THE BEST END TO 2020!
Photo of Phil Freeman (left), Claire Freeman (right).
As people coped with lockdowns and uncertainty from the Covid19 pandemic, my family were dealing with a different problem; a suicidal father and a fundraising effort instigated by myself, his daughter. 2020 was a low point for my whanau, however, the year ended with a successful outcome that I could not have anticipated.
Two years ago, my father had a stroke. He ended up spending many months in hospital and on more than one occasion, his whanau were told to say our last goodbyes, only to find the next day, he had pulled through the night after being taken off life support. His prognosis was initially grim in terms of function and cognitive abilities, yet two years on, we have our dad back. He and I often clashed, yet I have always admired his love for life, for his whanau, and his wily sense of humour and intelligence.
The stroke left him paralysed down his right side, and until recently, he suffered from vision issues. He spent his days sitting in an armchair, unable to mobilise. Depression set in and a few months ago, he attempted suicide, ending up in hospital.
Most people said they ‘understood why he did it’… except me; his youngest daughter. My connection with my father changed the day of his stroke. My background is like my fathers, except instead of a stroke, I sustained a spinal injury at the age of 17 that caused paralysis from my neck down. My mother fell asleep while driving; I was asleep in the back seat without my seatbelt. I too had been through the dark days, attempting suicide for several years following the crash, often ending up in hospital in a coma.
Unlike my father, my paralysis was the result of an accident so I was under the care of the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC). This meant I was entitled to mobility devices, home modifications for my wheelchair, and I was eventually able to change my way of thinking about my disability. I’m now completing my Doctorate at AUT, an academic body of work that has helped sculpt critical thinking skills that have been invaluable throughout the past year.
After my dad’s suicide attempt, I quickly realized he needed the help I had never received after my own attempts. He needed a change to his environment. He needed autonomy, he needed help, and counselling alone would not fix the issues he faced.
Knowing it was a race against time until he might try to end his life again, I started a fundraising campaign with the hope of raising enough money to help him. I did so after realizing he would not receive help from our national health system. When we applied for a lottery grant for a power wheelchair, we were denied after being told we were ‘unsuccessful due to the large number of grant requests received and the limited funds available’ – National Funds Team, Dept. Internal Affairs. We needed to fix his double vision, previously assumed to be a result of the stroke. After seeing an optometrist, it was discovered the vision issues could be fixed. I knew after his vision was re-established; he would need a way to mobilise.
Knowing he would need money to achieve autonomy, I ambitiously painted some large canvasses that I sold, no mean feat for a tetraplegic with limited arm movement! That, combined with money raised from a ‘give-a-little page, meant I had enough money to pay for his eye surgery and a power wheelchair. A few months after his suicide attempt, I was finally able to fly up north with my assistant. I hired a van, collected some wheelchairs from Auckland after researching what would be best suited for him, and drove north to Whangarei, our old hometown where he resides with his wife.
I was surprised he was so accepting of the power wheelchair, but then as he said, staring at four walls for two years had nearly killed him; it was time to start living again. As he wheeled out his front door, into his garden, I wept seeing him wheel around, hearing him say ‘I have not been out here, in my garden, for two years’.
I had done it. It was a huge undertaking that I had done primarily alone as only I knew the urgency of the situation. I knew that grief he felt, the loss of a body he knew. I also knew mobility was key to a degree of autonomy that he desperately craved.
His life is not perfect, it is far from it. His house lies unmodified, he has essentially been abandoned by the New Zealand health care system he has paid taxes into all his life. I have pondered about how we could let this happen. As his daughter, how had I not seen how dire his world was? As a kiwi, how can we accept this fate for our elderly who happen to have strokes, or other conditions that disable lives. We need to look after our most vulnerable, what kind of society are we if we do not help our tangata; our people?
My dad taught me more than he will know. He taught me resilience and to activate stubborn determination. I managed to help him and that is the best gift I could have wanted. His dire situation highlighted the inconsistencies within our health system, from the haves - ACC clients, and the have-nots - Ministry of Health clients. This has made me determined to devote my life to fixing these issues. The first stage, educating our people of the problems. It also taught me, that there are solutions to seemingly impossible situations and my disability ‘super-power’ gave me the skills to save his life. I often say, ‘from adversity comes our deepest insights’.