It’s a normal Tuesday night. I am climbing in to bed after a long day and am running through the mental checklist…have I signed the school notes? Turned off the heater? Locked the doors?
It’s cold. I have on bright orange bed socks and one of my hubby’s old T-shirts.
The phone rings.
It is my sister-in-law, Jane.
Her and my brother and their two children are away on a three month secondement. Jane is working as a nurse in an Indigenous community in Arnhem Land. My brother Mark has flown home over the weekend to tend to their business.
We caught up with Mark the day before, to have a drink and hear all about their adventures in the NT.
“Hi!” I answer excitedly. I can’t wait to ask her more about the buffalo poo story.
“Hi,” she says.
I immediately know something is wrong. The tone of her voice is weird.
She gets straight to the point.
“Mark has had an accident. He is in the hospital. He is on his own. He has just been told he has a broken neck.”
She has not even finished the sentence and I am pulling on pants and a jumper. I am hopping around banging into things trying to get my sneakers on with one hand whilst holding the phone with the other.
She is still talking as I get in the car.
“Wait!” I say. “I need to go back in and put on a bra.” Not really sure why I think a bra is an essential item at this point in time.
It is a 25 minute drive to the hospital. Jane continues to give me all the details she has. I then phone my youngest brother Josh. Josh lives in Melbourne near the Alfred Hospital, a hospital well known for spinal and trauma specialties. Mark is being air lifted to the Alfred and we arrange for Josh to meet him at the other end.
This drive feels like the longest 25 minutes of my life. My mind is racing.
How bad is it going to be?
Am I going to beat the air ambulance?
Who do I need to phone?
Is he going to walk again?
Is he going to die?
And then I think of Mum.
During my childhood it was a weekly, and sometimes daily, event to hear Mum telling my brothers…
“If you keep this up you boys are going to break your necks.”
Now Mum can be a bit of a worrier, but in all honesty, I think she had good reason to trot out the ‘break your neck’ speech on a regular basis.
My brothers put her through hell.
They were typical farm boys. They were in to dirt bikes, waterskiing, shooting…basically anything that goes fast.
These types of pastimes are not just a country boy’s right of passage, they are an opportunity to prove you can go faster, jump higher and fall harder than all your mates.
They are a natural high, they are a heady mix of reckless abandon and calculated risk.
But it was made worse by the fact that my brothers were pretty good at these pursuits, and it only made them push harder, go longer.
I have photos of them on one particular dirt-biking trip. They discovered if they hit a dam bank at just the right speed it would catapult them high enough to jump right over top of Mum and Dad’s four wheel drive.
My brothers have mellowed a little in their adulthood, although I use the term a little loosely. They still like to go fast and occasionally do stupid things, like bare-foot jump starts off the back of a houseboat (who even thinks of these things?).
However, the dare devil gene is now playing out in the next generation. My son started riding dirt bikes at age three and my nephew is currently knee boarding behind the speedboat – at age two – no hands!
And suddenly, my brothers’ views on safety have become more closely aligned with Mum’s.
We are very, very firm with our kids about safety. Helmets and protective gear when dirtbiking, lifejackets and wetsuits when near the river, the list goes on…
So why then, if we have such strong views about the safety of our kids, do we not have the same regard for our own safety?
On this normal winter day, Mark was at a mate’s farm and took the new ATV for a spin. An ATV is a cross between a four wheel motorbike and a go cart – only bigger and faster.
Mark did not put a helmet or seatbelt on.
He was just “taking it for a little spin” down the lane.
No one is too sure exactly what happened, but the ATV rolled. When it came to a stop Mark’s foot was pinned under the ATV. Mark and his mate were able to free him and he walked away from the accident. Apart from a sore shoulder and a fair bit of blood from a gash on his head, he thought he was ok.
He convinced his mate he was fine.
He then got in his car and drove home.
On the trip home Mark started to feel tingling in his hands and realized he couldn’t move his head to look for oncoming traffic.
He changed course and drove to the hospital.
Once he presented at the hospital he was immediately immobilized. He then disappeared down a dark rabbit-hole of uncertainty.
He had to hand his body and his destiny over to a team of health professionals.
The hospital staff discovered he had a fractured C7 and all else was put on hold until they could get him to The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne.
I sat with Mark for seven hours that night while we waited for the air ambulance. Some of the wait was entertaining, they had given him a fair bit of morphine and he was talking total shit about spreadsheets and pink elephants.
But some of it was not. When the morph wore off, he was left with pain and the fear of the unknown.
It was quiet and dark in the belly of the old hospital. Sometimes Mark wanted to lie quietly. Sometimes he wanted to talk. But I know he kept playing the tape in his mind about all the things he could have done differently that day.
He kept repeating,
“I am a dickhead, why didn’t I put the seatbelt on?”
I kept replying, “Yes, you are a dickhead.”
At least we agreed on this.
By the early hours of the morning we were advised it wasn’t possible to get the air ambulance in and he would have to travel by road ambulance (it was a very foggy night).
This was not good news.
The doctor explained Mark’s injuries were considered life threatening and he was not to move.
I remember a moment of mayhem when Mark needed to vomit. They couldn’t leave him on his back – but they didn’t want to move him either. It is amazing how in the blink of an eye your life is reduced to the simplest of things, moving, not moving, breathing, not breathing, vomiting, not vomiting.
The lowest point of the night was watching him being loaded into the ambulance. I knew he had three hours of hell ahead of him. It is not a smooth road from here to Melbourne, and we had no idea what awaited him at the other end.
For the first time since I had been with him he looked scared. Really scared.
After the ambulance pulled out of the hospital driveway I got in my car. But I couldn’t drive yet. I sat very still and tried to steady my mind. I looked down and noticed my bright orange fluffy bed socks poking out of the top of my fluro pink sneakers and started to cry.
The next few days are a blur. It turned out Mark had a broken neck and a complicated clavical fracture. To operate on him they needed to involve the nuero team, cardio team and spinal team.
For the three days until they operated on him, Mark laid on his broken clavical and broken neck and could only stare at the ceiling. His fate was still largely unknown.
It was wait and see.
Mark turned out to be one of those miracle stories. After a hugely successful operation he was announced out of the woods. All going well, he would make a full recovery.
But the gap between Mark returning to full health and becoming a paraplegic, or even worse, not being with us, can be measured in a portion of a millimetre.
His spinal cord was spared by the barest of margins.
Whilst Mark was recovering in the Alfred he was philosophical about the circumstances which put him there. In an effort to lighten the mood he decided he should start a mythical foundation, he would be the founding (and hopefully only) member of the DBAD foundation.
‘DON’T BE A DICKHEAD (DBAD) – SAFETY FIRST’
Mark was released from the Alfred a week after his operation. The day of his homecoming was also his birthday.
Mark’s birthday party by all accounts, should have been a jubilant occasion. We were celebrating him making a full recovery and his return home.
Instead, there was a really weird mood amongst us.
There was an elephant in the room.
No one was saying it, but we were all strangely aware that had Mark’s vertebra moved another poofteenth of a millimetre, we would have been at his funeral that day, not his birthday.
The DBAD foundation is now a running a joke in our family. Every time someone does something stupid we threaten to induct them into the DBAD hall of fame. Although, Mark thinks his position as head honcho and largest DBAD, is pretty safe.
But underneath all the ribbing and jest – there is a deadly serious side.
Why is that boys, particularly rural boys, think they are invincible?
That it won’t happen to them?
Is it part of our culture that we don’t think it’s tough, or cool, or manly to be safe?
I don’t know.
But Mark will tell you – it can happen to you.
So take the extra time, put on the helmet, put on the seatbelt, put your safety first. Because, despite it’s auspicious sounding title, Mark does not want anyone else to join the DBAD foundation.
He is happy to remain the luckiest dickhead going round.
Me and my dickhead brother