ON A summer day in 1985, Bruce Stark got up, went to work and became a quadriplegic. Bruce, who is president of the Sunshine Coast’s first independent disability services organization, 121 Care, gives an insight into what it is like to face the challenge of living with an acquired disability.
I WAS working as a plumber at Dalby and fell through a galvanised iron roof.
I was 23 at the time.
When I first woke up in hospital, I was wondering what the hell was going on.
I had a number of injuries and was heavily medicated so for the first week, I was slipping in and out of consciousness. It was hard to understand what was happening.
It didn’t take long to realise it was serious. I was told I was a C6/C7 quadriplegic and would need to spend nine months in hospital, and that life for me had changed drastically.
In those days, the hospital would keep you until they could get you to a point where you could live independently.
It was about getting you set up for the future. So I was taught to cook and went for my driver’s license to be able to drive a modified car.
My partner at the time really helped to get me through those early weeks and months.
I was very lucky to have her with me at that time, just as I was lucky to have my family. But because I had been traveling a lot overseas before the accident, I didn’t really have anything to go back to.
So I went to stay with my parents for the next four years. My then partner had already returned to her home overseas.
When you find yourself with an acquired disability, you wonder whether you will ever be attractive to the opposite sex again, and whether you will ever be a parent.
Depression will take over if you don’t think there is any chance of developing a happy life.
It’s a process – a painful process, almost as much for the family as the person who is going through it.
It is important that people get the message early on that it won’t be quick, but just hang in there and you will get through it.
It may take some time, but you can get through it.
Life is not over. It’s just different.
It won’t be easy and you will mourn certain parts of your old life. But there will be opportunities.
It may not be the life you would have picked if you had the choice, but there are many people who don’t get any choices. You only have one life, regardless of how unfair you think it is. You must make the best of it.
I found there were three things which really helped me: cars, travel and sport.
I was never really someone who spent a lot of time at home.
So when I was at Dalby, I started planning my new life. I bought a car which gave me mobility. I was always interested in cars and it made a real difference getting back into them. It helped me to get interested back in life again to an extent.
I was also always sports-minded and had routinely gone to the gym before the accident. I found getting back to the gym was a really positive thing for me. I also contacted Sporting Wheelies and they put me in touch with wheelchair rugby.
I loved playing the sport and was able to travel domestically and internationally as a player, representing our region, the state and Australia.
Getting back into the gym and taking up wheelchair rugby was a big catalyst of acceptance to starting a new life. It was all part of helping to build self-esteem and confidence and that helped me to start dating again.
It helps to keep something from your old life and take it through to your new life. Otherwise, your history starts at the time of the accident. Bringing aspects of your old life means you keep that history, and it helps build confidence.
You have to adapt to get across the line. Look at your past life and see what you liked the most and then look for ways to transfer that to your new life.
In the early ’90s, I started volunteering with 121 Care because I wanted to be involved in an organization which helps people with disabilities.
In 2009, I accepted the role of president of the organization (then QLA).
When I am asked what the upside is to having a disability, I say “not a lot”.
Being in a wheelchair is debilitating because of the physical grind, to the point where you get so tired, you don’t know what to do with yourself. And when you are physically tired, it becomes emotionally draining.
Life is still rewarding and fun. It’s what you make of it. If you have friends, it’s fun, so work on your friendships.
Disability Action Week this year is September 10-16 with the theme: “Everybody has a role to play”. What will your role be?
To find out more about 121 Care, visit 121care.org.au or call 5443 9777.
by Bruce Stark