Tin Man turns titanium
When Christchurch artist Tony Cribb collapsed last year, doctors found a brain tumour. Then he had a stroke and lost use of his painting arm. BECK ELEVEN hears about the long road back to the studio and asks whether his most popular creation, Tin Man, will return.
Looking back, Tony Cribb had played a shocker of a first half in the touch rugby. He was fit and active yet two players on the opposing side ran straight past and he had barely clocked them.
The second half was worse. That's when he collapsed.
It was October 31 last year, Halloween. His partner, Pipa Henderson, and their two young sons were on the sideline watching as Cribb dropped then had a seizure.
One ambulance ride, one head scan and several tense hours later the answer was this: a brain tumour. A fist-sized meningioma that had been fighting for space against his brain. It would turn out to be operable and benign but they weren't to know that yet.
From their curtained booth in A&E, Cribb's only response was: "I wasn't expecting that."
Henderson, on the other hand, was stunned.
"My first thought was 'I'm going to be a single mother'. I didn't know there was such a thing as a benign tumour," she says.
Surgery was set for November 22 while they waited for a custom-made titanium plate to fit his skull.
The four-hour surgery left a scar in the shape of a question mark that runs over his head and around his left ear. Besides almost certainly saving his life, the operation had an unexpected effect on the colour of his hair.
Normally a proud red-head, Cribb's hair had dulled with age. Post-surgery it grew back a "fiery red" all over except along the margins of his scar, where it grows black.
"Strange things have happened," he concludes.
His hair truly was the least of their worries. Before tests confirmed the tumour was benign, there was time for the family to consider his fate.
"I had a pretty strong opinion. I just felt like 'what will be, will be' and I was comfortable with that. Well, I was on the kind of drugs that make you appreciate the trees blow in the wind," he says.
With the operation completed and Cribb's head safely stapled back in one piece, Pipa returned home to the kids. Shortly after, the hospital rang saying her partner was having uncontrollable seizures.
"You're walking into a room with a full team over him, with someone holding his airway open. He was convulsing and they had that 'smiling panic' face. It was frightening. There was hours of that happening."
Eventually he was put into an induced coma in the intensive care unit and further tests showed he'd had a stroke.
The right side of his body was limp and he was unable to speak.
Cribb is right-handed and with Gus only four months old and little Jimmy barely two, his art was their only source of income. "But we weren't worried at all if he couldn't paint again," Henderson says.
"We just wanted him alive. With the brain, they can never say exactly what would come back. The best advice we got was to look at recovery in terms of weeks and months, even years. We'd been waiting for things to improve every hour and they just don't."
After almost two weeks in Christchurch Public Hospital he was transferred to Burwood Hospital's brain injury rehabilitation unit.
He wet himself during the ambulance transfer because he thought he had told the nurse he needed to urinate and he couldn't understand why she wasn't listening. For weeks his standard answer, to almost anything, was "hmmm" with a nod of the head, always believing he was speaking coherently.
Meanwhile, Henderson became the focal point for queries about her partner. As word spread, she was overwhelmed by calls and text messages so she set up a private Facebook page as a central point for health updates and it took on a life of its own.
Someone suggested people buy the work already available in shops and another friend started a fundraising page. The page, called Tony's Tin Soldiers, was hosted by givealittle.co.nz and it was here where the family would see what Cribb's work and personality had reaped.
Cribb's little orange figure, Tin Man, was well-known for its slightly warped humour; less known was Cribb's volunteer work and selflessness. For 11 years, Cribb had been one-on-one mentoring at Camp Quality, a camp for children with cancer. And when fundraisers requested a Tin Man painting for one charity auction or another, they were rarely turned away. Cribb's mantra had long been "leave the world a better place" and his desire to help came back like a boomerang.
Hour by hour donations came. The goal of $3000 was passed within days and by the end, $23,000 had been raised. Not just from friends and family but strangers here and overseas.
"Your artwork has provided me with hours and hours of enjoyment and laughter. Get better soon please," read one donation.
Another reads: "It is so wonderful to see the public getting behind a great artist and a fabulous and generous human being whose works have delighted us with their honesty, humour, technical brilliance and imagination."
Henderson said the giving made her so nervous she stopped looking at the page.
"At the time, I felt proud and embarrassed. It felt awkward but in hindsight it meant we didn't go into debt."
In Burwood, Cribb's rehabilitation continued with almost six weeks of daily sessions in speech and language, physiotherapy, occupational therapy and psychology. They couldn't be more effusive about the standard of care.
On New Year's Eve, he was discharged and Henderson asked how he wanted to celebrate.
The words came out slowly.
"K . . . F . . .C . . ."
They bought a family bucket of the Colonel's finest and had a picnic in the lounge.
Recovery has been slow. Cribb returned to his studio for the first time last week; it was mainly just dusting and vacuuming.
"Even now my right hand is still shaky. Either it will come back to me and I'll be a pretty good artist again or I'll turn into one of those crazy wonky artists.
"People keep asking if I've got crazy ideas floating around in my head. I don't. I know they're in there somewhere and they'll come out when they're ready. I'm not worried."
With a lot of fine work in his painting, the shakes are a concern but as he improves, he hopes the Tin Man will live on.
Until then, "he might have a holiday in Timbuctoo (sic)."
Cribb still needs to nap for at least an hour during the day and a recent foray into very early mornings wiped him out for days. He can no longer risk a knock to the head so it's curtains for his much- loved social soccer games too.
What the family are extremely grateful for is the tremendous support they received. For every kindness large and small.
The money meant they survived the year without going into debt.
Cribb has been able to spend time with his boys, recreating the strong bonds that were lacking after his illness. He has not had a seizure since leaving hospital.
For the roughest two months a meal roster meant a food delivery each night.
"Gus was a big baby and sucking the life out of me so nutrition was really important. I would have got sick otherwise, I know it," Henderson says.
Someone mowed their lawns and continued to mow the neighbour's lawns too, as Cribb had always done. His football team held a quiz night, there were vouchers, DVDs and colouring books, a Lego set they could keep at the hospital, a cousin who came to look after the kids for two weeks, groceries delivered, the gift of a much-admired painting and a wallet filled with gold coins so Henderson could park near the hospital without having to walk far with the kids and pram.
"We just really want to stress how important all the help was. We have recovered incredibly well. It's a happy ending.
"We're not in debt but without the money we would have been in big trouble. I would have said 'no' every time to the help but we really want to create awareness for people going through difficult times. It's easy to give but it's hard to accept so don't be stubborn.
"You can help people even if you think you can't. We've spoken to people and nobody has even made them a meal.
"I think sometimes strong people don't get the help, or you're afraid they'll turn you down but just go and do it. Without asking if you have to."
We'll let Tin Man himself have the last word. After the interview, Tin Man sent an email to Mainlander:
"I have always played up to the idea of having a flip-top head with lots of little people inside . . . it certainly appears as if I was correct."