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.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Family - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY ● KRISTINA SOLJO STYLING ● BIANCA LANE

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.

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