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by Karen Peters

Denzel and Karen Peters met in South Africa in 1995 when Karen was working as a physiotherapist at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. They shared a house together for two years until Karen decided to return to Australia to undertake further postgraduate study to obtain her Masters in Public Health.

Denzel subsequently came to Australia in 2005 after waiting almost three years to get an Australian visa. They were married in 2006 in Karen's home town of Dubbo, New South Wales and had Nicholas and Grace in quick succession in 2007 and 2008. They currently live in Sydney.

This is Karen's story…

We were in South Africa visiting Denzel's family for Christmas and it was the day before we were due to leave. Our holiday was almost over. It was January 3. Denzel had gone over to his friend's house to say goodbye and Nicholas (who is aged three) was with him. They were having a barbeque. Two year old Grace and I stayed at Denzel's parent's house.

They'd been gone for quite a while and I started to get a bad feeling; that something had happened. Maybe a car crash, I thought, some sort of accident. The feeling didn't go away. In fact, it got worse until the phone call came. Denzel's aunt Aggie answered her phone and the look on her face said it all. It was Denzel, he'd hurt his neck in the pool and he couldn't feel his legs.

Immediately my mind went into overdrive. Tell them to lie him flat on his back and not to move him. Have they phoned the ambulance? What is the number of the ambulance? Where is Nicholas? Is he OK? A feeling of utter fear came over me. The feeling of fear that comes when you know you have absolutely no control over a situation, when your husband's life is in the hands of others. In those first few seconds I thought: What is this going to mean for our family, how can I cope on my own? A feeling of sadness for the children.

But there was no time for dwelling. I had to swing into action. We sped to the hospital, only to find that he wasn't there yet. We didn't even know if the ambulance had been booked so I asked the emergency room clerk to phone another one for us.

Time is ticking away and I'm wondering where he is lying, how he is feeling, how Nicholas is feeling. More family and friends arrive at the hospital, not yet in tears because they don't know what has happened. But I know. I know about spinal cord injury. I was a physiotherapist. I know what it means and I know what the results are. But at the moment I'm just grateful that he's alive.

Eventually the ambulance arrives. I rush to the door. I'm carrying Grace the whole time as she knows something is wrong and is clinging to me. I see him lying there flat on his back on a stretcher with a neck collar on. I can see he's been crying and is scared. I tell him I'm here and everything will be okay, although I don't believe that myself.

They rush him into the emergency room and into a brightly lit cubicle with all the equipment and machines and nursing staff coming in and out. It's a confronting place for me, a person relatively familiar with hospitals. I cannot imagine what it is like for people who have never been in a hospital before. They are concerned about his breathing so put oxygen on him and the doctor does his examination. “Can you feel this? Can you feel this? Can you feel this?” “No, no, no.”

The doctor goes out of the room and I rush to follow him. Doctor, can you tell me what level it is? He replies: “He's got nothing below C5 at this stage.” We'll need to send him for an MRI and CT scan to know more.

I had so many questions about what happened. What was he doing? I knew it was something to do with a pool. How could he be so stupid? And no one could answer them to my satisfaction. His cousin said that Denzel was playing with Nicholas, who was standing by the side of the pool. It was an above ground kid's pool only thigh high and Denzel had done a leap frog jump over Nicholas and somehow landed on his head.

Next thing we know they are putting Denzel back in the ambulance to take him across the road to a private radiology practice. By this time it's after 7pm and everything is shut. We go to the back entrance for ambulances where there is no bell or anything. One of the ambulance officers has to go around to the front and get the only radiographer who is still there to open the door. They take him in. By this time I've only had brief minutes here and there to talk to him. I keep telling him everything will be okay and to try and relax.

We get inside with all the big machines all around. I'm told by the radiographer that they cannot do the MRI or CT scan until we pay for it, that they don't accept payments from our travel insurer and it is going to cost the equivalent of about $1,000. I started to panic. We didn't have that money immediately available. We were at the end of our holiday and the credit card was maxed out. Where were we going to get the money? How can this be a money issue now?

Somewhere I found a moment to make a reverse charges call to our travel insurer and advise what had happened. There began at least an hour of to-ing and fro-ing between the insurer and the radiographer about how to arrange payment. The radiographer insists we need the credit card here. The insurer says that they don't do internet transfers.

In the end I was surprised that they came to an agreement, but they did and the scans were done. South Africa has a user-pays heath system with good quality healthcare for those who can afford it and less than adequate for those who can't. This need to ‘get authorisation' from the insurer for every little thing continued for the whole time we were there, causing delays and considerable angst each time. If any government in this country ever starts talking about dismantling Australia's universal Medicare system, fight it with everything you have. No family should be put in that situation. Access to good quality health care is a fundamental human right that must be available to all.

I sat waiting outside the scanning room. I could see the radiologist, who had obviously been called in, looking at the scans on the computer. I had no idea what they were telling him so I was trying to read his facial expressions. When he got up from his chair I asked him what he saw. He wouldn't tell me, but he said it is a very serious injury. I knew that was code for ‘this is not good'. I asked him if the cord was still intact. “Yes, it is.” I thought that was good news. I found out later that in the majority of spinal cord injuries the cord remains intact and it's the bruising, stretching and compression of the cord that causes the nerves to die and the permanent damage.

Denzel spent that night in ICU in Kimberley and was transferred by road ambulance to Bloemfontein the next day, a two hour trip. The kids and I followed behind in our rental car. We were given about an hour's notice that they were transferring him and we had to grab what we could by way of clothes and so on. We didn't know how long we'd be gone. As it turned out we never went back to Kimberley and were in Bloemfontein for almost two months.

As soon as we got there they put him in ICU. He was seen by Dr Pun Louw, a lovely man, who is a spinal surgeon.

Denzel had fractures to his neck and Dr Louw needed to operate the next day. He pulled me aside and said to me that because the level of his injury was around the C4/C5 level there was a risk that the operation could make things worse and that it could affect his breathing. There was no choice though because the bones in the neck had to be stabilised. He had a burst fracture of the C5 vertebral body, totally smashed, with fractures of the lamina from C3 to C7 and a massive contusion of the spinal cord from C4 to C6.

Dr Louw asked me there and then on the spot, with no notice, no time to think, what I would want him to do if during the operation things got worse in which case Denzel would need to be put on a life support system and he may or may not be able to come off it. Immediately and without hesitation I said: “Do everything that you can to save him. We'll worry about the rest later.”

And so there it was. By the grace of God, Denzel had no problems during the two operations. He stayed in ICU for over a week. He was on traction with large metal callipers and a 5kg weight attached to either side of his head. He couldn't move an inch, lying flat on his back looking up to the ceiling.

It's funny how quickly things change. As soon as that split second happened we lost the freedom of seeing Denzel when we wanted and for as long as we wanted. We lost the freedom of being able to do anything, go anywhere. We were now at the mercy of hospital routines, doctors' schedules and basic bodily functions, but we were going to fight and pray.

It was difficult in the ICU as they didn't allow children to visit and we didn't know if it was a good thing or not for them to see Denzel like that. After a few days we got agreement for them to visit for a few minutes and we covered the metal callipers with a towel. They were happy to see their Daddy.

And so the weeks went by. Three weeks in the acute hospital and six weeks in a rehabilitation hospital in South Africa. In the middle Denzel had a trip back to the ICU for pulmonary emboli or blood clots in the lungs and a chest infection. These are common complications that go with having a spinal cord injury.

In South Africa there is no government program or private coverage for equipment. There is no staff occupational health and safety policy and no hoists; instead all lifting is done manually by nursing staff. There was no head-operated buzzer with which Denzel could call the nurses, which meant that he needed to yell as loud as he could in the middle of the night if he wanted a drink of water.

And all the time I kept reading it, on his wall, on his medical notes … the word. ‘quadriplegia'. I knew that's what he had, but I didn't like the label. It was limiting. They'd say he's a ‘quadriplegic', as if that was all that he was. You don't hear of someone being called “a cancer”.

I made many a trip back and forth to one of the only two internet cafes I could find in Bloemfontein, emailing various people to try and make arrangements for our return. I remember one day going in search of the list of equipment that the state government subsidises for people in these situations. I remember printing it off and standing outside that shop reading it and thinking: “Thank God we live in Australia! And thank God I work for NSW Health!”

And so after spending almost three months in South Africa we arrived back in Australia on February 26. We had a doctor and a nurse escort on the flight and managed to all sit in business class, well, after I had a somewhat prolonged series of arguments over the phone with the insurer who wanted to put him in business and the kids and I in economy. I wasn't having a bar of that!

Denzel stayed at Royal North Shore for a week and was then transferred to the Royal Rehabilitation Centre Sydney, which is in Ryde. This is where he is currently and will be until sometime in July.

Denzel has a weekly timetable of physiotherapy, occupational therapy, social work and medical appointments. He is doing a range of exercises to help strengthen his shoulders and his biceps and stretches to prevent contractures or stiffness. He does hydrotherapy and practices pushing a manual wheelchair for strengthening. He is working on feeding himself and turning the pages of a newspaper. He can scratch his nose. He can operate his electric wheelchair with his left hand and, in fact, has a tendency to run off when we are in shopping centres and cause me a lot of stress.

Denzel's attitude through all this has been amazing. He has always had a positive outlook on life and that is exactly the type of personality that you need when dealing with an injury such as this. Since the injury occurred I have not once heard him say anything negative or feeling sorry for himself. He's not that type of person.

In closing…

We know this change in our lives will be a challenge, but we are also looking at it as an opportunity. We do believe that there is a God up there who is watching out for us, guiding us, supporting us and who will not give us any more than we can bear.

Not long after the accident I was sitting waiting outside the ICU in the hospital in Bloemfontein and reading a magazine produced by the private hospital. It had an article in it on Michael J Fox, who people would know has Parkinson's Disease, a different condition, but life altering none the less. He said: “For everything this disease has taken away, it has given something of far greater value in return.”

This quote resonated with me at that time and has stuck with me ever since.

And so what have we learned?

  1. Never ever go anywhere without travel insurance.
  2. Live in the present. Live each day to the full because you never know what can happen. Unfortunately, we hear this all the time and it sort of washes over us without having a real impact, until something like this happens. Now life has been stripped back to the basics, of washing, of dressing, of eating…things that we all take for granted are now major events for Denzel and not possible without the help of others.
  3. Don't let something like this happen before you prioritise what is important in your life, and if you don't like something about your life, then change it, don't wait for someone else or circumstances to do it for you.
  4. Slow down! Spend more time with family and friends.
  5. Look after your body. It is a vessel, but more fragile and transient than we think. It gets sick, it gets injured, it gets old, it dies. Don't give it a disproportionate amount of attention. Look after the mind, the soul, the human spirit. This is eternal. I recall many a time just watching people going about their every day business: Walking, using their arms and hands so freely without even a second thought; totally oblivious to the complex processes going on in their bodies to allow them to do this. Did they know how lucky they were? Often not.
  6. Look at what you have; not what you don't have. We have Denzel; he is still with us. He is the same old character and still has the same annoying ways. We'll need to do things a bit differently and with a bit more notice and planning than we once did.

How You Can Help?

The Peters family is facing some very significant challenges, immediately and also into the future, particularly relating to Denzel's needs when he is able to return home. Assistance of any kind is most welcome and greatly appreciated by Denzel, his family and his friends.

There are a number of ways you can help Denzel and his immediate family.

  • Donations: Financial assistance, particularly for the initial set-up of Denzel's equipment, vehicle and home modifications.
  • Fundraising: Karen and Denzel's family, friends and colleagues are planning fundraising events. Assistance could involve organising fundraising events, sourcing donations for auctions, arranging groups to attend events or promoting events within a network.
  • Support and Assistance: The family need a great deal of support and assistance. Karen is being pulled between her children, her husband, preparing their home and her job, which she will be returning to in June. In kind assistance means a great deal to them at this time. Examples include: babysitting the children in the evening so Karen can spend time with Denzel in the rehabilitation unit, shopping, meal preparation, household chores, even mowing the lawn.

For more information and details of the account into which you can make donations, see: http://www.helppetersfamily.com/. You can also show your support by joining Denzel's Facebook group ‘Peters Family In Need Of Big Hearts'.


SAbona reader Errol Gouws is set to run the Gold Coast Marathon in July to raise funds for Denzel Peters.

Errol started the ball rolling by donating $100 to the Peters family and hopes that other readers will support him by sponsoring any amount, which will be handed over in total to the Peters family after the marathon.

Company sponsors will be recognised in the August/September issue of SAbona magazine.

It will be Errol's fourth Gold Coast Marathon, but his first as a 60 year old, and he only started running less than four years ago. Errol says that he suffered one of the biggest shocks of his life earlier this year when he fell off a ladder, but was lucky to be unhurt. “Then I read about Denzel, who is half my age and fell into water. I fell two metres and escaped quadriplegia. It really motivated me to do something.”

If you are able to sponsor Errol, contact him directly at errolgouws@hotmail.com.

Posted in feature |
Posted by Karen Peters
01 Jun 2010

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