I was involved in a fatal car crash

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Photo: Carles Allende

On August 24 last year, I was involved in a fatal rollover in Alice Springs. I had been working in Aboriginal communities as a nurse with the trachoma (eye disease) program.

I had met Simon and we were going away for our first weekend together. I had returned to Melbourne, but flew back to Alice to meet him and head up the Stuart Highway to Katherine. We were going to visit the hot springs. He was 45 and I was 46, and both of us were separated with children.

The Nissan Navara was packed with champagne, olives and overnight bags. It was mildly warm so I wound down my window as we headed out of Alice.

As we chatted about 10 kilometres out of Alice, a road train came into sight. Simon joked about my hatred of them.

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The road was now straight and Simon started to pass it. I asked him how he was going to do it. We were towing a car on a tandem trailer and it felt heavy.

We got halfway past the road train when Simon said, ''Shit.'' We swerved off the highway. I blacked out as we tumbled in the air, rolling over and over with the trailer and car behind us. We had clipped the road train with the trailer. I woke upright, Simon's eyes rolled back. He did not survive. I screamed as I was pulled through the window of the car. My left arm lay limp, barely pulsating. It had fallen through the open window.

Admitted to Alice Springs Hospital, I was sent to theatre to clean the arm. I was then flown to the Royal Adelaide Hospital trauma unit. They told me they weren't sure if the arm could be saved. They would need to take grafts from my legs. I had beautiful long, slender legs. I told the surgeons to cut my arm off and leave my legs alone. They refused to do that. The operation took 17 hours.

I spent three weeks at the Royal Adelaide, with family and friends visiting. The stay was like a nightmare. I was admitted to the trauma unit, an old ward not dissimilar to the wards I trained on as a nurse 25 years ago at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne.

My friends said I was confused for the first week. My head had hit the side of the car when we rolled. I kept telling the doctors they had the wrong Rosemary Thomas. There was another Rosemary Thomas in Alice Springs. I told them to check the medical notes, that they'd made a mistake.

The nights were the worst.

My friends and family had gone back to their hotels, the nursing staff were busy and I was lying alone with a mangled left arm; legs bandaged like a mummy. I would wake in the middle of the night with my heart racing, sweating and almost vomiting. How was I going to cope? After 10 days I was allowed to sit out of bed. It was the first step to recovery. The next day I stood up with the physio and then took steps down the ward. I was soon able to get to the lower floors in a wheelchair for my first latte in weeks. Then came my first shower sitting on a shower chair.

I cried a lot, with the door shut and under the covers. At times the tears just fell, pouring down my face until there were no more. Sometimes they still do.

The surgeons were blunt, they had to be. They would bring teams of doctors and medical students into my room and talk about me. I wanted to tell them that I really didn't want to be there and I did have a name. The nurses were kinder. They told me I would get over this. I didn't believe them. They told me they'd seen worse. The pastoral care worker was my saviour. She understood and gave me books about other people in similar situations who did recover. She would say a prayer. I'm not terribly religious, but it helped. I have kept in touch and hope it's a career I might pursue one day.

Insisting I wanted to leave, I halved the estimated time I was supposed to stay. Back in Melbourne, I have had a long road to recovery with two further operations and a titanium elbow. I lost a friend, my work, tennis, swimming and was told by the surgeons that this would be a life-changing event. That's stating the obvious.

With much help from friends, family; hand therapy, doctors and counselling, I am getting better, close to 12 months on.

My arm will never be the same; my gorgeous legs are scarred for life, but if I dress to hide them, no one knows. My five-year-old boy said the other day: ''Your legs are looking much better, mummy. When will you have a new arm?''

Spirituality has benefited the recovery, not feeling sorry for myself.

Does everything happen for a reason? I'm not sure. But what helps? Spending time in the countryside, reading at coffee shops, long, brisk walks and the belief that we are not immune from tragedy. It was just my turn.

Lifeline: 13 11 14

3 comments

  • I had a similar experience in Jordan - in 1981. I was driving on a road through a cutting in the desert - a bit outside Amman - when two lorries approached me at speed. Just before I got to the first lorry, the second pulled out to overtake and blocked my way. I was in a Mercedes 280SE. I veered off the road as far as I could without hitting the almost-vertical embankment. The rear axel of the second lorry tore through the left side of my car and destroyed the car. I only suffered a broken knee and foot. They operated and put in pins. They wanted to amputate my left leg, because of the massive bloating and the risk of gangrene. I refused to let them and was terrified that I would be drugged and that they would operate. The swelling subsided. I am delighted to still have a semi-functional knee. I guess I will need a knee-replacement before too long.

    It took years for the nightmares to subside. The funny thing is that all these lorries were carrying tanks and artillery to help Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran, but the West pretended that this was not going on and they still maintain the lie.

    Commenter
    Alfred
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    July 04, 2013, 8:53AM
    • Hi Rosemary,

      First I think it's incredibly brave of you to write this article and be vulnerable to the public. I'm sure a lot of people will be impacted by your story as I was. I haven't been through anything like what you have, but I have experienced some trauma over the last 12 months and have definitely had moments where I have wanted to give up and roll up in a corner somewhere. To go through what you have must've been so so difficult and 12 months on it's awesome to hear you are on the mend. Your kids would be so proud of their Mum. Keep your chin up, and one more thing, God is always there. I'm not overly religious myself, but i'm finding in difficult times, he is closer then we think :)

      Commenter
      Patty
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 04, 2013, 10:27AM
      • What a beautfiul and thoughtful article. I especially loved the final line. Thanks for sharing.

        Commenter
        Trudy
        Location
        Bangkok
        Date and time
        July 04, 2013, 11:37AM
        Comments are now closed