Chapter 4

Going Through Hell

If you’re going through hell, keep going.
                                           – Winston Churchill

Settling Down with Jenny

I spent most of 1990 and 1991 settling down to a new domestic life with Jenny. My Grandad Bob O’Connell died around this time and Jenny and I moved into what had been his home at 70 Mount Peter Road in Edmonton.

Having previously hurt my back playing Rugby League, during 1990 I got back into fitness, running in the afternoons to supplement my daily weights work-outs at the gym. As time passed Jenny, once a reluctant participant, began to enjoy our visits to the gym.

There was a motive behind my fitness drive, I wanted to be in top shape for my wedding, which was only 4 weeks away. Jenny and I also wanted to look good and be fit for our honeymoon in Tasmania, where we intended to make up for all the food and alcohol we had been denying ourselves over recent weeks. Jenny had recently started accompanying me to the gym, highly motivated to fit into her wedding dress and look her best on her big day. I felt terrific. As summer approached, I was stronger and fitter than any other time in my life. I was not just strong, I felt indestructible.

1 December 1991

The first day of December 1991 saw what I thought was the destruction of all my dreams and aspirations. This day would determine what my future could hold and what it could not. I had no reason to expect that this balmy Saturday morning held anything out of the ordinary, yet my life was about to be changed in dramatic fashion.

It was a Saturday and I had hoped for a day of rest. Jenny’s father, Andy, and his wife, Dianne, had organised a trip on his sailing boat. I was looking forward to it. We arrived at Jenny’s parents’ house around 11 a.m. and headed to the boat ramp. Andy’s 21-footer was his pride and joy. I had never been one for boats, but it seemed a relaxing enough way to spend the day. A few minutes after launching the boat we were at sea, sailing out of Trinity Inlet.

We all do things occasionally without giving much thought to the outcome. We make decisions that we later realise were wrong. On this day, in a fraction of a second, I made a decision that would change the rest of my life more than I ever could have imagined.  I had done a lot of silly things in my life, but never came off the worse for wear. I never had to be careful, terrible things just did not happen to me.

I can’t give a reason for what happened next. It was certainly hot, and that undoubtably had something to do with it. I stood, took a breath and I dived out of the boat.  I remember the water was muddy, so I attempted the shallowest of dives. As the boat was still moving, I reasoned there had to be a fair depth of water, but on the whole, I guess I never gave the matter much thought before diving off.

As I entered the water, I felt the top of my head hit something hard. The impact felt no greater than a solid wack, there was no great pain involved, and initially I thought I was just stunned and would recover in a couple of seconds. However I floated face down in the water, staring at the sand bar below me, unable to move my body, I began to realise what had happened. I could not feel any part of my body below my shoulders and try as I might I could not roll over; I was sure I was about to drown. The world had been my oyster. That all ended the second my head struck the densely packed sand that lurked underwater just yards from the boat.

As the magnitude of what happened to me set in, I remember thinking that I wanted to die and I prayed that it would happen quickly. Then, suddenly, Andy’s hands lifted me out of the water, and I filled my lungs with air. “Damn you!” I thought, “I wish you had let me drown!” Then, as if he could read my thoughts, Andy slowly lowered me back into the water. Apparently, this was done to see if I was pretending. When my face re-entered the water my attitude changed completely, “for God’s sake lift me up or I’ll drown”, I thought. Death can sometimes seem the easy way out, but the desire to live is the strongest human emotion.

Realising my predicament Andy rolled me over. I was now floating on my back. I was not in any pain, the only discomfort I could feel was the salt water stinging my eyes.  I tried to move my right arm, I could not feel it, but as I looked down I saw it lift out of the water. It rose up but as I lifted it higher it folded and my hand landed on my face and I could not move it. I could feel my hand on my face, but I could only feel my hand with my face, there was no sensation coming from my hand or fingers. It was the strangest feeling. It was like my hand was a foreign object. It was like it was someone else’s hand that was connected to my body. The best way I can describe it, is that it was like the feeling you get when you have slept on your arm for a while and it has gone numb. That was how I felt, except I felt that way all over.

“I’m fucked Andy”, I said. Andy, who had worked as a fire and safety officer for various mining companies around the country, remained silent. I guess he knew the truth of my statement. Finally he said, “Don’t you worry about that, just concentrate on making sure you give me a couple of grandchildren to humour me in my old age”. Then Jenny and her mother arrived, and I could see they were both upset. As I saw Jenny crying, I can remember feeling incredibly angry at myself for putting us in this situation. Sure, I was scared, but mainly just plain angry at my own stupidity.

My anger at myself was tempered by a sense of fate. For months previously, I had been having feelings of impending doom. I would be doing something and suddenly I would break out in a cold sweat, with a sense of my coming demise. I remember getting AIDS tests (despite not being in a high-risk group) and having chest pain and being assessed for a heart attack (which was hardly likely), so as I lay in the water with my neck smashed, I thought, “so this is what it was all about”. To this day I believe some things are preordained and at least to some extent, our script has been written.

At this stage I was floating in about half a meter of water. Fortunately, the sea was calm, but every now and then the warm salty water would splash across my face. “Just hold tight Rob, there is a sand bank a few meters away, we’ll get over there and get your head out of the water.” Andy grabbed one arm and supported my head while Jenny grabbed my other arm. They carefully floated me along the surface of the water until I could feel the warm sand bar under my head. “Here we are mate, this should keep the water out of your face”, he said. “Now I will just go and see if I can get some help to get you back to shore.” Andy tried without luck to get a response on his hand-held radiophone.

Most of my body was still in the water, with my head and shoulders on the sandbar. I could feel the water begin lapping at my shoulders. “Hey Andy, is the tide coming in or going out?” I asked. “It’s coming in”, he replied. I knew that the sand bar was only slightly above sea level, and there was no way my three companions could lift me back into the boat. I heard Andy say to Dianne, “We have got to get help, there’s no way I can lift him up and this sand bar will be under water before long.”

Andy and Diane grabbed the sail from the boat and folded it in the shape of a V, apparently this is widely recognised in boating circles as a distress flag. They climbed aboard the boat and held it aloft and attempted to wave down any other boats in the area. By this stage I could feel the water lapping at my face again. Jenny sat beside me to stop the water splashing into my face. My eyes were now burning, from a combination of the salt water and the hot sun shining directly into my face.

Many boats just passed us by, oblivious to our distress, but a local man by the name of Barry O’Brien (who was out fishing with his son), saw us and came to our aid.  Together with Andy and the girls they lifted my body back onto the boat from which I had so foolishly dived a couple of hours earlier. As we made our way back to the jetty, the gentleman who had been so kind to assist us had gone ahead of us to arrange an ambulance.

On the way back to shore Jenny and her mother took turns at sitting beside me. When we arrived back onshore, the ambulance was waiting to meet us. The drive to Cairns Base Hospital was much more enjoyable than my trip back to shore had been. This was due to the gas they administered to me on the way. I don’t know what it was, but I can remember laughing and joking on the way to hospital, so bearing in mind my predicament, it must have been powerful stuff. When I awoke many hours later, in the spinal injuries’ unit in the Princess Alexandria Hospital in Brisbane, it was really like entering a different world.

My clearest memories of the week following my accident are of the nightmares. Every night I would dream. In the start of these dreams I would always be walking along the street enjoying myself, then some tragedy would befall me. A truck would either hit me from behind, or in one dream I was attacked by a street gang and hit in the back with a baseball bat. The dreams would always end with me motionless on the ground, not being able to move. I would awake from these dreams, not with a feeling of relief, but with a feeling of sadness. The dreams may have been imaginary, but the result was reality. I was on my back motionless, and I would never be able to move again.

Cairns Post
Cairns Post

A Green Resistance Emerges

Issues around climate and the environment continued to grow, and Australia’s third largest political party, the Australian Greens was formed in 1992. With their origins in Tasmania and with links to the anti-nuclear movement in Western Australia and some left leaning trade unions in New South Wales, the Australian Greens provided a national platform for concerns that were felt by many around the country.

Bob Brown had emerged as a national figure during the successful campaign to save the Franklin River. Brown was subsequently elected to the Tasmania Parliament, but resigned in 1993 to head up the new national party.

A medical practitioner, Brown was elected to the Senate in 1996 and re-elected in 2001 and 2007. The first openly gay leader of an Australian political party, he successfully campaigned for a large increase in protected wilderness areas. Brown led the Australian Greens until April 2012, covering a period in which support for the Greens grew to around 10% at state and federal levels.[1]

Bob Brown was an outspoken voice in opposition to the conservative government of John Howard. During his time in Parliament, Brown supported human rights issues, such as Tibet, East Timor and West Papua. He introduced numerous bills, including bills for constitutional reform, forest protection, greenhouse abatement, and banning radioactive waste dumping. Brown resigned from national politics on 15 June 2012.

In 1983 a young man by the name of Mike Berwick was becoming the political face of the Green movement in Far North Queensland.

In 1983 the Queensland government decided to build a road from Cape Tribulation to Bloomfield, through the recently declared Cape Tribulation National Park, which contained some of the last remaining lowland tropical rainforest in Australia. A group of local residents organised a protest which brought construction to a halt. The media arrived, the police were called in, and protesters were arrested. When supporters of the protest arrived from southern states, the confrontation escalated into a full-blown environmental protest: The Daintree Blockade. [1]

In an interview on ABC Radio, Mike Berwick recalled that initially the protesters were all locals, “it was the local people and the local cops and the local bulldozer driver, who all knew each other”.[2] However the blockade set off a clash of ideologies: greenies against developers, hippies against the local council, and anarchists against police. In time, the Daintree blockade would become known as one of Australia’s most iconic environment protests. [3]

Protesters expressed their concerns at a local Council meeting, but the Council resolved that they were going to start work on the road. According to Berwick, “there was no real planning to it, they were just going to send a bulldozer through and find their way through the scrub and come out at Bloomfield.”[4]

Mr Berwick says the protesters were well organised and set up live interviews between themselves and Sydney radio stations. “What we had already done in our preparation, was we’d put a yacht out at low isles with people living on it and we had a repeater station …… we had a direct line to low isles and a direct line to a licensed radio facility in Mowbray and we had the best communications on about 1 watt and the coppers had hundreds of watts and couldn’t get their messages out.”[5]

Berwick went on to be elected Mayor of Douglas Shire, a position he held from 1991 to 2008. He led the way for local councils, achieving a balance between tourism, industry, agriculture and the environment.

In December of 1991, as Mike was approaching his first Christmas as Mayor of the Douglas Shire, I was facing the biggest challenge of my life, far away from the Far North.

Princess Alexandra Hospital – Brisbane

My mother accompanied me on the flight from Cairns to Brisbane, getting a ticket at the last minute, thanks to Max Plumber from QANTAS who was a good friend of dad’s and a great servant of Cairns. In the days that followed my accident, my parents took control of everything and were constantly by my side, but in all this Jenny was overlooked. Jenny came to Brisbane a week after my accident, but could only stay for a few days, flying home to sort out our affairs before then returning to Brisbane for the period of my rehabilitation.

December is usually a busy month in the spinal unit, as the coming of summer usually brings with it a spree of injuries from diving related accidents. The Spinal Injuries Unit at Princess Alexandra Hospital was certainly kept busy during the month of December 1991. To some extent it eased my pain and made me feel less alone to see others suffering at the same time. A young American by the name of Mike Knepler had the misfortune of suffering an injury like mine and was admitted to the spinal unit the same day that I was. His injury was almost identical to mine and so was his resulting level of disability. In those first few days after the accident seeing someone else as terrified and frightened as I was certainly seemed to help. I guess it was like the experience of prisoners of war when they have to endure great suffering. Certainly, a fair degree of camaraderie developed between the young American and myself. Through the tears and the misery, we managed to gather strength from each other.

For the first few weeks of rehab, patients remained in the ‘acute care’ unit. In that time, I had many cards and letters from well-wishers, as well as many visitors. It was a few days after my accident when my sister Joann was called to the nurse’s station to answer a phone call. “Look, who is this really?” I heard her say in an angry voice. Then her tone changed, and she walked over to my bed. ” Robert,” she said, “Bob Hawke’s on the phone and he wants to tell you his thoughts are with you, and to feel free to call him when you are feeling up to it.” Things like that picked up my spirits a lot, but it was the letters I received from people back home that lifted my spirits the most. Some were from people who I had not heard from since school, some from people I hardly knew, and some were from friends of dad. There were a couple of letters from people in wheelchairs, telling me not to give up, and that life goes on. These letters gave me a lot of encouragement. To this day I regret not attempting to reply to all the people who sent letters and cards, but maybe they will read this story, if they do, I give them my sincere thanks.

Jenny had arranged a meeting with two social workers from Australia Post and thanks to their excellent work and the compassion of other people at Australia Post, Jenny received a temporary transfer to the South Brisbane Mail Centre which was only 5 minutes from hospital.

Mum and dad had rented an apartment in Brisbane and after dad returned to Cains early in the New Year, Mum and Jenny were living there together. After mum returned to Cairns, Jenny was able to stay in Brisbane and continued to visit me every day. However, a big city can be a lonely place for a country girl and Jenny decided that she needed a little friend to keep her company.

One of our first trips out of hospital together was to visit a litter of German Shepherd puppies available for adoption. Jenny and I met with the donor family and from several beautiful little bundles of joy, we picked the prettiest one and named her Tia. For the rest of the time in Brisbane this lovely little beautiful puppy dog was a real highlight. Tia proved an excellent tonic for Jenny’s loneliness, keeping her company. It was a joy play with her in the front yard when I had a chance to visit.

During the first few weeks after my accident I was permanently in a horizontal position. The doctors and the physio explained to me what muscles I had lost the use of and which I had retained. Gone were all my chest muscles and everything below. I retained my biceps and wrist extension, but gone were my triceps and wrist flexion. For the life of me I could not see how I could push a wheelchair without chest or triceps muscles, but others seemed to manage it. The fact I accepted my injury early on meant that the grief associated with my loss hit me all at once. Accepting the fact that you will never walk again and coming to terms with it are two very different things.

Unfortunately, reality does not always satisfy societies need for inspirational stories of the triumph of the human spirit over physical adversity, nor does it satisfy the need of the tabloid media for sensational stories of the tragic victim who overcomes the odds. How often have we heard the tale of the brave individual who refuses to listen when the doctors tell him he will never walk again, only to defy the odds with a hardy combination of blood, sweat and tears? So many stories and so much folklore has been built on this storyline, which has no basis in fact. In almost every case of spinal cord injury, no matter how serious, the patient is not told he will never walk again. This is done for two reasons. Firstly, doctors want to give people time to get over the initial shock and slowly come to terms with what has happened, and secondly, they want to allow time for the swelling around the spinal cord to go down, just in case some of the cord remains intact and capable of passing messages down to the rest of the body.

Much of the mythology surrounding spinal cord injury has occurred as a result of what are known as ‘incomplete injuries’. An incomplete injury occurs when the injury is not severe enough to completely block the passage of messages to the lower part of the body. Typically, individuals who suffer this type of injury either end up in a wheelchair with minimal movement in their lower limbs, or less frequently actually manage to walk again, but do so with great difficulty due to partial paralysis. There are very few complete recoveries.

To be rehabilitated you must come to terms with your disability. Some people never do! While in Brisbane I met several people who, over twelve months after their injury, still spent at least some time during the day trying to get paralysed limbs to move. As if by sheer will, they could overcome an injury which was permanent and for which there was no cure. The best way I have found to explain the nature of the relationship between one’s mind and one’s paralysed limbs is by using the metaphor of a light-switch and a light. Once the electrical wiring is severed, it does not matter how much you want the light to turn on, or how many times you hit the switch, nothing is going to happen.

The number of miracle stories I have heard over the last 30 years have been too numerous to mention. These stories place a considerable burden on people with disabilities. If it were true that people with spinal cord injuries could walk again through sheer will power, what implications does this have for people with permanent disabilities? Are these the people who simply quit with no guts and no glory? This is too much of a burden to place on the shoulders of people who already have too much to cope with. The only truth post injury is that people will do whatever they can, not whatever they want and they leave hospital that way, whether its walking, crawling, or in a wheelchair!

Accepting Life with A Disability

Before my accident, whenever I thought of people in wheelchairs it was always of paraplegics. The idea of not having full use of your arms and hands had never occurred to me. The time I spent at the gym prior to my accident had given me a good understanding of the various muscles in the body and what functions they perform. So, when the doctor told me which muscles I had lost the use of, and which muscles I retained, I had a good understanding of what I would be able to do. I was paralysed from the chest down and had lost movement in my hands and fifty percent of the movement in my arms. In my arms I still had control of my biceps but had lost the use of my triceps. My main concern was whether I would be able to propel myself in a manual wheelchair, and while my physiotherapist said it was possible, I had my doubts.

My physiotherapist’s name was Richard. He was a tall athletic young man with dark hair and Tom Cruise good looks. I appreciated his frankness and helpful attitude, and he stole my mother and sister’s hearts straight away. “My name is Richard and I am going to be your physiotherapist” he said. “Nice to meet you” I replied, “but all I want to know is how long until I get out of here.” “That depends”, he said, “with quadriplegics it can be six, nine or 12 months, depending on how you progress”

“Well I’m not afraid of hard work”, I said, “I’ll be out of here in six months” He just smiled and continued manipulating my joints.

“I think we’ll get you up in a chair on Monday”, he said. “Because you have been in bed for so long it’s going to take a lot out of you. Your body is not working the way it used to, and it will take you a while to get used to sitting up again. On the first go we will probably only sit you up for a few minutes as you will get dizzy. It is only natural that it will take your body a while to get used to being in a vertical position again. Your blood pressure will be lower now than it was before, you will probably become dizzy after a short while, and may experience some nausea”, he said. “Anyhow we’ll see how you go on Monday.”

I turned to dad who was sitting beside my bed and proclaimed confidently, “This guy must think I’m a whimp, once I sit up there’s no way I will want to lie down in a hurry.” I spent the weekend anticipating getting a normal view of the world again. I had been in hospital for a month, yet I still didn’t know what the room looked like, although I could describe the ceiling in great detail. Richard arrived early Monday morning with a large stainless-steel wheelchair with a reclining back. “Right are you ready to get out of that bed”, he said. “Yeeha” I replied, “I can’t wait”. Together with two male nurses Richard performed what was known as a three-man lift. He took my legs while one nurse took me around my waist and the other grabbed me under the shoulders. They carefully transferred me to the wheelchair which was in a very reclined position. I can’t describe how wonderful it felt to get out of the bed.

“Right”, said Richard, “if you feel okay, then we will put the back on that thing up so you can look a few of us in the eye.” “No worries mate, it will be a pleasure.” Richard placed a restraint around my chest to hold me to the back of the chair and then moved the chair up three notches to almost a vertical position. Initially I felt fantastic, I could see the room, as well as all the people I had been staring up at for the last month. “Hey, this sure beats looking up people’s noses,” I said with a smile. No sooner had I spoken and it appeared to start to snow before my eyes as the room turned white. My head started to spin and all I could see was darkness. “Quick, put the back of the chair down again.” I vaguely heard Richard say, as I disappeared into unconsciousness. Before long, my head began to clear, and I could once again see the familiar sight of the ceiling of the ward. “What’s the matter tough guy, I thought you weren’t going to quit on me?” Richard said with a smile. He added, “Don’t worry about it, it happens to everyone first time up. You’ll get used to it after a while, it will just take time.”

I was distressed to find out that the standard period of hospitalisation for a quadriplegic was nine months. My rehabilitation at Princess Alexandra Hospital was a frustratingly slow process. My days were kept busy with physiotherapy in the mornings and occupational therapy in the afternoons.

My occupational therapist (OT) was a young woman by the name of Sue Lightbody. She was an attractive 21-year-old with long blonde hair. Sue was 5 years younger than me, but my relationship with her was similar to that of a child starting school for the first time with their teacher. When you lose your independence and need people to do everything for you it’s natural to feel like a child again. Sue was probably the most important person involved in my rehabilitation. She taught me ways of getting things done and provided me with aids and utensils that enabled me to do everyday things like combing my hair and brushing my teeth.

OT’s like Sue come up with great solutions to difficult problems for people with disabilities. For example, how would someone with paralysed hands who can’t move their fingers be able to feed themselves? Ring cutlery, that is how, a jeweller’s sizing ring welded to a spoon or fork. That provided a simple and practical solution. I cannot speak highly enough of the OTs who have assisted so many people to a fuller and more independent life.

It did not take me long to accept the consequences of my accident, and to understand the level of my disability, but coming to terms with it emotionally was a lot more difficult. Slowly seeing my muscular body wasting away was breaking my heart. It was only 2 months ago that I was proudly showing off my physique and now I looked like a refugee from a prisoner of war camp.

Before long it became apparent to Jenny and I that it would not be possible for me to return to our house at 70 Mt Peter Road. While it was ground level, I would not be able to access the toilet and bathroom, and the carpet would have made it hard for me to push my wheelchair. We considered renovations, but after calculating the cost, we decided to build a new house.

Working with Sue Lightbody, Jenny and I designed a house which would enable me to live as independently as possible. Our plans included an open floor plan and a large bedroom with ensuite. Sue came up with many useful ideas such as special taps, large light switches and an open under kitchen design.

Rob Pyne, Sue Lightbody, Glenda and Hideya
Rob, Sue Lightbody, Glenda and Hideya

Marriage in a Strange Setting

Since the accident Jenny and I continued to talk about marriage and despite everything we still wanted to go through with it.  Don’t misunderstand me, it was not a decision we made lightly.  I had many doubts in the first couple of months, and there were many times when I told Jenny to leave me and go and find a “real man”, but in the end, neither of us wanted to contemplate life without each other. We had plenty of advice from people who told us to wait and give it more thought, and after a series of extended discussions with the hospital chaplain, he too had come to the decision that we needed more time to adjust to me being in a wheelchair and to re-define our relationship.

I can still remember the chaplain coming back, looking at Jenny and I quite sternly, saying that he had spoken to the Lord. The news from the Lord was not good. His paramount concern was my ability to consummate the marriage. I thought that God probably had bigger issues than our sex life to think about, and if the Chaplin was hearing voices talking to him, he may not be the best person for us to take advice from.

One of the nurses told us she had a brother who was a marriage celebrant and he was happy to perform the ceremony. Jenny and I were  married at the Park Royal Hotel on the 22nd February 1992.  The wedding was a very small with only about 25 people attending, as many of our friends could not get to Brisbane to join us.

On our wedding day I woke up in the hospital as usual and opposite me was my American friend Michael Knepler, who had been with me since those early days in intensive care. Suddenly I heard him shout, “Oh no, here comes Jenny, you can’t see her on your wedding day, that will bring you bad luck.” I sarcastically replied, “Starting our married life off with bad luck, gee, we wouldn’t want that would we?” Nevertheless, the day went well.

Jenny’s best friend Kerry had come down for the wedding as her bridesmaid and her boyfriend Michael Tanswell who was a true-blue Edmonton local, was happy to fill in as my best man.

Helen Hart, Rob and Jenny
Helen Hart, Rob and Jenny.

Helen Hart, who had been a nurse in the Spinal Unit for many years, became friends with Jenny and I. She had been married to a quadriplegic man for over a decade. She gave Jenny and I the belief that we could have a meaningful married life together despite my disability. Helen was an inspiration and she filled the role of matron of honour.

By the end of August of 1992, my nine months at PA Hospital were up. I had done my time and I was ready to go home. I felt emotionally prepared for my return home, but as the plane approached Cairns and I saw the familiar countryside, I felt tears rolling down my face. For the first 2 months after our return, Jenny and I lived with my parents while we supervised the completion of our house which was less than five minutes’ drive away in Bentley Park.

I was determined not to think of the things I had lost, or the things I could no longer do. Instead I committed to concentrating on the things I had gained from my accident. These gifts include a greater appreciation of life and a lot more compassion for the suffering of other people. I had more respect and love for Jenny than ever before. I guess some people don’t realise how much they love and need their partner until it’s too late, and then they have lost the chance to tell them how they felt.  I thank God that I still had this time to spend with Jenny and the opportunity to tell her how I felt.

Jenny and Rob Wedding with friend New Bates
Jenny and Rob with friend Nev Bates

Struggle & Resistance in the Far North

[1] Bill Wilkie, The Daintree Blockade: The Battle for Australia’s Tropical Rainforests.

[2] Isaac Egan, 30th anniversary of the Daintree blockade, ABC Far North, 2 Dec 2013.

[3] Bill Wilkie, The Daintree Blockade: The Battle for Australia’s Tropical Rainforests.

[4] Isaac Egan, 30th anniversary of the Daintree blockade, ABC Far North, 2 Dec 2013.

[5] Isaac Egan, 30th anniversary of the Daintree blockade, ABC Far North, 2 Dec 2013.

The Fight for the Underdog