Lee is a former client of the Royal Rehab Spinal Injury Unit where he spent two-and-a-half months learning how to adjust to life in a wheelchair.
It was a Saturday afternoon in April 2015 when life for Lee and his family was completely changed. He had just arrived home from his son’s football game and spent the rest of the day working on his motorbike in the garage at his Northern Beaches home where he lived a busy and active lifestyle with his partner, Rozina, and two sons, Nixy, 13, and Jet, 5. A fan of the outdoors, Lee was an avid surfer and snowboarder, and spent a lot of time playing sport with his children.
“I was always someone who was really physical,” says Lee.
That afternoon, while working on his bike, Lee decided to take a break and hopped on his motorbike for a quick ride down his street. Just 500 metres away from home, Lee was turning onto a side street, when he crashed into an oncoming vehicle. Fortunately the other driver escaped with only minor injuries, but Lee doesn’t remember any of this.
“My last memory was driving home from my son’s football game,” says Lee.
His knowledge of how his life changed has been through information relayed from witnesses and reports on the day. He doesn’t remember the first time he was told he would never walk again, but recalls the moment he first registered this information as “crushing”.
“It’s like life was pretty much over at the start,” says Lee. “All things run through your mind, but my first thought was my kids and not being able to do things with them. Everything we did together had to do with me having legs. I felt like I was letting them down. How was I going to provide for them?”
Lee spent 11 weeks in hospital before transferring to Royal Rehab to start his rehabilitation. Although keen to be another step closer to home, Lee had his reservations about his ability to relearn his skills and regain his independence after a serious accident had such a severe impact on his life.
“I was nervous because they talk it up at the hospital. They tell you things like, ‘You’re going to have to do things for yourself, not like in hospital,’” says Lee. “My biggest worry was if I’d be able to fend for myself.”
Lee spent the next few months learning how to get in and out of bed, dress, use the bathroom, and drive a modified car. He spent every day building his strength in the gym and learning wheelchair skills so he could grow the confidence and ability to move around as independently as possible.
Coming from an active and physical lifestyle, Lee had to draw upon a lot of patience through his rehab journey, but his first introduction to sport during a hydrotherapy session at Royal Rehab brought a renewed outlook on living life with a disability.
“Back in the pool, I realised I wasn’t going to sink like a rock. It was a light bulb moment for me where I suddenly thought, ‘Yeah, I can go into the ocean again,’” says Lee.
Suddenly Lee found himself excited about the opportunities introduced to him through rehab that enabled him to participate in the activities that made life meaningful and enriching for him, despite being in a wheelchair.
“It isn’t the end of your life. You name it, someone out there is doing it,” says Lee. “I didn’t believe it at first, but I have no doubts about it now.”
Through his rehabilitation Lee was introduced to Royal Rehab’s Return2Sport program that he continues to participate in as a former client; he jokes he has become more involved with Royal Rehab through Return2Sport after going home.
Lee was a participant of the first Return2Sport Beach Access Day, where he enjoyed a unique and fulfilling rehabilitation experience that introduced strategies and techniques for accessing the beach as a person with a disability, and enjoyed a unique and “The sensation of skimming across the waves again was epic,” says Lee, who was accompanied into the ocean by Return2Sport Program Coordinator Sebastian Van Veenendaal.
“I was initially self-conscious in the wheelchair because people look at you. It’s ironic that Beach Access Day is at Bondi, one of the busiest beaches, but when you’re doing it, it’s nothing. You don’t care about it anymore. It gives me knowledge about the best way to go about it [beach access] and confidence that I can go and do it myself and adapt it to my beach.”
Lee is relishing in the abilities and independence he has regained through rehab, from driving to access to sport and recreation opportunities.
“I didn’t think I would be able to do these things again,” says Lee. “Discovering I could was awesome.”
Rehabilitation has been a challenging yet eye-opening journey for Lee, who says the hardest part of his transition back home has been coming to terms with the beginning of his new life—his new “normal”as a person with a disability, but he has come out the other end with a new and refreshed look on life, committed to making the most of each day.
“I wish I had known more about disability prior to rehab, because these are the most amazing people. I feel like I was not doing enough as an able-bodied person,” says Lee. “I started rehab thinking my life was over, but it does get better, and you can lead a normal life. Anything is possible. If you have the motivation and desire, you can do anything.”