Aaron's tragedy spurred Helmet Lady's crusade

BY MICHELLE DUFF
Last updated 13:00 17/08/2010
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Manawatu Standard
CRUSADERS: Rebecca Oaten, aka the Helmet Lady, cuddles her son Aaron in 1992, six years after he was injured.

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Aaron Oaten, the brain-damaged son of "the Helmet Lady" who furiously campaigned to make cycle helmets compulsory in New Zealand, has died at 37.

Mr Oaten passed away in Palmerston North's Arohanui Hospice on Saturday, after 24 years living as a tetraplegic, paralysed from the neck down after a bicycle accident in 1986.

Aaron, aged 12, was cycling to school when he was knocked from his 10-speed bike by a car on Pioneer Highway. The instant his head hit the concrete gutter, his life changed forever.

Aaron slipped into a coma. When he awoke eight months later, he was paralysed and unable to speak, his body rendered useless, his mind trapped inside.

His mother, Rebecca Oaten, went on a crusade to make sure her son's accident was not ignored. Dubbed The Helmet Lady by the nation's children, for six years she travelled to schools around the country to push the importance of wearing safety helmets.

Her tenacity gave rise to Palmerston North-based Protect the Brains trust, which spread nationwide and lobbied the Government for a law to make helmets compulsory.

On January 1, 1994, Mrs Oaten achieved her goal. Then Transport Minister Rob Storey announced the new regulation for cyclists to wear helmets, or face a $35 fine.

From her home in Palmerston North yesterday, where she nursed Aaron for the past 24 years, Mrs Oaten said her son had lived through a long, arduous two decades.

"He paid a very high price, and his life was absolutely restricted. He had a hard life, poor old bloke."

But he always kept his sense of humour, she said. "Aaron was a lovely, lovely man, he was a good companion. Right until the end he was ready to laugh at a daft joke."

Doctors said the effects of the severe brain damage had caused his body to age prematurely, as he was unable to maintain his health like a normal, active person.

Mrs Oaten was proud of the role she and Aaron played in making helmets compulsory, and said it was the best thing she could have done.

"Absolutely. I was very angry when Aaron had his accident, and it was probably the kind of anger that would have destroyed me if I hadn't harnessed it. It was an extremely cathartic experience for me, and I'm glad I did it."

For six years she visited an average of four schools a day, "lambasting" kids with reasons why they should wear helmets.

Fainting students were common, as Mrs Oaten told halls of teenagers about Aaron's everyday life in graphic detail, including how he needed a catheter to urinate.

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"I used to say, `If you don't like to wear a safety helmet boys, would you want to wear one of these and see how you like it?'. It was like a domino effect, once the first boy went [fainted] it would be like bang, bang, bang."

She thinks it is "brilliant" that 92 per cent of cyclists wear helmets now, and hopes it is a trend that continues. After talking animatedly for 10 minutes about the necessity of helmets, she paused with a laugh.

"Oh my goodness, it's the Helmet Lady speaking again, isn't it?"

A friend of Mrs Oaten's told her that if there was some good that came from Aaron's accident, it was that he prevented other children from experiencing the same fate.

"She felt that Aaron's life had been a legacy to New Zealand because of the helmet thing, and I thought that was really nice.

"It was a good effort by a lot of people, and it produced the results we wanted."

- Manawatu Standard

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