May 5th 1989
Slowly the realization sinks in. Things are not right. I’m in trouble. Can’t see, can’t hear, can’t feel, and can’t talk. What happened? And then I hear a voice. Dave Hughes, one of my snooker-playing mates from yesteryear, enters ICU. I do not recall what he said but I definitely knew that voice. Still I cannot see, talk or feel, but I can hear voices.
They say that the last thing to leave you in the last moments is your hearing. For me it was the first sense to return. I hear voices all around. Sandra is that you? But still I cannot talk.
And then I remember! Squash. Hayden, a long time squash-playing mate is with me. My hand moves from side to side motioning as in squash, “won’t be long mate”, I murmur.
A week has now passed since playing Snow Latham on the Friday night of a New Plymouth squash tournament and losing! Beers, beers and more beers. Even after a loss, it’s a great feeling. By four o’clock Saturday morning somehow the decision was made to head home. Probably a good one after having said to my wife Alie, “I wont be late” as I left with Graham in his car on this fateful night.
It is the 5th of May 1989, before the laws got heavy on drink driving and before the ACC tightened up on claims, I am 34 years old, very fit, and bullet proof.
I am totally relaxed, asleep in the front passenger seat, having decided after not much thought, that a seatbelt was probably not necessary. We reached the Stratford boundary, on the way to pick up my car, traveling past our house where Alie, two of my sons, two year old Daniel and 10 month old Andrew were sleeping and totally oblivious to what was about to happen.
And then, all hell broke loose. Sirens, police, fire engines, ambulances.
Still I sleep.
By now I am lying in the middle of the road some 20 metres forward of where the car came to rest. The road, a busy main road used regularly by fuel tankers and many other big vehicles is where I lay totally unaware of my plight.
Graham, who decided that a seat belt probably was a good idea, made his way walking along the drive to our house where upon meeting Alie, awakened by the commotion informs her that Pete has a cut on his head but will be OK.
Still I sleep
In an ambulance I am taken to Stratford hospital where upon being met by Dr Mike Tombleson and hospital staff the graveness of the situation was made clear to all.
Still I sleep.
Dr Mike starts to yell orders to all and in a flash we were bound for Taranaki Base hospital, alerted that the patient will more than likely be D.O.A.
Along the 30 minute journey to base hospital and after some cleaning away of body leakage Dr Mike recognizes the face. Pete! He yells as the urgency takes several leaps to fever pitch. Dr Mike, a squash player of an exceptional standard and club mate of the still sleeping patient lying in front of him, starts to bark orders to the paramedics frantically applying life support.
We are now at Taranaki base hospital.
Still I sleep.
Hospital staff and surgeons are cutting clothes off and applying all sorts of equipment, respirator, catheter and needles whilst cleaning blood and gunk from my lifeless body. I am starting to physically object to all the attention flailing arms and tossing and turning. But still I sleep, the body obviously on automatic pilot, as I am still totally oblivious to the situation.
Into the scan we go in order for the surgeons to determine the extent of the damage to my rapidly swelling head and chest. At this point, to lighten the atmosphere, bets are being taken for chocolate fish to the winner on whether or not the patient will make it or not. The odds of survival at this point are very poor and long term problems are likely, even if the best odds are achieved.
All this time the news is spreading like wildfire that a husband, father, brother, son, grandson, uncle and friend was in deep trouble.
It is now 7am and family is starting to gather at the hospital and with no news coming from within the intensive care unit, tension is high. Alie is at the hospital waiting for news of my condition. Terry has flown from Auckland to be with his only brother, Dad is there, Mum is there, my older children Nicky and Trent are on their way and our dear friend Enid is at our house looking after Daniel and Andrew.
There are looks and comments of disbelief amongst the steadily growing group of friends and family then, after some five or six hours, Alie is called into a small room where the surgeon is waiting with a none too happy demeanor. “Peter is in bad shape”, he says with a serious and sad look on his face. “The swelling is likely to continue for 6 to 8 hours and the 4 tubes from body to head are close to blocked, the point where life will cease!” There are thoughts of flying the patient to Wellington. The surgeon goes back to the theatre and Alie, stunned by the news returns to the large group waiting with anticipation. “The news is not good”, she informs them still showing strong signs of faith that the outcome would be positive.
Then, after another four or five hours, the surgeon returns, this time with a look of amazement on his face. “I am not going to diagnose this patient again” he says bewildered. “For some reason, the swelling has ceased, long before expected”. The prayers of family and friends were being answered!
Time almost came to a standstill with friends and family still arriving upon hearing the news. Graham was with Alie and offered to have a blood alcohol test taken. “We have more to worry about than that” she replies, “that will not help him” and “it could easily have been the other way round” giving Graham some relief, turning the focus back on to the patient in the theatre, who by this time was cleaned up but totally unrecognizable with a head that resembled a pumpkin and still in great danger.
Stan is with my daughter Nicky, comforting her, worried about the possibility of losing her father.
The days past oh so slowly that next week with Alie, staying at good friends Allan and Karen’s house not far from the hospital, remaining strong and full of faith that the outcome would be favorable, supported by family and friends helping, praying, supporting and giving strength that at this time was paramount.
Some six days have now passed and slowly but surely I become aware of my situation as I start to recognize voices and communicate. The realization has set in. Wow, how lucky am I? I think to my self as I start to understand just what has happened and that I am “almost” awake. I am so happy to be where I am. Most of those who mean a lot to me are present. My Wife, mother, father, brother, grandmother, daughter Nicky, son Trent and many close friends some not coping too well with the situation and the appearance of their loved one.
It’s been a week now and, great, a transfer to a room of my own in ward 4. I can remember the feeling of being safe and secure in hospital. Spoilt rotten and having everything I needed bought to me on a plate. The food is great but eating is not the easiest of tasks with a mouth full of shattered teeth that for days I have been spitting out. There are lots of visitors.
But! Tired, oh so tired. I feel as though my petrol tank is dead empty.
So again I sleep. But this time it’s by choice. Sleep, sleep, sleep!
I wake, hear laughter. Who is that I wonder? My room is quiet. I sit up and decide to investigate the laughter, slowly making my way down the corridor with my walker carrying my drips and tubes to where the noise was coming from. And then I see the waiting room filled with friends and family, laughing and joking. It was a far cry from a few days earlier. I stand in the doorway leaning on my apparatus, “this is just bloody marvelous, I am down there bloody dying and you guys are drinking coffee and laughing” I joked, and it was taken. More laughter, the mood has changed so much in the past week. I am so happy! And feel so lucky! I turned and trundled back to my room followed by Alie and a steady stream of happy, relieved and very supportive friends and relations. Back to bed I go for another half hour of fun and laughter until again, I sleep.
The days that followed gave me a huge feeling of comfort and safety.
The nursing staff are amazing, making me feel that I was the only patient in the hospital. The surgeons and doctors are still bewildered at the turnaround of fortune for the patient who by now is starting to talk figures and consignments to business partner Murray who has had to take the reins of the eel processing company we operate. Luckily it is coming into winter, the down season for eel fishing and apart from a few orders, factory maintenance is the priority and Trevor and David have stepped up to the mark keeping things on track.
“I will be back for next season” September, I say with confidence, not realizing the road to recovery was going to be long and arduous.
At this point, knowing that I looked an ugly mess, I asked Alie that she not bring our young sons Daniel and Andrew to see me.
In the weeks that follow the feeling of thanks did not diminish and after several sessions of occupational therapy the ability to do simple tasks is returning. The feeling of tiredness is still unbelievable but with the ongoing support from Alie, family, friends and hospital staff there is a slow but steady improvement in all areas. My “sister” Janice is such a rock, being a nurse closely involved from the very start of this upheaval, always feeding Alie with information love and support. We are over whelmed by the care and support given from all quarters. How are you? I would be asked time and time again. “I feel great” would be the reply.
It has been four weeks now and to pass the time I have taken to the target puzzle in the Daily News to exercise the brain, with good results. I now have my watch back! Tony had been to the scene of the crash and gathered the pieces and it’s on my wrist and keeping good time just as it used to. Still I am so very tired. There is talk now of a shift to Stratford Hospital. Tony has taken me for a drive to Stratford and back past the spot where life almost ended for me. I have no recollection of that moment in time.
More and more sleep.
Sleep is the most amazing feeling, totally unaware of all that is going on while at the same time energy being replenished and by now some thirty days on I am starting to get the urge to do things.
Stratford Hospital in 1989 was still in full swing. Two wards, Hutchen A upstairs and Hutchen B downstairs. I am taken to Hutchen B where I was at first in a room with three other patients. That was until Staff Nurse Jane, said no way! This patient needs to be in a room by himself with head injuries of that magnitude. So it was off to room 1. Having only one bed and a window looking out to the car park, room 1 was first in line for the necessities in life, food and drink. The coffee was always hot and the food at its best.
The nurses had told me to ring the bell if I was ever in need. I did not feel that ringing the bell for service was appropriate even when one morning I spilt hot coffee between my legs causing much discomfort to my private parts. One of the nurses had not long passed my door “Bridget” I called out, still not wanting to ring the bell, and she came, only to see the awkward predicament being experienced. After the application of some burn cream it was back to the coffee and newspaper.
Now, some six weeks after the moment when life took a sharp turn in a different direction, the tiredness is still unbelievable. The feeling of safety was still strong and with the sight of snow falling outside I was secure, warm and well looked after.
Still lots of visitors and very, very tired.
Sleep! Feels so good
It’s been six weeks now and I am keen to get outside. I check with the nurses and they say “yes” go for a walk to the club. Great! A beer! I slowly make my way down the street. Its about one kilometer but it felt like ten. I am feeling very vulnerable, but finally I get there. How are you? They all ask and the reply is once again. “I feel great” After one beer it’s time to get back to the security of hospital. This exercise continued for a couple of weeks until the time came for me to go home to my own bed and surrounds. It is so good to see my boys but man, the noise. The one thing you learn very quickly with head injuries is that your tolerance is close to zero!
As the weeks go by the rate of improvement slows but never the less I am heading in the right direction.
It has now been twelve weeks and my looks are pretty much back to normal which is great but, people are no longer asking “how are you” and it is starting to really annoy me because I may look ok, but it is me, and only me who knows how I really feel and it’s not that great.
However, today I have an appointment with Dr Martin, a brain specialist from Wellington and he asks, “how are you felling?’ “Fantastic,” I reply “I feel great!” Doing my best to keep all thoughts positive. “In spite of what you say, I am going to diagnose you as being 15% permanently disabled”.
There was a look of disbelief on my face as he assures me that there will more than likely be some changes to my personality. After about 20 minutes of lessons on what the brain is and how it works I leave with an uncertainty of just what the future will bring. But! More positive thinking, onwards and upwards. From that appointment I was given a significant lump sum payout and twelve months off work but still felt able to perform. How wrong I was. The road ahead was difficult. Alie remained strong all the way and even though I was very difficult to live with she kept things together at home. At the eel factory I was lucky to have Murray, Trevor, David and a staff that were able to steer the ship in the right direction.
In the twenty years prior to that day in May I had spent a lot of my time pursuing a snooker career with some success having won 3 Taranaki Titles, 1 Auckland title, numerous cash tournaments around the country, a North Island Title and was twice runner-up in The New Zealand champs losing to Dene O’Kane in the final in 1980. So the time had come to try it again. With snooker being a game of high concentration and hand eye coordination levels this was going to be some test. July 1990, fourteen months after the accident the Taranaki Champs were held in the Stratford Club. Somehow an unlikely win was achieved. The next year, 1991, same time, same place, same result! I’m back, I think to myself, but no not yet. The tiredness remains; petrol tank is not yet full.
As the years go by I start to think less and less of that day, a far cry from the months soon after when there was barely a moment go by where it was not on my mind desperately wanting to know what people were doing when I was in that deep, deep sleep.