‘Tell them I’m alive’
Just over a year ago, Kiwi Brendon Demmocks was lying in a Melbourne hospital bed in an induced coma. His injuries were so severe that he died at the scene of his accident, before being resuscitated and airlifted to hospital.
‘‘The guys have told me when they turned me around in the water my eyes were white and they knew I was dead. They got me back to the boat and said they performed CPR. I woke, kind of vomited and abused them, and then passed out,’’ Demmocks says.
Demmocks and his workmates were at a resort; a former forestry area that had been purposely flooded by the Murray River and then dammed, creating a lake with trees dotted everywhere.
He and two colleagues were being towed on a boat biscuit when the driver turned sharply and the biscuit hit a tree. The two other passengers jumped off in time, but Demmocks’ head took the full impact of the crash.
At 11 pm on Saturday, February 18, 2017 an Australian number appeared on Kim Demmocks’ cellphone. It was her son’s boss. The emotion in his voice told her straight away something was wrong.
‘‘He said they were on their way to the hospital. Brendon had been in an accident and it was serious. He was so upset he had to pass the phone to his wife.’’
Demmocks flew from her home in North Canterbury the next day after getting an emergency passport – hers had expired.
She travelled with her youngest son, Ryan. Neither of them spoke much on the flight over.
‘‘We just didn’t know what to expect – it was so hard to think about what state Brendon was in,’’ Kim Demmocks says. ‘‘He was all alone and we just wanted to get there.’’
After arriving and faced with the shock of her son’s injuries, the situation was about to get even worse for Kim. The doctors told her she would have to make the decision of whether or not to turn off Brendon’s life support.
‘‘They told me I had two hours to decide whether I turn off the machines or allow them to remove parts of his skull, which would most likely leave him as a vegetable,’’ she says.
‘‘I knew he would never forgive me if I chose to keep him alive and he had no quality of life, but at the same time the thought of turning off the machines was unbearable.’’
The family was given a slight glimmer of hope when Brendon’s doctor decided to attempt to relieve the pressure on his brain by taking out the drains, cleaning them and putting them back in.
The bleeding on his brain was so intense that it had blocked the drains.
‘‘The doctor didn’t even wait to go into theatre, he just asked us to step outside the room,’’ Kim says. ‘‘I was scared to put too much faith in the procedure and get my hopes up. We knew it would be a long shot, if it worked at all.’’
Immediately after the procedure, the fluid started draining and the pressure on Brendon’s head eased.
‘‘We just watched the machine and the pressure started dropping, it was working. Even though the same procedure would be required another two times.’’
Brendon’s other brother and sister had joined Kim and Ryan at the hospital. All the family could do was wait.
‘‘We knew Brendon had suffered extensive injuries and we knew his brain had been damaged, we didn’t know what this would mean going forward. I just hoped I had made the right decision,’’ Kim says.
‘‘I kept staring at this tattoo on Brendon’s arm. It was still scabbed, so he had only recently had it done. I had never seen it before or even known about it.
‘‘It read, ‘Time heals all, I will always find my way’, and I just thought that had better be a sign from you. You better promise me you’re coming back to me.’’
The staff had told the family that agitation is common when patients wake up from comas, because they are still intubated and that can be overwhelming.
Brendon was no different. He tried to pull out the tubes and wires attached to his body. Then he lay in his bed sobbing. ‘‘That made me upset, I started getting emotional. I thought, ‘oh my God he’s so upset to be here. There’s something wrong. Have I made the wrong decision? Is he all right?’
‘‘The nurse actually yelled at me and told me to leave the room because I was so emotional. At the time I was quite upset by that, but I think it was the best thing.
‘‘I’m a solo mother of four kids, I run my own business and I’m used to being tough and that snapped me back to reality. I couldn’t lose it like that again.’’
The next day, when Kim went to her son’s room on the ward where he had been transferred from ICU, his bed was made and he wasn’t there.
‘‘I panicked and went to the nurses’ station asking where he was, and then I heard, ‘Hi Mum, what are you doing here?’. I turned around to see this smiling face and that is when I knew for the first time [that] I had him back.’’
Brendon picks up the story: ‘‘Even when I was in the coma, I heard their voices. I knew my family were in the room, and I knew they were crying and I thought this must be bad.’’
In the days of heavy sleep following his coma, the tractor mechanic would also drift in and out of consciousness, talking about fixing tractors and jobs he had on the go. He remembers parts of things that happened during that time.
Before the accident, Brendon had been building up his muscles at the gym. While he was in the deep sleep, he kept lifting his arm. Noone was sure what he was doing.
But he recalls he was wondering what had happened to his muscles.
Brendon suffered three brain bleeds, three neck fractures, three skull fractures, a spine fracture, a thoracic fracture, severe shoulder damage and a fractured eardrum. An eye infection as a result of the dirty river water has rendered him blind in one eye and he’s on the waiting list for a cornea transplant.
His improvements astounded not only his family, but his doctors too.
‘‘No-one could believe how well he was doing talking, walking and cognitive skills,’’ Kim says.
After six weeks, Brendon was cleared to fly back to New Zealand, provided a doctor could be found who would be happy to oversee his treatment.
He went to Christchurch Hospital first.
‘‘When we arrived back into Christchurch, the nurses tried to straw-feed him and offered pureed food only,’’ Kim says. ‘‘I said to them, ‘he’s been walking around an airport eating takeaways’.
‘‘It was just with the type of injuries Brendon had on paper, people were expecting him to be in a much worse state; his progress is remarkable to people.
‘‘Even now we go to appointments and the doctor will call ‘Brendon Demmocks’ and they get a surprise when Brendon stands up.’’
To those who don’t know Brendon, seeing where he is today is astonishing.
His family, friends and clients are incredibly proud, but perhaps not as surprised.
Brendon has followed his dream of opening his own business – Hakuna Matata Agricultural services – a fitting name, he reckons.
He has also moved back into his own home over the past week.
Recent evidence suggests that recovery from traumatic brain injuries can take years – many people have long-term or lifelong disabilities that affect their wha¯nau, the community and the economy.
These injuries can range from mild concussion (a brief change in mental status or consciousness) to severe (an extended period of unconsciousness and/or memory loss after the injury). The effects can be temporary or permanent.
When someone has suffered a traumatic brain injury, ACC dispenses information alerting them and their family that the injury can affect a person’s quality of life due to the cognitive, behavioural, emotional and physical effects on their ability to live independently, maintain relationships and return to work, education and leisure activities.
But the severity of the impacts depends on factors such as the person’s age, their health prior to the injury, their living situation and their sociocultural and economic circumstances.
Brendon has recovered much faster than usual, with fewer complications than could be expected.
‘‘I feel very lucky. I know it could have been so much worse; I tell people all the time I received the very best care with the best in the world looking after me,’’ he says.
He is more prone to tiredness, his body aches sometimes, and his speech can be slightly affected, more so if he’s tired, but he has learnt to manage his symptoms.
And, according to the doctors, things will continue to get better. Brendon is only one year postaccident and has been told the brain continues to repair for up to five years.
‘‘Things are coming back to me more and more – I actually have days where I feel like I’m getting smarter, where I don’t have to think about tasks as much they just all come naturally again.’’
The Demmocks family believe they have a lot to be grateful to the community for.
‘‘I work for myself and I have a mortgage, and I just stopped everything, hopped on a plane and was at Brendon’s bedside for six weeks,’’ Kim says. ‘‘His boss in Australia was amazing at helping us out with motel accommodation, and a Givealittle page helped us a lot.
‘‘I couldn’t believe how kind and supportive people were, people I hardly knew ... and it made such a big difference to our lives.’’
Brendon says the experience has made his family all the more appreciative of the community they live in.
But mainly he just wants people to know he is still alive. He keeps running into people who think he is dead thanks to the various news reports of the accident at the time. So this is a chance for him to set the record straight.
Brendon is back.
Just over a year ago, Amberley man Brendon Demmocks’ skull was smashed in, his neck was broken in three places, his back was broken and his shoulder and an arm were severely damaged. He is now a walking miracle.