From one road to another

LYN HUMPHREYS
Last updated 11:41 07/07/2012
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Cameron Burnell
Debra Avery and her physiotherapist Nadine Smith.
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Debra Avery in hospital after the accident.

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The first cupcakes Debra Avery baked never made it to the Toko School gala day.

At 4.30pm on February 24, as she rounded a blind corner on a narrow eastern Taranaki backcountry road, she was struck head-on by a young neighbour who had lost control of his car after jamming his brakes trying to avoid her.

The marks police painted on the road now serve as a reminder every time she passes the crash site.

"It's not my favourite corner," she reflects. "But it's no different from all back roads, you just have to drive to the conditions. It's no good saying the road's at fault otherwise half of New Zealand roads would be at fault."

She is now on a different road - one to a qualified recovery.

She shouldn't be alive. One of her legs was so munched it should have been amputated, her orthopaedic surgeon told her. Both femurs were shattered but it was her right thigh, broken in seven places, that had the surgeon worried. In the end, titanium rods were threaded through both thighs.

Miraculously, her femoral arteries remained intact or she would have rapidly bled to death well before the paramedics arrived. "My legs took the full brunt of the impact. They took some of the dash board out of my knee. The whole left knee is stuffed - they couldn't find some of it."

The impact also broke eight ribs, which punctured her right lung. Her nose was broken and her bottom teeth sliced through her lip. A head injury has caused ongoing memory loss.

The straight-shooter says she has never been one to beat around the bush, doesn't want to be fed false hope and appreciates her orthopaedic surgeon's honesty.

"He says I just have to put up with what's left. It's full of scar tissue. I have to put up with the bone rubbing on the muscles."

He told her recovery would take five years and the state of her body then would be the best she could expect.

"I'll get arthritis and I'll need a new knee. That's the prediction. He says you've just got to appreciate what you've got."

There are always strong pain-killing drugs if things get too bad during the day. "I try not to take many during the day. But if I am in pain and I take one it's good."

Avery was expected to spend six months in Taranaki Base Hospital but she beat the odds, heading home in 60 days.

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The physiotherapist told her the quick release time was a direct result of getting stuck in to her stretches and exercises. She was at it four and five times a day. "I pushed myself a lot."

While it was good to get home there was the challenge of surviving without support services right at hand.

"At the start it was pretty scary. In hospital you push the call bell. I might have looked good but I wasn't that good."

There are all the unmentionable health problems she is still trying to cope with and willing them to heal.

"Things aren't right in other areas yet. If they don't come right it'll be a bit of a bastard."

The head injury has left her struggling to retrieve names. She can no longer cope with being part of big crowds. Before the crash it was her domain. Now the noise gets to her.

She uses crutches to get around but sometimes forgets her limitations and walks the short distance between the sink to the cupboards without them. The price is pain.

"But it's all coming along pretty well. It's like you've got to learn to walk again. The kids say I walk like a penguin because my feet are aiming outwards."

Getting the new car has returned her independence and she's loving watching her kids play sport, again.

Another buzz for her is swimming. She drives to the swimming pool in Stratford and can now swim 20 lengths. She'd do it every day but it gets too expensive. It's not covered by ACC.

Physiotherapist Anita Walsh is a big admirer of Debra's gutsiness.

"It's a long, tough road to come back. But she's tough and she's got a good supportive family." The day she spoke with us, Avery achieved another milestone in her recovery. Her bad leg, which normally has to have a lot of help on the exercycle, bent on its own for the first time.

"That's the first time I've had a 100 degree bend in the knee. Normally I would sit there and force the other leg to bend it and stretch it."

That was tempered last week by the results of an MRI scan of her groin. It needs to be repaired by an Auckland specialist - but not until her thighbones have healed.

She's relieved that their oldest, 18-year-old David, is back home from Massey University - where he's doing an agricultural science degree - and is helping world shearing champion father Paul on their 1048-acre farm.

"Paul is flat stick so it's good he's got David here for three weeks."

They are doing what would normally be her job as stock manager of the bulls, dairy heifers, steers and sheep.

While Paul was away competing on the shearing circuit amassing a horde of silverware in a top-flight career, Debra ran the farm.

"I've done most of the stock work while Paul's been shearing here and overseas."

That shearing career, which took the 45-year-old to the top of the world in Norway in 2008, is on hold as Debra recovers. But an eventual return to the competitive boards is still on the cards.

"If Debra's OK, the season starts in November in Taranaki and I might have a play. I'll see how the body is," Paul says. He had no idea of the extent of what his wife did for him and the kids until he had to do both jobs.

"It's been tough. She's a determined person and she's wanting to get better as fast as she can. To get to the next point, walking without crutches, could take months," he says.

Paul admits his cooking is not up to his shearing standards and is thankful of the ongoing community support. The food "that arrived from all over" was a godsend.

"The rural community's awesome like that."

A large group of "garden circle" women spruced up the Avery gardens while a neighbour took care of the lawns.

The accident had a ripple effect through the family.

Johanna, the couple's second oldest, needed counselling. She suffered the trauma of seeing her critically injured mother at the scene.

"It knocked her for a six but she seems a lot better now."

Debra's Singapore-based brother, Grant (Axe) Rawlinson, arrived the day of the crash to visit his family. He had been in the South Island to hone his climbing skills before a second tilt at conquering Mt Everest.

Grant was compelled to write on his online website, "Axe on Everest", of the horror of seeing Debra in hospital. He backed it with a blog: "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

His sister was delighted and proud he dedicated the Everest adventure to a fundraising effort for the Taranaki Community Rescue Helicopter. It was his way of saying thanks for helping save his big sister.

In early August he is due to visit Taranaki to speak at a series of fundraisers as well as visit the schools which have followed his adventures.

The day of the accident, he and his mother were not prepared for the "wrecked" woman they saw lying in A&E awaiting surgery.

"Any feelings that she was lucky immediately dissolved. Lying on the bed was a broken and shattered human being. She is one of the good people in the world. She definitely did not deserve this," Rawlinson said.

Meanwhile, baking another batch of cupcakes is a challenge Debra intends to tackle. The last she saw of her first lot of buns was in a police photo. They were spread all around her wrecked car.

"Maybe it was an omen," she jokes.

"We'll get back to it one day."

- Taranaki Daily News

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