat, preferably under the guidance of a wise old Japanese man… apparently not).
At his particular discipline and level (Red Belt), he quietly went about winning the New South Wales State Championship, and was subsequently invited to Melbourne to compete for the National title. In October 2012, my brother Neal won the Bronze medal at the Australian National Championships, and to my knowledge is the only fully functional quadriplegic karate champion on Earth.
Neal plans soon to advance to the Brown Belt, before attaining his Black Belt. Those who know him are not in doubt he will succeed with minimal fuss or fanfare.
Incidentally, Neal is also an IT specialist and educator, the creator and maintainer of this website and fifty percent of the two-person team known as Peninsularity Ensues.