Loving his body again
He was paralysed in a surfing accident, now academic Johnny Bourke has his dream job, writes Lee Kenny.
Dr Johnny Bourke was five days into a trip around Southeast Asia when he broke his neck.
It was June 2005 and the plan was to travel for three months, visiting the best surf beaches.
As he approached the beach he wiped-out. His head struck the sand and the impact crushed his C4 and C5 vertebrae. He was 22 and would never walk again.
‘‘In a split second I felt my entire body become paralysed. I was floating face down in the water and was lucky there was another surfer there to save me.’’
Bourke was treated in Bali before being flown to Singapore where he underwent surgery to stabilise his spine. He remained in intensive care for three weeks.
The official term for his condition is ‘‘tetraplegia’’ but any spinal injury is described as a spinal cord impairment.
In the weeks that followed, Bourke was flown home and spent six months at Christchurch’s Burwood spinal unit. The adjustment was hard. ‘‘I didn’t want to be at a spinal unit. Paralysed in a hospital bed looking out the window at the frost and unsure what life was going to be like. I felt like I had been taken away from society and everyone else was still out there having a great time. I felt trapped.’’
In the bed next to him was Jai Donnelly, an Australian who became an ‘‘incomplete paraplegic’’ during a snowboarding accident. He and Bourke became good friends. ‘‘To cut a long story short, years later I married his younger sister Corrin, and we had twin boys.’’
The months he spent in rehab helped him come to terms with his situation.
A family member asked him: ‘‘What if we took your brain and implanted it into someone else’s walking body, would that make you happy?’’ And he realised that he ‘‘still really valued and loved’’ his body. ‘‘From that moment on I realised I have a lot of love for myself. I still have a lot to achieve in this world, and I am going to give it a good crack.’’
So he decided to go to university where he gained his doctorate in 2017 and was awarded the Canterbury Medical Research Fund Emerging Researcher Fellowship for 2022, examining positive relationships between disabled people and support workers.
Now, aged 39, he has started a two-year placement as a research fellow at the University of Sydney’s John Walsh Centre for Rehabilitation Research, his work informed by his experiences of rehabilitation and disability issues.
The family moved to Cronulla, the Sydney suburb boasting several surf beaches. ‘‘We wanted to give it our best shot. We keep telling our kids that all we want you to do is try and give it a go.
‘‘There were so many logistics behind the scenes and many moments of doubt and fear. But now we’re so pleased we’re doing this adventure as a family.’’
As well as being helped by the New Zealand Spinal Trust and the Burwood Academy Trust, Bourke has been supported by ACC and says New Zealanders who experience injury-related disability ‘‘are lucky to have it’’.
About 5000 New Zealanders have spinal cord impairments, with 220 sustaining a permanent injury every year.
As well as covering his medical costs, surgeries, home modifications, home help, a modified vehicle and vocational rehab, ACC has helped Bourke access attendant care in Sydney to help him live an independent life. Now in post, he says part of the appeal of the role was leaving his comfort zone.
He’s enjoying his new commute. ‘‘Every morning...I catch the train and I go past the Sydney Opera House ... the Harbour Bridge. It still hasn’t sunk in to be honest.’’