Family tragedy inspires will to live

OLIVIA CARVILLE
Last updated 16:32 17/02/2012
Jane Tyalor
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/Fairfax NZ
A FIGHTER: Jane Taylor, who was trapped in the City Mall during the earthquake, works on her recovery.

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Jane Taylor never imagined the death of her teenage son would one day instil in her a tenacious will to live.

After she was "bent like a staple" beneath the rubble of the City Mall, she contemplated giving up on life and joining her youngest child, Alex, who was killed by a drink-driver in 2007.

But, just before she slipped into unconsciousness she realised she could not leave her husband and remaining son for fear they would not survive another family tragedy.

Face down in the darkness and dust, she started to breathe again.

Almost one year on from the day her broken and bloodied body was photographed for an international audience, Jane recalls the minutes after the quake struck.

February 22 is not a distant blur but a vivid reality. She remembers the building collapsing above her, the taste of dust and blood and the realisation that she was in the middle of chaos and was going to die without hospital treatment.

"The fear amongst that pandemonium was unbelievable. People were running and screaming and buildings were crashing down. It was like I was in the middle of a battle scene."

"When the building fell on me I thought, 'This is it, I'm going to die'. There was no fear. I was going to Alex and it was all quite pragmatic really," she says from her Papanui home.

"Then I thought, 'No, I can't possibly leave my husband and son'. I think I decided then and there that I was not going to die, that I had to live."

Taylor says it would have been "easier to think goodnight and just sink into it", but she fought horrendous injuries, including a broken back and collapsed lung, to remain conscious until she made it to Christchurch Hospital an hour and a half later.

The last thing she remembers is being carried on to a stretcher in the accident and emergency department. Then it all went black.

Twelve months on and the 54-year-old mother is, against the odds, starting to live again.

After three weeks in an induced coma, three months of hospital beds and many hours on the operating table, Jane can walk, talk and even drive once more.

She has a metal cage internally supporting her spine and a painful shoulder injury that will serve as life-long constant reminders of the deadly February earthquake.

But Jane's brush with death and her gruelling recovery process is not the family's first tragedy; nor is it their worst.

She credits her survival to her 18-year-old son who died four years ago.

"When you lose a child, I don't think you are afraid of anything any more. His death made me a stronger person, and I think that's why I survived when so many others didn't."

Alex Taylor was killed when one of his best friends, who was drink-driving and speeding, crashed into a fence in Cranford St in 2007.

His bedroom is still his own, the drawers are full of untouched clothes, and poems he wrote as a child are still pinned to the walls.

Alex's ashes are always kept close and photographs of him are all around the family home; framed in the lounge, magneted on to the fridge, blu-tacked to a wall in the kitchen.

After the earthquake, when Jane was being airlifted to Wellington, her husband went back to their dark, damaged home to get his son's ashes out of the house before flying up to join his wife.

For Jane and Shaun Taylor, nothing can compare with losing their youngest child.

"His death helped us cope with the injuries, the pain, the hospitals and the drama. As a family, we had been through more with Alex's death then what this was. This just didn't seem as bad at all," she says matter-of-factly from a reclining chair in her living room.

Eleven months after losing her son, Jane's dad died suddenly and then her husband was hospitalised twice with a bacterial infection that he battled for seven months.

Despite all she has been through Jane is steadfastly positive.

As she speaks, her husband of 32 years walks into the lounge shirtless, kisses his wife and sits down with a beer.

Jane laughs and calls him her "ageing sun god".

"You know, we are almost privileged to have all this s... happen to us," she says to him.

"They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but in some ways it scars you. Shaun and I have grown very, very close through all our hardships. I wouldn't have survived without him or my son Jono. We are lucky that we got through for each other. For years now we have been fighting this fight together and we will just carry on."

Shaun never once thought his wife was going to die. Not when he found her covered in blood, barely breathing in the City Mall, not when he was told by two doctors to "prepare for the worst" on February 22 and not when medics thought they were going to lose her after a six-hour operation took 10 and a half hours.

"I used to think, 'What happens if something happens to my family?' Then something did, so I have never and will never think like that any more," he says.

"You always think they are going to survive. You need to think they are going to survive."

Shaun, a teacher at Shirley Boys' High School, has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of his wife's injuries and operations.

He kept a lonely vigil at her bedside in Wellington Hospital for three weeks, willing her to wake up from a coma.

Silenced by machines and medication, Jane says she can recall her husband's presence as well as horrific moments of pain while she was unresponsive in the intensive care unit.

"Even though I was in a coma I was still screaming on the inside. Every time the nurses rolled me I could hear them saying, 'What's wrong Mrs Taylor?', because I was in agony and my vitals were shooting up."

When Jane was slowly waking up from her coma, Shaun would hold up a photograph of Alex and ask: "Do you know who this is?"

Although she could not talk because of a tracheotomy, the photo would bring tears to her eyes and Shaun knew his wife recognised their son and had not suffered brain injuries.

"Even in my hallucinations while I was in a coma, he was still dead. Even when I woke up after all that time, he was still dead. I wish I had thought otherwise. I wish I could have pretended if only for a while, but I always knew he was gone," she says.

Small steps in Jane's recovery process were big celebrations for her family.

Her husband, 26-year-old son Jono and mother Gaye Paterson have supported her along the way and were there for the first time she spoke, ate, walked and drove after the quake.

When she was discharged from hospital, a welcoming committee of about 20 family members, yahooing and holding up banners, greeted her as she arrived home.

Crutches, seat risers, a wheelchair, commode and shower stool were additions to the family home.

Although she still struggles with her balance and has three physiotherapy appointments a week, she says she is proud of the independence and dignity she has regained.

"For a while there my life wasn't my own. Shaun and Mum would do everything for me, but now I am taking my own life back and every day I push myself to do more."

She says her experience not only changed her body but it has also changed her as a person.

She used to enjoy a glass of wine after work but now, with daily medication, it just makes her tired.

She also used to smoke heavily, but after three weeks in a coma she lost the craving.

"It has definitely changed me, but some of those changes have been for the better," she says.

"When your life nearly passes you by, you feel your fate and you look at yourself a lot. You are given a rare opportunity to make some changes for the better."

Jane believes her recovery is testament to the miracle of the human body.

She hopes her story will give others in a similar position the courage to keep fighting.

"I am not young and when the doctors saw me they probably thought that girl's down, that girl's finished. But look at me today. I'm up, I'm walking and I'm still here."

- The Press