Left a quadriplegic by an accident at the age of 17, Jaimen Hudson never said die. Instead, he found a way to soar – and the world took notice.
There’s a time before, and a time after. One’s not better than the other; they’re just different. These days, he doesn’t think much about the “before” time – before the day, at the age of 17, when he flew through the air on his Honda dirt bike for the last time.
There’s nothing he can do about the fact that before, he was 1.9 metres tall and could go free-riding with friends, scooting around sand dunes. Or, of a morning, wander outside in his boxer shorts to see what the surf was doing and, if it was good, nip back home to grab his board. Now, he has to wait until a carer arrives just to get out of bed.
“You can cry all you want,” says Jaimen Hudson, “but it ain’t going to change anything.” And really, he can barely remember his life without a wheelchair. He knows it’s a cliché, but “it’s not about the hand you’ve been dealt in life, it’s how you deal with it”.
Hudson is chirpy, curious and 25 years old. He’s lived in Esperance, on the southern coast of Western Australia, all his life, but has a north Queenslander’s habit of tagging his sentences with “eh”. He runs the diving and fishing business that his parents launched before he was born. He is an active member of the local tourism association. He is a quadriplegic, and he can fly.
In the spring of 2015, Jaimen Hudson sat in his wheelchair on a walkway overlooking Fourth Beach, about seven kilometres south of Esperance, and sent up a drone.
It was a DJI Phantom 3, a compact $2000 machine that looks like an interstellar toy, with four propellers, and a video camera protruding from its undercarriage. Sliding his thin hands over its two joysticks, two toggle wheels and an iPad screen, Hudson directed the drone. It lifted and buzzed and hovered and then zipped up and away. And on that September day, as the drone spun off over the milky-white sands, beyond the cliffs which fall into the turquoise Southern Ocean, its camera caught something wonderful.
Within a week, the video had notched up about a million views on YouTube. At the start of the footage it takes a moment before three dark forms become clear. Then, when they do, with Jack Johnson’s cover of John Lennon’s Imagine drifting across the tinselled waves, it’s a moment that feels like an exclamation mark. The smallest of the forms is a man on a paddleboard, Esperance local David Price. Dwarfing him, almost nudging his board, are two southern right whales that seem to dilate as the drone and its camera glide closer.
Hudson still can’t quite believe the response to Paddleboarding with Whales, which has had 5.6 million views. “Someone commented on there the other day, saying how beautiful the song is, and when they’ve had a hard day they come home and sit in a dark room and put that video on and it makes them feel better.”
As a teenager, Hudson loved good gear; he’d go through catalogues and pick out flash fishing and diving equipment. “He kept us poor there for a while,” says his mother, Lesley. Before the accident, Hudson was developing an interest in photography. Afterwards, he thought that a drone might allow him to continue to pursue photography.
With a mere 540,000 YouTube views, his other stand-out drone video – Dolphin Haze – is only a minnow. Still, it’s something to see. Hudson was on the verandah of the family home overlooking West Beach when he saw the pod come around the point. “See,” he says, pointing at a computer screen. He’s in his wheelchair at a desk in the TV room of the house in which he grew up and which he now shares with his girlfriend, Jess Fotheringham, and his father, Peter. It’s a boy’s-own pleasure palace, a place hung with motocross memorabilia and limited-edition skateboard decks, and accessorised with guitars and a home bar.
“See,” says Hudson, “the little baby one there.” He’s pointing at one of the dolphins. “That little one, he goes for ages.” On and on, the baby swims. And as the wave picks up – “Open up the oceans, jump on in,” sings Sydney band Sticky Fingers – the dolphins ride its arc then explode out the back. “It’s the first time I’d ever filmed any bloody dolphins; it was like the best day of my life, I reckon.”
Hudson has also “droned” cows in a paddock. The cows weren’t happy about it and took fright. Another time, Jess drove him to meet his mates surfing at a remote beach. When he couldn’t find them, he sent up the drone to see where they were. (They’d forgotten to let him know they’d gone to a different beach.) Other days they’ll “chuck me in the car and drive me out to the beach and I’ll get some footage of them surfing”.
He doesn’t actually long to be in the water with his buddies. This is what he thinks: If he hadn’t had the accident, he wouldn’t have got a drone, and he wouldn’t have created a video that his nanna in England saw on the news, and millions around the world saw on YouTube. “It’s given me my own thing, in a way,” he says of the drone. “So it’s pretty cool, eh.”
IF JAIMEN HUDSON hadn’t flown over the handlebars of his Honda while out with friends looking for jumps in the dunes at Wylie Bay east of Esperance on January 27, 2008, he might have been just another bloke. Now, though, he has a far more distinctive identity – the “quadriplegic with a quad-copter”, as his Instagram bio read for a while, with the addendum: “Yes, I did write that to milk sympathy likes.”
“He’s a local celeb,” says Fotheringham, a Canadian-born massage therapist and yoga teacher who came to work at the local beauty parlour in late 2012 and stayed. Everyone knows his story – and his videos. “It’s good for him,” she says.
Hudson’s head doesn’t quite make the height of the bar at the town’s Pier Hotel. People who stop to greet him have to lean over to shake his hand and slap his back. “He’s cool, yeah,” says a barmaid at the hotel. “You see him around,” says a man with a schooner.
Before that afternoon in 2008, Hudson had been through far more dramatic accidents but had walked away from them with nothing more than shredded skin. “When he ended up a quadriplegic, it wasn’t fair,” says Lesley, who for years spent her Sundays watching her motocross-mad son race at the local Shark Lake circuit. “It wasn’t as though he was a reckless rider.”
Hudson describes the last dune he rode over as “a 40 or 50 foot double, so nothing massive”. He thinks he took off from it too slowly, “probably not fully committing”. He remembers the feeling as he landed on his helmeted head awkwardly and it pushed towards his chest. “I felt an unusual sensation go through my body; it felt like an electric shock.” He asked his friend Cameron Matthews, “Where are my arms?” “They’re beside your head,” Matthews replied.
Hudson is in his lounge room as he reaches into memory for details. He starts to cry. Fotheringham is beside him and pats his arm, whispering encouragement. “I don’t know why I’m crying, I never cry when I talk about this.” He remembers that it started to rain while he lay in the dunes. His friend held a bush over him so his face didn’t get wet. “You never really think the worst,” says Matthews, who remembers another mate who’d had an accident and had to go to Perth and ended up all right. “But it was the worst.”
FOR HUDSON, the accident’s immediate aftermath is a dreamscape: being pulled from an SES vehicle to be stretchered over rough sections of the dunes on the trip back to the waiting ambulance in the car park. The night in Esperance Hospital with his father by his side, waiting for weather to settle so he could be airlifted out. “I’m not going to have a catheter, am I?” he asked a doctor. When he reached Perth, seeing his mother’s face. She had just raced up the highway from Busselton, where she had been staying with her parents following a recent separation from Hudson’s father. “That’ll live with me forever,” Hudson says. “That I put them through that much torment.”
So many worries: “Can you see if I have any underwear on?” is the first thing he said to his only sibling, Chelsea, when she arrived at the hospital in Perth. When Chelsea, who is three years older, said he didn’t, he said, “F…, that means everyone from Esperance to here has seen me naked.” Doctors had cut away some of his clothing, but there was still more to go. “I heard them having a talk about cutting my gear off but I’d just spent, like, $900 on these motorbike boots and I was like, ‘You can’t cut the boots off!’ ”
He was in intensive care for 17 days. On the 10th day, there was an operation to fuse his spinal cord using a metal plate, screws and bone from his hip. Soon after that, his lungs collapsed. “I think it was pretty touch-and-go there for a while.” He has a vague recollection of another patient’s cry through the fog – “Let him take me!” On the 17th day, he was transferred to a Perth rehabilitation hospital to learn all about his new life.
For a long time, he was horizontal. Then, inch by inch, Hudson resumed life in the vertical. From his armpits down, his muscles were disconnected from his brain’s electrical impulses. He had biceps movement, but his triceps muscles were lifeless. It meant he could, eventually, feed himself, use a computer and a phone, and reach out to take a hand. It meant he couldn’t lift himself from his wheelchair or pull on a sweater.
One day in spring, when he was finally able to sit upright, his parents and sister pushed him out of the hospital to a little park nearby. He was thin and pale and had lost 12 kilograms through his winter of confinement. Through tears, he talked about how the world had been at his feet. He’d wanted to work in the family business since he was a kid and had been about to start a course to get his commercial diving licence. He’d just bought his dream car – a purple V6 Holden ute. “We all had a cry that day,” says Lesley. “He was just distraught – we were all distraught. I guess it was a realisation what … his life would be from then on. Poor kid, he did go through some bad times.”
DURING HIS ANNUAL family-and-friends holiday in Bali, Hudson likes to float in the pool in an inflatable rubber ring. Sometimes, he has frangipani flowers behind his ears. With the water taking his weight, he might sip a cocktail. He shows me a video on his phone of his friends tossing him into the pool.
It took a while for him to get into the water. For the first few trips to Bali after the accident, he would retreat to the hotel room. He didn’t want people to see his body and its wasted muscles and the belly that comes too easily in their absence. He didn’t want people thinking, “Look at this retard in the floatie tube.” He’d always cared about how he looked – it was embarrassing how many outfits he’d try on before he went out. “Honestly,” he says, “it was like being a girl.” Now, though, he doesn’t care what people think and he loves being in the water. It’s like having a pool wheelchair.
It was his girlfriend who thought an inflatable ring might get him into the water and took it with them on their first trip to Bali together, in 2013. Jess Fotheringham didn’t know Hudson when he had legs that worked. In late 2012, soon after she’d moved to Esperance, a friend introduced her to the young man in the wheelchair.
She briefly thought about what he might be like if he’d not suffered the injury – “Oh my goodness, what would he be doing? He’d be travelling, [he’d] have all these girls” – but her first impressions were more powerful than thoughts about what an upright Jaimen Hudson might be like. “I was blown away,” says Fotheringham, who is strikingly pretty, with a yogi’s lean body. “He’s just so charismatic and carries himself so well and has such a presence. I guess I was attracted to him from the get-go.”
Hudson hadn’t talked about it to anyone but quietly, sadly, he had resigned himself to the fact that any sort of romantic life was out of the question: “I was robbed of my teen years; I was taken down in my prime.” He’s laughing as he pulls out the clichés, but it was tough. His mates were getting girls and he was being put to bed by a carer. Some girls made advances, but he wasn’t interested. “Just because I was in a wheelchair didn’t mean I dropped my standards.”
And then, a few weeks after meeting Fotheringham, he kissed her, on New Year’s Eve 2012. “Jess is just so happy all the time, you know; she’s such a free-spirited little hippie.” From the start, though, he set some rules. “I was very adamant that I didn’t want her helping me do anything. I want her to be my girlfriend, not my carer.”
The couple live together in the Hudson family home, but they’ve bought a block of land in the same street and hope to start building later this year. They like the industrial look; they want something “boxy and modern”. And they’re planning for the future in other ways, too: in a Perth freezer, there’s a tube of Hudson’s semen. In the year or so after the accident, his mother convinced him it was a smart investment. “We always joke that he’s cluckier than I am,” says Fotheringham, who is 31. “He’ll be an amazing dad one day.”
Hudson builds his strength in the gym and, a few times a week, gets out on his custom-made hand cycle. When he first got the bike, he told Jess that he wanted to go fast again. He likes the downhill stretches. Once, he hit 51km/h.
In the early days of his rehabilitation, when she barely left his side, Lesley Hudson dared not hope that her son would fly again. “I was very worried about how he was going to cope. Even now when I know that his friends have all gone surfing and he’s at home, I hate it.”
But her son shrugs. “I don’t want to sound like a cocky idiot, but I’ve always had a pretty positive outlook on life; like, I’ve always been lucky to be outgoing and confident and I’ve got a good group of people around me.” He wouldn’t even change the fact that he had the accident; it has made him, he thinks, a better and more compassionate person.
“He literally wakes up every morning happy,” says Fotheringham. Hudson doesn’t wake up thinking about whether he’ll walk again. He’s got other things on his mind: are there dolphins out there today? Are the Phantom’s batteries charged? Should he tie his hair back or wear it loose?
By Stephanie Wood