THE FOLLOWING PIECE IS WRITTEN BY BRYCE'S WIFE MICHELLE AND IS HER ACCOUNT OF EVENTS DURING AND SINCE HIS ACCIDENT.
2009 was going to our year. Bryce had secured his first teaching job since returning from the UK, we had just brought our first home in Te Kauwhata and I was 38 weeks pregnant with our first baby. I had been on maternity leave for three days and was looking forward to doing last minute baby shopping with Bryce in his holidays. Bryce had just come back from injury (one of many that season), and he had an away game playing for Te Rapa in Tokoroa. As we lived over an hour away I had cheekily asked Bryce to stay home worried of course that I would go into labour while he was on the bus trip. I knew how much he wanted to play so at the last minute I convinced him to drive and I would come too.
As the game began I did what every rugby players wife has to do….watch their every move so that at the end of the game when they ask “did you see me do that?” I can honestly reply. This time was different, the game was going well and I saw Bryce go in to secure a loose ball the whistle blew and I hoped that we had been given a penalty. I looked for Bryce and realised he was still down. All I could think about was how he was so happy to be back playing and he would be gutted to be injured again.
As he was being attended to by the team physio, a wave of panic came over me as after 5min he was still on the ground. It was at this point that I decided to go onto the pitch to see if everything was ok, as I got closer I started running realising that something serious had happened, some of the guys were grabbing me and trying to get me to calm down. Once I reached Bryce I realised that he wasn’t moving, he had a collar on his neck and the ambulance had been called. I kept telling myself that it must have been a pinched nerve or a slipped disc, not wanting to believe what was actually happening. We arrived at Tokoroa hospital where they very quickly determined that he was going to be transferred to Waikato Hospital.
After what seemed to be an eternity in the ambulance, we arrived at Waikato A & E. We were rushed into a resus room and were instantly surrounded by teams of Doctors and nurses all trying to make both Bryce and myself comfortable. It was at this point that reality was starting to sink in, and we decided to ring family and let them know that he had been in an accident; they were the hardest phone calls I have ever made. Bryce was sedated and I suddenly felt the hopelessness of the situation starting to sink in. After a while he was taken for scans and x-rays, I sat outside waiting for him and I found myself contemplating our near future. It wasn’t looking good. One of the doctors eventually came out to let me know that Bryce was coping well, it was then that he told me Bryce would never walk again as he had suffered a 60% dislocation of the C4 vertebrae which had significantly damaged his spinal cord. I will never forget the feeling that came over me – I felt sick, scared, angry and alone all at the same time. We went back to the emergency department where the call was made to put Bryce in a halo, this would minimise the pressure on the spinal cord. I had now reached a point of losing control in front of Bryce, up until now I had not shed 1 tear in front of him so one of the nurses took me for a walk to try and get me to calm down, both for mine and the baby’s sake.
He made it through the halo procedure well but it was really hard seeing him just laying there in a sedated state. His mum, dad and sister had arrived and I was trying to explain what had happened but found myself trying to distance myself – not because I didn’t want to speak to them, but because I didn’t know how. I didn’t know how answer their questions or how to tell them that the Dr had told me that he would never walk again, so I kept this to myself. Eventually after a long evening, he was stable enough to be transferred to intensive care for the night before being transferred to North Shore hospital in the morning.
I reluctantly left Bryce at around 1am and went to my sisters to try and sleep. I spent the night going through what had happened over and over again obviously not sleeping at all.
Arriving at North shore hospital was surreal. I had hoped that it had all been a nightmare and that I would wake up at home with Bryce next to me, sadly I was wrong. Bryce was taken to Intensive Care where we got to meet some amazing staff. He had surgery less than 24 hours after the accident and his C4 and C5 were fused and then plated. The press had been trying to get hold of us as ours was a unique story and the hospital had begun checking visitors and phone calls at our request. On the second day of being there we had a visit from a board member from the New Zealand Rugby Foundation. We had never heard of the foundation and so were sceptical at first, but after meeting with Colin (it would be the first of many) we soon learned of the fantastic work that they do with players with serious injuries. He had come to meet Bryce and myself to offer any support that we might need and just to let us know that they were there. I had been staying in a motel across the road from the hospital and the foundation took care of that for me so that I could be with Bryce from 6am in the morning until he went to sleep at night. In these first few days Bryce couldn’t really speak so he would stick his tongue out to the left of his mouth to say yes and to the right to say no. Colin visited every few days and I remember on one day that he asked Bryce how he was doing, Bryce showed him that he could pull his hand up but not move it down – as he was saying this he moved his arm down. We couldn’t stop smiling as this would be the first of many unexpected improvements. Bryce spent a couple of weeks in both intensive care and the HDU. This was because he was having trouble breathing and swallowing. He had a tube put in for feeding as he hadn’t eaten for a couple of weeks and was rapidly losing weight. This time was hard, I would spend a lot of time just sitting holding his hand and talking about what our future would hold with our new addition to our little family as I was fast approaching my due date.
North shore was hard as we were a long way from home – our families lived in Hamilton and Tauranga so they couldn’t always be there. One of the bright moments in such a dark time was when Colin’s wife came and introduced herself to me. She took me out of the hospital for a cup of tea, and although I was very reluctant to leave Bryce, this was the one thing that I really needed. It was nice to talk to someone that was removed from the situation and I felt that I could take 5 minutes out for myself without feeling guilty. This was also really helpful for Bryce as he felt more assured that there was someone watching out for me as he couldn’t. The foundation were there not only to support Bryce but to help me as well.
During our time at North Shore hospital Bryce had a tight schedule of physio, cares, speech and language therapy, doctors’ visits and rest time. During physio sessions Bryce would be transferred via hoist onto a tilt table to try and get blood moving around his body. Late one afternoon Bryce was on the table and the sun was starting to set, we turned the table around so that Bryce could look out his window and watch the sun set and the lights in the city start to turn on. It was moments like these that made us feel slightly normal. Each day brought with it more hope that he would get more movement and there came a point when the doctors would come in and ask what new tricks Bryce had. At this point Bryce was able to move his left arm up and down and wiggle some of his left fingers. His recovery was defying all odds and every new movement would encourage us to pray for more. The movement was coming back to his left side faster than his right and at this point the medical staff could not tell us what to expect. I was now overdue and starting to feel like I was heavily pregnant. I guess for the past few weeks I had been focussing so much on Bryce that I had almost forgotten about myself. Bryce was progressing well and he had been imagining that he was paddling his feet, so often he would ask me to watch his toes to see if they were moving….each time I had to break his heart and tell him they weren’t until one night. We were just about to go to sleep (I was living in the same room as Bryce) and he asked me to watch his toes, I thought I was imagining it but his big toe made the smallest movement. We started shouting and laughing and I got the camera out to video it so that Bryce could see it for himself. This would be another highlight on our road to recovery. This became a turning point for us as we had both come to grips early on that Bryce would be in a chair. We were ok with this as we always looked at the positives – at least he still had his arms to hold his baby.
The team from the rugby foundation were always welcome visitors and on one occasion we had a visit from Dr Mayhew (Former All Black Team Dr). It was a positive experience for Bryce and he didn’t stop talking about it for days.
Bryce had been working with the speech and language therapists to learn how to eat again. His food was pureed so that it would be easier to swallow. I remember his first meal being pureed mash, veges and corned beef, it really didn’t look very appealing although his meals were always followed by a never ending supply of ice-cream. We knew that Bryce would be transferred to the Auckland Spinal Unit but they could not accept him until he was eating without his tube. This was a huge challenge for Bryce, and I think a highlight for him was when he ate his first gummy bear (Bryce LOVES lollies).
I was now 6 days overdue and I had been meeting with the midwifery team at North Shore Hospital as they were monitoring my pregnancy. Bryce was fin ally at a stage where he was stable enough to be transferred to the Spinal Unit. At this point if Bryce had been moved, I would have had to go through labour at Middlemore by myself and he would not have been present at the birth. However thanks to the support of our trauma nurse, the midwife manager and the team at the spinal unit, I was induced at North Shore hospital. I was transferred into a large delivery suite and Bryce was in a bed next to me. He was there for the entire labour; he held my hand and offered support just like most husbands. He had his meal brought in by his nurse which he happily ate while I was in agony and he even found time to have a sleep. I didn’t care – he was there for the birth of our baby girl and with a bit of help he even cut the cord. One of Bryce’s biggest goals was to be able to hold his daughter, he did this with ease.
A few days later Bryce was transferred to the Auckland Spinal Unit where he would stay for about 6 weeks. During this time the rugby foundation knew how much of an incentive it would be for Bryce to have both me and his daughter close by. So the foundation helped fund accommodation onsite at the unit for us. This gave me the opportunity to be able to encourage Bryce through physio and rehab every day. He was still making lots of progress and during his first week at the unit, Bryce began to sit up (even spewed on his physio), could get around in an electric wheelchair and eventually he was standing aided by his physios. The opportunity to have a place to stay on site at the spinal unit also helped Bryce with his progress as he could come down to see me and Olivia without too much hassle and it also allowed him to have time away from the medical wards. While we were staying at the spinal unit Bryce’s progress continued at an accelerated pace and he was soon progressing into a manual chair and taking his first steps utilising a walking frame.
The day to day requirements were often a never ending cycle of cares, meals, physio and visitors. At times Bryce would be on huge highs with his progress and there were always days when reality took its toll. I remember Bryce always being so optimistic and I think one the things that really helped him was that he was able to share a room with two other rugby boys who had suffered an injury at similar times. The friendships that he was able to establish were defiantly a driving force in motivating Bryce to get into the gym and to attend the required classes. I have many fond memories of Benji, Robbie and Bryce dancing in their chairs and also the extremely entertaining cooking classes in which the boys attempted to make cookies and pizza. The foundation would regularly visit the boys and we always looked forward to seeing John and Colin – the boys especially looked forward to the cake and sandwiches they would also bring.
After about six weeks of being in the unit, Bryce was able to move in small amounts on crutches and was given the go ahead to return home. We knew this wasn’t going to be easy leaving the comforts and security of the spinal unit. Going back into the real world it quickly became apparent that getting around and doing the normal day to day things was going to be difficult. The foundation helped us by contributing to the purchase of a hand controlled vehicle so that Bryce could take himself to appointments. Our life was a never ending series of visits from physios, occupational therapists, home care, district nurses and visitors. There always seemed to be someone in our house and I found this difficult especially with a new baby. Eventually things settled down and we started to get on with our lives. Bryce returned to teaching part-time although he struggled a bit seeing as he was a Physical Education teacher. He didn’t find teaching hard, the hardest part for him was no longer being able to run around and play the games with the students. His movements were improving and his strength was returning and he was still very optimistic of what the future held.
In the years following Bryce’s accident, he did not have his contract renewed and the foundation were able to offer legal support, something we wouldn’t have otherwise had access to. We were fortunate enough to have a lot of quality family time and unlike many fathers; Bryce was able to see his beautiful daughter blossoming. We were blessed to find out that I was once again pregnant, something we were told would not be able to happen, and later gave birth to our son.
Recently Bryce and I were able to complete the Huntly 10km fun run after he had trained for a long time. The smile on his face at the finish line was priceless. He even had enough energy to then run back to find a friend, and encourage them to the finish line. Each year we attend the Rugby Foundation Luncheon and always have an amazing time. It feels good to be able to tell our story and to introduce people to the role the foundation plays.
Four years down the track and we are still living life to the full. To someone that doesn’t know what has happened, Bryce looks just like everyone else, however on a bad day he walk awkwardly and tires very easily. There are still a number of physical issues, but we see them as being minor in the grand scheme of events. We completed the Hilary Trail together and he has been working as a Health, Physical Education and Outdoor Education teacher. In the future he one day hopes to return to rugby although I will have something to say about that. As the 4th of July 2009 is still a very firm memory for me, and I often still have nightmares about that day.