To our girls, he’s just Daddy”
When Michael Bellert suffered an aneurysm at 30, the prognosis was bleak. His only option was aged care, but wife Lauren had other ideas. She tells Susan Horsburgh why the young need to be kept out of nursing homes.
Lauren Bellert didn’t want to be a burden, so when she was 26 and the shakes she thought were just anxiety turned out to be Parkinson’s disease, she gave her fiancé an out. “I said, ‘Look, I don’t know what the future’s going to hold, but I understand if you don’t want to marry this potential future’,” she recalls.
By then, Michael was 28 and had loved her for almost a decade. He didn’t waver. “He was like, ‘I don’t care, I’m going to be there and we’ll deal with this together’.” Michael promised that he would look after Lauren when the time came – but life, as it often does, had other plans.
Just two years later, when Lauren was three months pregnant with twins, an aneurysm ruptured in Michael’s brain, leaving him unable to walk or talk, in need of around-the-clock care. The tables were forever turned.
Almost five years have passed since that catastrophic day, but the heartbreak still isn’t far from the surface. Lauren cries through much of our two-hour conversation, but there is a strength there, too. She has a heart tattooed on her right wrist to remind her she can face anything and the wings inked on her left wrist are a tribute to her four-year-old daughters, Ava and Audrey.
“They’re my guardian angels because I don’t believe I would have got out of bed every morning after all this happened if it wasn’t for them,” says the 33-year-old. “They’re also the things that keep Michael going.”
Lauren and the girls live 10 minutes’ drive away in Frankston, but visit Michael every day at his red brick home on Melbourne’s suburban fringe, in the “supported housing” he shares with three other men who have brain injuries. With health notices and filing cabinets in the lounge room – and a carer on duty 24/7 – the place has a semi-institutional feel, but it’s much homier than the aged-care facility where Michael was sent straight out of hospital, when doctors deemed rehabilitation unlikely.
Being social again
In fact, says Lauren, Michael has made most of his progress since he moved out of the nursing home two years ago. “Him being more positive in his life has definitely given him reason to keep trying,” she says. “He’s more stimulated here, everyone knows everyone and it’s very sociable. That alone was a big improvement for Michael because he was such a social creature.”
Once a larrikin with a love of travelling and street art, the 34-year-old former draughtsman sits quietly in his lounge room on this drizzly afternoon, strapped into his wheelchair with Lauren leaning against him, her hand on his leg. She tells me he’s “100 per cent cognitive” and communicates with a shake of the head for no and a long blink for yes. He laughs, too, just occasionally not at the right time.
Ava and Audrey smooch their mum and show off their dolls’ furniture, before being dispatched with an iPad to their dad’s room next door, where there’s a hospital bed surrounded by family photos, a fish tank and Collingwood football poster. As Lauren talks me through the photos on his wall, it’s clear the aneurysm marks a divide. “This is before, this is after and that’s before,” she says, pointing to shots of the pair throughout their 15 years together.
The Bellerts’ love story began when they were both teenagers working at Target. Lauren was still at high school and Michael was the “smart-arse” on checkout, always looking for excuses
to chat her up in manchester.
Within weeks, they got together at a workmate’s party, after a selfdescribed “cool and casual” Lauren asked if he was going. At this point in the story, Michael starts laughing. Asked if Lauren was really “cool and casual”, he shakes his head no.
Back then, Lauren was shy and insecure, but she felt an instant connection with Michael. “He always made me laugh,” she says. “I felt comfortable with him and for me that was a sign. I believe the universe brings the right people into your life. I wasn’t going anywhere.”
It was an attraction of opposites. “I was the one with the head on her shoulders, but I suppose that’s a lot of people’s relationships at that age.” Michael was routinely in the “doghouse” with his shenanigans, but she couldn’t imagine life without him. They travelled to Europe and the US, and bought a house, and he finally proposed after more than eight years together.
“He wanted to be financially stable,” she explains. “I was dying to have kids and he knew as soon as he gave the green flag of marriage that I would be trying.”
That fateful morning
It took a year and a miscarriage, but they were delighted to discover that Lauren was pregnant with twins after a one-year anniversary weekend away in October 2012. It was supposed to be a secret, but Michael was so ecstatic, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
To celebrate, they organised a holiday to Hawaii. On the morning of December 22, 2012, Michael was hungover after a work Christmas party the night before and Lauren was packing for the trip. “He was hopeless and I couldn’t get any sense out of him,” she recalls. Then he asked why she was packing. Exasperated, Lauren explained that they were going on holiday because she was pregnant. “You’re pregnant?!” he asked.
“He was dead serious,” says Lauren. “He had no memory of me being pregnant.” Terrified, Lauren took him to the local emergency department, where he spoke incoherently before going into a coma. Doctors transferred him to a Melbourne hospital for surgery and explained that it didn’t look good.
Lauren struggles now to remember much of that day. “I think I’ve blocked it out,” she says. “I felt like
I’d lost him.” That night, when Michael went into the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), she refused to go home and slept on the waiting room floor.
After his operations, he didn’t squeeze her hand or open his eyes when he should have and, after two weeks in the ICU, the doctors “pretty much wrote him off”, she says. “They gave him time to recuperate on the ward, but they didn’t expect much.”
As Lauren kept vigil by Michael’s hospital bed, their babies kept growing. “I used to put his hand on my tummy so he could feel them kicking,” says Lauren. “He’d open his eyes, but I didn’t even know if he knew who I was. It was the vacant look. Now I can see the twinkle in his eye – I can tell exactly what he’s thinking just by looking at him – but before, I couldn’t get a reading at all.”
About a month after the aneurysm, they were watching a comedian together and he laughed at her reaction. “That was the first time that he showed me he was there,” she says. “I think [the doctors] thought I was a bit crazy, but I was sure he was there … I was convinced Michael was going to get better and was showing signs, but I couldn’t prove it to anyone.” Michael had been in hospital for four months when his doctors decided that rehabilitation was unlikely and he would have to move into aged care. Lauren managed to organise basic rehab for him, but the nursing home environment was not conducive to getting better, she says.
Some fellow residents were three times his age, the staff wasn’t trained to deal with Michael’s needs and he was left in bed much of the time. “They wouldn’t have had a clue if something was wrong with him,” says Lauren. “There was not enough staff or time.”
Michael had only been there a couple of months when the twins were born. Lauren opted for a natural delivery because a Caesarean would have meant she couldn’t drive to visit Michael for six weeks. So on the day of the birth, she had to mobilise a small army of friends and family to get him to the birthing suite.
“I remember having my legs up in the stirrups and I said to the obstetrician, ‘I’m not pushing until he’s in this room!’” she says, laughing. The obstetrician stood sentry at the doorway and Michael made it just in time to see his beautiful girls being born. They were passed via Michael to their mum.
Getting him out
The babies grew into toddlers at the nursing home and the residents loved having them visit, but Lauren knew she had to get her husband out for the sake of his mental state. It was draining the life out of him. Lauren turns to Michael and asks, “Did you feel like, this was it – that was your life done?” Michael closes his eyes to say yes and Lauren’s tears start again.
Lauren managed to secure funding from the government to move him into privately run support accommodation and Youngcare provided a $20,000 Home Soon grant to buy equipment for his new place, including a hospital bed and ceiling hoist. The grant also went toward the Bellerts’ first family holiday – to a cabin on Phillip Island, which had all the equipment needed to care for Michael, as well as goats, cows and chickens for the girls to chase.
These days, the girls love to visit Michael and go on “daddy rides” in his wheelchair in parks nearby. “There’s a lot of laughing,” says Lauren. “They’ll sit on his lap and I’ll put his arms around them and we’ll go for walks. They don’t question why he’s in a wheelchair or why he’s different. That’s just Daddy. They just love him unconditionally.”
In a few weeks, Michael will have a device that will allow him to communicate with his eyes, finally giving him the chance to say something beyond yes or no. He has regular physio and speech therapy, as well as massage and acupuncture, and continues to make progress; he has started to form words and is learning to swallow and to drive his wheelchair.
His therapists are “blown away” by his motivation, says Lauren. “The environment change has made a big difference to his recovery. I don’t see Michael plateauing any time soon.”
Meanwhile, Lauren’s Parkinson’s disease progresses, too. Walking can be difficult and the cramps and muscle contractions all-consuming, but Ava and Audrey are unusually independent and understanding for their age. Besides, Lauren is too busy most of the time, she says, to concentrate on her symptoms.
Friends call her an inspiration, but she brushes off the compliments. The way Lauren sees it, she has to be her husband’s advocate because he can’t speak for himself. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she says. “He’s my best friend – if it’s my job to be that person for him, then that’s what I’m going to do.”
Their relationship has spanned 15 eventful years, both joyful and tragic, but there is much more of the tale still to tell. “It’s definitely a long, long story,” Lauren says, smiling. “This is just one of the chapters.”
“I was convinced Michael was going to get better and was showing signs, but I couldn’t prove it to anyone.”
ABOVE: After eight years together, Michael proposed to Lauren. One year after the big day, she was pregnant with their twins.