Back in the saddle

04:17, Mar 17 2014
Phil Berryman
Sergeant Phil Berryman, of Invercargill police, shares his story after a motorbike accident in 2013.
Phil Berryman
Sergeant Phil Berryman, of Invercargill police, shares his story after a motorbike accident in 2013.
Phil Berryman
Sergeant Phil Berryman, of Invercargill police, shares his story after a motorbike accident in 2013.
Phil Berryman
Sergeant Phil Berryman, of Invercargill police, shares his story after a motorbike accident in 2013.
Phil Berryman
Sergeant Phil Berryman, of Invercargill police, shares his story after a motorbike accident in 2013.

Trauma had an unexpectedly profound upside for Phil Berryman, writes Nicci McDougall.

A man lies motionless on the damp road listening to the commotion around him.

He stares at a grey barrier and the road, which seems too close to his head. His knee and wrist start to throb. Even though his mind is almost blank he knows he's hit something with his motorbike. But what?

Southland Times photo
Phil Berryman is back at work on light duties.

No panic, even then. If anything, he feels calm. But the question keeps coming back to him. What did I hit?

A wider sense of his situation quickly sets in and, even though he can't move, Sergeant Phil Berryman instinctively knows something.

He's going to be okay.


It's a reassurance drawn from a sense of trust in the health system, his Christian faith and the experiences of his lengthy career as a police officer.

Berryman has been a police officer for 26 years and knows what it's like to attend a crash scene and get to work. But he didn't know what it was like to be the one down there on the road.

A year on, he sits on a chair in his sunny north-facing Invercargill living room with a big smile on his face.

It's not hard to understand the sheer horror of a crash but it is hard to get how someone could look back on it and see it as somehow a good thing. A positive thing.

Berryman just been through his fifth operation but somehow he's still feeling a vivid sense, beyond what went so wrong, of how much has gone so right. It's this attitude he credits to getting him back on two legs and two wheels.

It's March 19, 2013. Berryman and his mate Geoff Heathcote are cruising across the country on their motorbikes. It's a four-year tradition and the thrill isn't in the destination but the ride itself.

It's raining in Waikato for the first time in weeks. Berryman and Heathcote are travelling unfamiliar territory from New Plymouth to Hamilton on State Highway 3 through the Awakino Gorge.

It's the fourth day of a planned 15-day road trip and they intend to stay the night with friends.

About an hour into their trip, Berryman's rear wheel loses its grip. He tries to correct it but the 55kmh corner quickly approaches and he crosses the centre line.

''It was split-second stuff.''

He sees an oncoming ute. He already knows a collision is unavoidable.

"I remember seeing the ute and thinking, 'I'm going to hit this' . . . I remember the thud but nothing else."

Next thing he's lying in the middle of the road. His 1995 Yamaha FJ 1200cc lies crumpled behind him.

He stirs, dazed and confused, but his new helmet has done its job.

"I just prayed and asked God if I would be all right."

Pain, which will be his companion in the months of physiotherapy and recovery that lie ahead, starts to become intense. There will be times when it's excruciating.

Berryman's broken wrist and leg aren't the half of it. He has internal injuries, a sacral fracture, and an open-book spread of his pelvis.

After paramedics treat him, Berryman is flown by rescue helicopter to Waikato Hospital. It's seven days before he undergoes the first of many operations. He's eventually transported to Southland Hospital and spends another seven days there.

He endures four operations before he's sent home in a wheelchair, which is to be his permanent seat for the following 12 weeks.

What follows only deepens the confidence he had already held in the health system he'd seen swing into action so often during his career.

Berryman was born in England and moved to New Zealand when he was 6 years old. After training to become a cop at the age of 21 he was on general duties in Auckland before moving to Invercargill in 1995.

He quickly tired of dealing with alcohol-related dramas and domestic conflicts and he's sure he wouldn't have lasted 26 years if he was still on general duties.

Happily, for the past nine years he has been the head of police youth aid in Invercargill. "It's much more rewarding."

Since his crash, a few things have become a lot clearer for Berryman. A big one is a heightened sense of long-term aftermaths.

An officer dealing with a crash could be at the scene for a few hours, might spend days on paperwork, later follow up with the injured or their families . . . and then it's over.

But the big picture is so different for the people at the centre of it all, he says.

If he had to attend another crash as part of the emergency services team he'd be more interested in having contact after the crash to see how people were doing - even months or years down the track.

As an officer at crash scenes Berryman would always helping sort out the people involved or protecting the other professionals who were working, keeping the area safe. It wasn't until his own crash he realised what an outstanding job everyone involved does.

And he didn't realise the number of people involved. From the initial emergency response to helicopter staff and hospital staff followed by ongoing assistance such as ACC, home help and physiotherapists.

The staggering support from everyone, the calm and professional attitudes and the attentiveness, are a vivid part of his own experience.

The country is full of caring people, he says.

They go about their work on a routine basis, but the good they do is perhaps something only the victims can best appreciate.

Did we say victim? Berryman wasn't going to let the crash destroy his career or his passion for motorbikes and the great outdoors.

He started riding farm bikes when he was 15 and road bikes at 18.

Since the crash he's been on three hour-long rides but says he still feels a bit undecided on how the head-space is in terms of future riding - though the two shiny motorbikes (one off-road, one on- road) still taking up residence in his garage tell a different story.

Throughout the pain and long recovery Berryman says he has had determination on his side.

His positivity has amazed the medical staff who treated him. His physiotherapist, Alison Howe, has been treating patients for 13 years and says Berryman was one of the most motivated patients she's ever had.

She didn't hear him complain once despite his serious, painful injuries.

Berryman would come into the gym three times a week for strength work, particularly on his legs. Howe looked through Berryman's case and expected he would at least be limping.

Instead, he's walking almost perfectly.

He'd already been rowing and biking and was "incredibly motivated" when he'd only been out of a wheelchair a few weeks.

"He was one of my easiest clients as far as his attitude (went). You almost had to hold him back a little bit."

Heathcote, who was riding with him when he crashed, echoes this sentiment.

The New Zealand Aluminium Smelters process technician says he knew Berryman was coherent after he started complaining about music from his headphones that he couldn't turn off.

Heathcote was shocked and worried after he rounded the corner to find Berryman lying in the middle of the road. But, Berryman was positive from the get-go. This wasn't a surprise to Heathcote who says Berryman was a positive person.

Heathcote credits his willingness to recover to his logical personality, his police training and the support and encouragement he received from his family, his work colleagues and the police force.

The pair have since been on a couple of short rides together but Berryman is still a little apprehensive. Heathcote is sure they will resume their annual trip.

"I'm just pleased he's okay. A couple of years down the track this will hopefully be a distant memory."

Berryman says he has been through most people's worst nightmare - multiple injuries and a long road to recovery.

But one year on he continues to remain positive because he strongly believes that's why he's healing quicker than anyone expected.

"Broken bones and injuries heal . . . the outcome will be whatever it's going to be and worrying about it isn't going to change the situation."

He will undergo further operations as he continues to heal, but he's back at work on light duties - a man whose job is to help others and is all the better placed to do so because, in his time of need, so many others were there to help him.


The Southland Times