At 18 years of age, Ben wasn’t aware his life would change forever when he hopped into his friend’s car.
He was an apprentice carpenter, a skateboarder and a drummer in a band – a typical carefree young man who enjoyed going to the beach, playing football and having fun with his friends.
“A night out with my mates unfortunately ended in a car crash,” Ben recalls.
Ben was airlifted from the Central Coast to Royal North Shore Hospital (RNSH). The accident shattered the C6 vertebra of his cervical spine, injured the C5 and C7 vertebrae and significantly damaged his spinal cord.
Ben and his family were informed that the accident left him a complete quadriplegic. He spent the first month in the intensive care unit of RNSH and Ben says his memory of the first few weeks in hospital is hazy.
“I didn’t have feeling from the chest down,” said Ben. “It was a big adjustment.”
The nurses at RNSH Spinal Cord Injury Unit answered the countless questions Ben and his family had about his condition and the treatment he was being given. They felt that the more they knew about what was going on and why, the better equipped they would be to support Ben.
After he was stable and the tracheotomy that was managing his airway was removed, for the next three months while he was a patient at RNSH, he set about learning as much as he could from the physiotherapists to strengthen his muscles. He had to learn how to do everyday things again like feeding and dressing himself but understood that if he gained strength in his arms, he could become more independent.
“The Spinal Cord Injury Unit offers holistic rehabilitation for people who have sustained a spinal cord injury,” said senior physiotherapist, Helen Patterson. “Our aim is to provide a targeted exercise program to help patients build strength and at the same time help to reduce pain and muscle spasms.”
While in RNSH he volunteered to share his story with high school students who visited the hospital for the P.A.R.T.Y Program – Preventing Alcohol and Risk-Related Trauma in Youth. He felt he could relate to them and make a connection.
He told the students that his injury was an accident, but it was avoidable. He didn’t have a plan B when he was having a night with his mates, and he hoped by sharing his story, it would make them think twice about finding a safe way home.
“If you don’t feel right about it,” Ben warned the teenagers, “don’t do it, as my injury changed my life.”
Ben commenced an intensive six-month neurological rehabilitation program with occupational therapists and physiotherapists using assistive technology to help him relearn skills, boost his independence and improve his quality of life.
“It was a slow process and I had to challenge myself to get as strong as possible,” said Ben. “Being able to do everyday actions seemed so far away, but I chipped away at it and got better each day.”
While it would take months for Ben to gain enough strength in his arms and regain his independence, he says it was rewarding to reach the goals he set himself. He looks on the positives as he acknowledges his injury could have been a lot worse and philosophically says that this is his life now, and he doesn’t look back.
While he was in rehab, Ben was invited to a wheelchair rugby training session.
Wheelchair rugby is an intense physical game that combines elements of basketball and American grid-iron. Players are assigned a sport classification based on their functional ability.
“The players had the same level of injury that I had but they were elite athletes,” said Ben. “The things they were doing physically I just didn’t see were possible for me at the time, but their mindset motivated me.”
Wheelchair rugby has proven to be a life-changer for Ben. He started training up to six days a week and was soon playing at a high level. Within three years of his injury, he made the NSW wheelchair rugby team.
A year later he was elevated to the Australian Steelers squad, and he recalls his first international tournament in New Zealand when they performed the haka in their chairs. “There were a lot of cool moments during the tour,” recalls Ben.
It taught him that he had a lot more practice to do with his skills for everyday living, but it gave him the tools he could continue to work on.
Ben now competes in the Wheelchair Rugby National Championships for NSW and last year he was invited to join the Paralympic Australia development squad which fast-tracks the growth of talented athletes. He proudly says that he is an all-rounder and can play in both the offensive and defensive positions.
Ten years on from his accident, he works in the peer and family support team at Spinal Cord Injuries Australia (SCIA), which provides free practical advice and peer support to others with spinal cord injuries. When he didn’t know what his future would hold, he said that SCIA were able to support him and opened his eyes to what was possible.
Ben leads an independent life. He drives a wheelchair accessible vehicle, plays sport, enjoys travelling and in his work, he shares his lived experience with others.
“As I’ve been there, I give them my cheat sheet of their injury, the key things I learned and hopefully I’m able to help them,” says Ben.
If you would like to support patients with life-changing injuries at the spinal cord injury unit to gain their independence, please make a donation here.