Abby's recovery message - 'I just didn't give up'

20:21, Dec 26 2013
Abby Benge
THIS DAY: Fatal car crash survivor Abby Benge and her mother, Theresa, in their Hamilton home, taking recovery one day at a time.

Abby is still Abby, smiling on the family couch at Rototuna.

It's remarkable considering her journey through the darkness and trauma of a head-on road smash on Valentine's Day that killed her friend Shayna Kumitau.

The drunk driver who veered across the centre line on State Highway 23 at Whatawhata nearly took her life too.

Abby benge
THIS DAY: Fatal car crash survivor Abby Benge and her mother, Theresa, in their Hamilton home, taking recovery one day at a time.

Nobody knew if she'd survive and, even if she did, there was no guarantee that her personality would come through the brain injury intact.

After 30 days in a coma, Abby woke up.

Now, nearly a year on, she's on the couch at home, smiling and laughing as her mother, Theresa, tells a story that gives you an idea about the kind of person Abby is.


Abby benge
THE HARD WORK: Abby Benge during her recovery at an Auckland rehabilitation centre.

"We saw the fireman the other day who was at the scene," Mrs Benge says.

"He sat with Abby while they cut somebody else out of [the wreckage]. She was fully awake but she doesn't remember any of it, and he said, ‘You told me your name and all about your family. You know, you're one of the bravest people I've ever sat with and I've cut a thousand people out. You weren't crying or screaming, just really brave.' He said, 'Do you remember me?' "

Abby's answer was no - "he was gutted", she says.

Before the crash Abby was an active 19-year-old, studying to become an early childhood teacher with dreams of working with orphans.

She loved to surf in the ocean and at the end of a rope behind a boat. Extreme sports appealed to her. She was always the tomboy among the girls. She played touch, liked to skateboard and was a youth group leader at Horsham Downs Community Church.

Her parents have been pastors ever since she was born at Middlemore Hospital so Christianity was destined to be a big part of her life.

She moved to the quiet suburbs of north Hamilton at 14 after growing up in Papakura. Abby was a fast talker then, too fast at times. She'd often relate a movie's plot to friends and family in such detail there was no point in them seeing it. She always timed her punchlines well.

All of those memories before remain clear.

Her final recollection before the blackness was getting behind the wheel of her Suzuki Swift to drive three friends to Raglan - the car laden with cupcakes for a Disney-themed farewell for a friend heading overseas.

When she woke up in a Waikato Hospital ward, her struggle began.

Both her femurs had snapped - there was a rod through her right thigh and a plate down her left that connects to her busted kneecap. Her jaw was fractured and she lost eight teeth.

Part of her brain was damaged because, doctors believe, fatty tissue from bone marrow travelled up to her neck and caused a blockage. As a result, she couldn't move the right side of her body. Both ankles were broken. So was her collarbone. There were lung lacerations and cracked vertebra.

And there was her smile.

"I didn't cry, really, in hospital," she says. "I slept mostly 'cause I was really tired. I just wanted to stay in the positive and make the most of it. Because there were a lot of people coming and visiting me.

"They don't want to see sadness and pain. They wanted to see a smile, so I thought that would be better than crying or being negative or depressed."

She and her family prayed and Abby kept her faith. She tried to avoid asking the why questions as the path they led down was dark.

She improved day by day, particularly during 16 weeks at the acute brain injury rehabilitation centre at Ranui, West Auckland.

For a time, she had to be hoisted out of a bed into her wheelchair each day. And if she wanted to go to the toilet she had to be hoisted into a commode, with broken legs and one side unable to move - "Drama," Abby says.

It was exactly four months after the crash that Abby took her first steps in a walking hoist.

"I stood up and it didn't hurt and I wanted to walk so I walked around the gym, twice," she says proudly.

Abby had to learn everything again - how to talk, how to brush her hair and apply toothpaste.

Abby graduated through three wheelchairs to a walking frame, to crutches, to a crutch and now she gets about unaided.

Yet she's a "little bit wobbly" still.

"I'm getting there but because of my brain injury I keep hyperextending my knee," she says.

Abby does weight and floor exercises each day and she cycles. Her right side is working again now.

Most brain injury recovery occurs within the first two years so there's work to do.

There's tutoring and speech therapy to get her sentences flowing again. She even passed a Wintec paper during the second semester, with a little help.

One of her big goals was to walk back into Waikato Hospital and meet the men and women who saved her - it's one of many goals that she's ticked off during a recovery her mother describes as "exceptional".

"The good thing is Abby is still there," Mrs Benge says.

"We call it recovery, don't we Ab. We don't talk about what we can't do, we talk about how far we've come. We do a lot of rehab every day, whether it's reading, assignments, physio - it's a fulltime thing.

"Abby wakes up every morning and doesn't say my life sucks. She says, I slept well, let's get on with the day."

Abby isn't letting expert opinion limit her - after all, the doctors were wrong before, she says.

"I'm meant to be dead. I'm not meant to be walking yet. I'm meant to be starting walking now."

And her story goes deeper than exceeding expectations and smiling through adversity.

When asked what healthy and able-bodied people could learn from her, she says: "I just didn't give up."

Waikato Times