‘Tell them I’m alive’

The Southland Times - - FEATURES -

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.

STACY SQUIRES/STUFF

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.

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