Andrew Garland, 28, is a media student at Petersham TAFE. Tamara Black, 21, studies Sport Science at the University of Western Sydney. The two had been together for two years when Andrew had a near-fatal motorcycle crash in November 2010. INTERVIEWS BY ANDREW GARLAND.
Andrew: “To those in the know, there is very little in life that compares to riding a motorbike. Some might say it’s for the thrill, other might prefer its convenience but personally I’d tell you it’s more about the serenity. There’d be times while I was floating down some of the most beautiful roads this state has to offer, like the Old Pacific Highway to Gosford, or the Putty Road to Colo, that I’d compare myself to John Wayne, traversing the rugged untamed old west on Duke, his devil horse in Ride ‘em Cowboy. It’s a similar bond but between man and a machine.
The accident happened near Thredbo in the Snowy River. I went on a charity ride for the Steven Walters Foundation with Ross, Tamara’s dad, and his friend Tim. I don’t remember anything about the accident. In fact the only thing I remember about that day at all was having breakfast at our hotel in Thredbo – sausages and eggs. At 10 o’clock that morning I came off my bike going around the Kosciuszko National Park. I spoke to the policeman who was first on the scene about a month ago, Constable Kevin Martin, he told me I’d hit a patch of loose gravel and fallen off sideways. As my head hit the ground the helmet’s visor broke off and I slid headfirst into a pole which hit me right where the visor should have been. He reckoned it was one of the unluckiest things he’s ever seen and considering the extent of my injuries, didn’t think I’d make it.
The accident left me with severe facial fractures, a fractured skull, bleeding on the brain, two broken vertebrae and a collapsed lung. I was airlifted to Canberra hospital and placed in an induced coma for three weeks while the doctors tried to fix my disfigured face and monitor the bleeding on my brain. Whenever you watch those medical TV programmes with someone in a coma and the doctor is telling their relatives they can still hear them, it’s true to an extent. After I got out of hospital Tamara was telling me about this time when one of the nurses took me outside one day for a bit of sun, which I remembered as a dream, I even recounted conversations that were happening around me.
My memory of being in the ICU is pretty sketchy but I started coming to when they moved me to the high dependency neurosurgery ward. It was a pretty big shock to find that I’d been in hospital for nearly a month. It only felt like a couple of days and trying to come to grips with the fact that you’ve missed out on a few weeks is a strange feeling. When I found out that Tamara and my mum had been staying in Canberra since the day of the accident I remember feeling guilty and thinking they must have been bored out of their brains. I was suffering from so much anxiety in that ward and I was crying all the time but every day at 10am Tamara’s and mum’s smiling faces walking around the corner made it all more bearable.
My recovery had come along a lot better than anyone had expected and I was desperate to get home. My best mate’s wedding was in a week and I was the best man. I was determined to walk out of the hospital. On day 21 I was discharged, and although I’d been doing a little bit of physio during the last few days on the ward my legs were still a bit like jelly. I had to wear a special back brace for a couple of months and I often tried to sneak around without it but Tamara was always vigilant. She moved in with me afterwards and was the most amazing nurse. She changed my tracheotomy dressings, helped me shower, and took me everywhere I wanted to go.
Sometimes we’d spend hours just talking out everything that had happened which did us both a lot of good. I didn’t really suffer too much after my ordeal but I still get angry from time to time, especially when I see other guys riding dangerously or without protective gear. Hearing more and more stories afterwards though, what Tamara went through was much worse than what I did.”
Tamara: “When I first heard news of the accident I was at home cooking breakfast. Mum had gotten a call and I knew that something was terribly wrong. At first I thought it was to do with my grandfather, as he hadn’t been well. When she got off the phone she asked me to stop what I was doing. When she told me Andrew had come off his bike my stomach knotted, I felt dizzy and like I was going to be sick. My Dad had explained that he wasn’t there when it happened but saw him when they put him in the helicopter and that Andrew had a gash on his forehead. He said the accident wasn’t too bad and they were taking him to Canberra Hospital.
Mum got on the phone to Lesley (Andrew’s mum) and explained to her what had happened. All I wanted to do was to start driving to Canberra but instead mum drove us over to Lesley’s place so we were able to share information as soon as any of us heard anything.
Lesley was constantly phoning the hospital to see if Andrew had arrived. Finally at around 5pm the hospital explained that they had just received an ‘unidentified male’ via helicopter. While Lesley was speaking to the doctor I watched as her knees buckled. That was the point in which I knew things were definitely worse than my dad was making them out to be. The doctor had explained that Andrew was not doing very well. He said that they had stabilised him and that he had sustained multiple critical injuries including broken vertebrae, a collapsed lung, and severe head trauma including multiple facial fractures a fractured skull, bleeding on the brain and more than likely, brain damage.
We arrived in Canberra at approximately 8:30pm. We made our way to the emergency department where they informed us that Andrew was currently in the Intensive Care Unit. We walked in through the big white doors and I was scanning beds trying to find him. As we were standing at the desk waiting to ask where Andrew was we saw half a dozen nurses surrounding this one bed with the curtains half drawn. There was a young man with multiple tubes running in and out of his body, his head bandaged up and an extremely swollen face. He seemed to be thrashing about and the nurses seemed to be trying to restrain him. It was Andrew.
The doctors explained that his injuries weren’t as severe as they initially thought, but he was still not in the clear. They explained that with his brain injury there was no way they could guarantee that he would not have any brain damage until they woke him from the medically-induced coma, and that there was also the potential of second degree brain damage which may occur if the pressure inside his skull increased too much. They also explained that due to the broken eye socket, he may have potentially lost some or all of the vision in his right eye, and that there was still a possibility if he woke and thrashed about he might damage the spinal cord where his vertebrae were broken.
The next few weeks were a surreal blur. When they started weaning Andrew off the sedation the nurses and doctors explained to us many times that it wouldn’t be the same Andrew. They said that the medication he was on makes patients aggressive, and they hallucinate. This was certainly the case for about four days. The whole time Andrew and I have known each other, we have never argued or had even been close to fighting, and when I tried to stop Andrew from ripping out his IV he told me to “f*** off”. I was devastated. This was followed by many more tears and arguments over staying in bed, not moving, keeping his back brace on, having needles, and not pulling out any tubes.
The next hardest part was the hallucinations. He saw lizards on the ground, lions across the hallway, saw his sister on TV, spoke to people that weren’t there, patted an invisible cat and told us a little boy visited him and laughed at him saying he was going to die. While this was happening I was just hoping that it was the drugs that were making him like this, rather than brain damage. The last few days he was in the ward though it was the same old Andrew.
This was the hardest, most exhausting thing I have ever experienced. I would not wish this on anyone. The hardest thing was the not knowing and not being able to do anything about it. Andrew says he can’t wait to get another bike but I don’t know if I can cope with that.”