How I became a paraplegic

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How I became a paraplegic

Brendan Tourelle has been a member of Royal Akarana Yacht Club for four years and during that time has served on committees and has played major roles in getting disabled sailors to the club.

But Brendan hasn’t been a paraplegic his whole life. It all happened 18 years ago after a preventable accident. His dreams of running a charter boat business in Samoa were torn away from him and his family in a blink of an eye.

Brendan is sharing his story as a message to others. Think twice before you grab that dining room chair or stool to change the light bulb or smoke alarm.

18 Years Today (13th May)

To celebrate I thought I would share a story I wrote earlier this year about my journey of becoming a Paraplegic, its gone into a couple of newsletters now, but below is the unedited longer version. It was written to help prevent work place injuries in the building industry. if you do have time to read it, keep it in mind that it’s designed to make you think twice before you grab that dining room chair or stool to change the light bulb or smoke alarm.


One of my oldest memories was playing in a swimming pool, with dad teaching swimming lessons, it would seem this strong connection with the water is in my blood, a love that would only intensify with age, As I grew up I always came back to the sea, it was my grounding place. My strongest love was surfing, followed by fishing, scuba and free diving but anything that would bring me into contact with the water would lift my spirits. Collecting food from the sea seemed so natural to me, maybe it was those early winter mornings on Oreti Beach digging for Toheroa’s.

If I can take you to the mid 1990s, My wife Tulip and I took our young family (4 kids under 8) on holiday to Samoa visiting my wife’s family and looking at business opportunities. I had been in the building industry for over 15 years, and was looking for a change. I was amazed at how few charter boats were operating in Samoa, a beautiful tropical island where the fishing out wide was amazing.

The next adventure

Once home I started to find out about business initiatives for start-ups in Samoa. It didn’t take long to find out that I could get a five year tax free and duty free holiday. This kind of cemented it, so I started finishing all the reno projects I had been doing on my house and put it on the market. I started to research the difference between buying versus building a charter vessel.

With the lack of facilities in Samoa at the time I figured it would be better to build new than having an old boat breaking down more often. I found a guy who was building aluminium boats who was getting good reviews on his build quality, and he lived close by. We came up with a design, a 28-foot walkabout boat with a head under the centre console, a hardtop roof with crow’s-nest attached, big enough to take on ocean swells yet still able to be trailered if needed. I also bought a 5 mile long line set, with the idea of keeping the boat busy in the low season.

The house sold in the second week it was on the market. We doubled our purchase price, which would set us up with the boat and enough surplus to settle us all in the family village in Samoa. I knew it would be a step down in living standards, but was sure if I worked hard and stuck at it, we would soon be moving up the hill, so to speak. Plus the climate is amazing.

It’s all happening!

The launch day came. I was so excited, the boat was christened Wahoo. It performed better than I had hoped, 32 knots max, and cruised nicely at about 24 knots. We used every spare moment to put some miles on her making sure all the systems were working well. Most weekends we took friends and family out – it was great everyone having a good time fishing and diving and exploring the Hauraki Gulf.

All the while I was still working at my day job. At the time we were working on a small block of shops, which had been a red light area, renovating them inside and out into cafes and restaurants and boutique shops. We were still waiting on paperwork to come through from the Samoan government – things there move very slowly, unless you are there in person and maybe greasing a few palms to get things done faster – and we couldn’t ship anything to Samoa without paying duty tax. So I was still quoting jobs here in Auckland, to keep our overheads down and savings up, and getting good use out of Wahoo.

How it all changed

We were just finishing the last few jobs on the outside of the building. The painters were doing the finishing touches and the scaffold came down. One of the last few jobs on the outside was to unscrew the Dynabolts that had secured the scaffold to the building, epoxy mortar the holds and give them a dab of paint, which needed to be done from a ladder. I had 70 % of them finished when I came to a tricky spot that had a small lower roof area which I needed to work above. It meant the ladder needed to be on a lower angle. I set up a rope coming from the back of the building over the top so I could secure the ladder while I worked on it, but I needed to go up the ladder to tie it off. I was nearly at the top when the foot of the ladder slipped out. I remember reaching for the rope. The next thing I’m waking up in hospital, having had a three hour operation on my back. My whole body from the breast line down was numb. The orthopaedic surgeon came in with the bad news – he was very forthright and just spat it out. My spinal cord was completely broken in 2 places between T4 – T8, one of the worst that he’d seen. I had steel rods holding it all together from T1 to T10. I had 6 broken ribs 4 of which are on my left side, that have caused a collapsed lung and damaged my liver. I had two areas stitched up on my head, one on my forehead and a bigger one on the upper back of my head. I wouldn’t walk again. All I could think of was my wife and kids. What have I put them through? How would they cope seeing me like this? With tubes and wires coming out of me into some machine? What about our future plans? I was still having trouble focusing, it was either the painkillers or my head injury. I tried to make light of it in front of the kids, but inside I was really struggling with blaming myself for taking such risks just to get the job done quicker.

The aftermath

I found out later that as the ladder slipped and I reached for the rope, but I hit my head on the wall instead, knocking me out and I fell nearly 6 metres, bouncing off the lower roof on to the floor sander’s van and was bent backwoods over the mirror arm of the van. IF ONLY I HAD GOT A LABOURER TO FOOT THE LADDER FOR ME! Then none of this would’ve happened, but it was too late for “what ifs”.

I did have one saving grace though. You see there had been a nurse waiting at the lights who saw the whole thing and came rushing over to help me. She kept me stable until the ambulance got there. I was very lucky to be alive. I spent the next 3 and a half months in hospital rehab, learning how this broken body of mine now worked. It was a massive learning curve for everyone, I needed to be taught everything from how to poop and wee at the right time. Learning how to sit up with no core muscles was like being made of rubber or Mr Blobby, if I didn’t get my position right I would just bend over, or end up flat on my back. I also had to care for my skin, as any little bruise could now turn into a pressure sore, which would mean staying in bed for months until it healed. Then there were the wheelchair skills. Getting strong enough to get over little bumps in the road was so hard. Transferring onto a bed independently or into a car were all skills I needed to learn again.

My wife and kids did their best to visit every day. It was a 30km drive each way. I looked forward to seeing them every evening, I missed them so much, and just wanted to go home with them. So I push myself to learn these new skills I needed to master before I could be discharged. Mum and Dad my brothers and sisters were so supportive, even though they mostly lived in the south island and had their own families and lives to get on with, they sort of set up a roster to be there to support Tulip and just to be there for whatever was needed. It can’t be overestimated how much help it was to me too, as I didn’t need to worry quite so much about them, and could concentrate on getting better.

Saying goodbye to the dream

We had long talks about the future. Samoa wasn’t realistic, the kids were settled in school, we agreed they didn’t need another disruption. We would need to buy a wheelchair accessible house or one that was easy to modify. I had to face it, THE BOAT WOULD HAVE TO GO! so we could buy the house. It was so hard saying goodbye to all those dreams. It was like a mourning you go through, losing half your body function as well as all those dreams about the future.

I needed to set new goals, just small steps to start (pardon the pun). The next 6 to 12 months were very hard, trying to keep it together. I was determined to make a good life for my wife and kids, but also having to deal with becoming disabled, I don’t mind saying there were many tears. It was like being yanked from the path you’re on, and forced to go down this new path which isn’t of your choosing, I don’t want to go this way but I’ve lost my steering, can’t change it.

Moving forward with a different plan

My wife tells me in those first few months at home it took great patience on her part as I wasn’t easy to live with. I was trying to stay positive but at times the frustration of not being able to do simple tasks was just to much, and unfortunately we take it out on the ones closes to us. I needed to get out and do something that would challenge me, but that I could manage to conquer. I was asking around about water sports, and Parafed suggested Sailability. I went along to see, and eventually I started to learn how to sail with this disability. I think the reconnection with the sea was very calming and healing for me, the more I went the more it brought some perspective into my life, and helped me to get over the mourning phase.

Sailing makes things better

One of the great things about Sailing is once you are in the right class of boat, you can race against anyone, able bodied and disabled. It’s about who has the best sailing skills, not strength. All our regattas are open to everyone. I think of Sailing as the Chess game of sport, wear there is no losers you either win or you learn something. Plus the environment that it is performed on can be so therapeutic.

Fast forward to today, I’m very fortunate that my loving wife stuck with me, as many find it too hard, and walk away. I’m proud that we have been able to bring up four great kids together. I’m fortunate I still have my connection with the sea. I have been able to give back, by helping to teach other people living with a disability how to sail a boat. It’s funny because a lot of good has come from that one bad moment, its fear to say that this disability has helped to enrich my life, that and having a loving family.

Everyday can be hard if you let it, needing help just to get out of bed, relying on others to do simple everyday tasks can easily challenge the strongest of minds. But with the right attitude of getting on and doing it, making the most of every day, being thankful for what we have, and giving back when we can, all help to pave a meaningful life.

And hey how many people can say “I’m only one step away from a miracle”!  Shine on you crazy diamond!

Brendan Tourelle

May 13th, 2017|Categories: All News|

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