Why new disability resource can ‘make a big difference’

Matt Woodley

13/09/2021 2:19:51 PM

A freak rugby accident left Eric depressed and searching for answers. It took years to recover, but he says it no longer needs to be this way.

Eric Brown
Eric Brown says he wishes the Disability Gateway had been available when he first got injured. (Image: Supplied)

Every year as the days start getting longer in the lead up to Spring, Eric Brown starts thinking: ‘What if?’
Nearly 10 years ago, on 16 October 2011, the Yuin, Bidgigal and Gundungarra man was playing in an Aboriginal rugby league competition in Cairns when he made a decision that would change the trajectory of his life forever.
Instead of subbing off the ground for a rest following an opposition try, Eric decided to stay on for one more defensive set. Then, in a tackle he had performed countless times before, ‘everything went right for it to go wrong’.
A knee to the neck that initially left him feeling dizzy and with a dead arm, soon proved to be much more serious than a simple ‘stinger’.
‘After sitting on the bench for five minutes waiting for my arm to come back, nothing happened. I waited a further 10 minutes and realised that this is a lot more serious to what I first thought,’ Eric told newsGP.
‘I started to feel ill … and the pain had started to set in and get worse. An ambulance was called and I was taken to Cairns local hospital.
‘It felt like someone was trying to pull my skeleton out of my body. The throbbing pain was all through my body, from the tips of my toes to the tips of my fingers, to the throbbing pain in my head.’
After being sedated with ‘the largest amount of morphine possible’ overnight, a doctor told Eric that blood had built up between his spinal cord and vertebrae, which was causing his body to ‘shut off’.
Eventually, after being transferred to Royal North Shore Hospital via the Flying Doctors Service, the keen sportsman was told he had sustained a brachial plexus injury and torn the C5, C6 and C7 nerve roots completely out of his spinal cord. He had no movement in his left arm.
It was after being discharged from hospital months later in February 2012, that reality really set in.
‘I had lost my job, I was told by doctors I would never play footy again and with the use of only one arm, I felt my future was uncertain,’ Eric said.
‘With the uncertainty of what I was going to do with my life, I fell into a deep depression. I did not want to kill myself, but I chose to slowly drown myself with drugs.’
One of the greatest challenges was not knowing where to get support, or if any was even available. No one he asked – doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, other allied health workers – could provide an answer.
‘When I first got injured, I didn’t know where to look, literally … that’s when I fell away with myself, because I felt I had no help,’ Eric said.
‘And then I started getting too ashamed to ask people for help. Because I had no money, I had no job and I didn’t know what I was going to do myself.’
What followed was two years of trying to cope with drug abuse, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, before the support of family, friends, employment and a reconnection to his Indigenous culture managed to help him deal with his new disability.
Four surgeries, including a nerve graft, the transfer of his forearm muscle to his bicep, stem cell treatment, and a fused wrist has allowed Eric to regain limited use of his left arm.
But even though he is also now employed fulltime, in control of his drug and alcohol addiction, a father of four, and able to undertake CrossFit training, Eric believes there is no need for other people to go through a similar experience.
A vocal ambassador for the new Disability Gateway, he says support is readily available for people seeking the same answers to all those questions he had in the weeks, months and years following his injury.
‘The reason why I’m promoting the Gateway is because I thought to myself, “wow I wish this was around when I first got injured because it would have made my life so much easier”,’ Eric said.
‘It could have changed the trajectory of where I went.’
And while the Gateway only came online in July of this year, he believes every GP should familiarise themselves with the resource due to the positive impact it can have on the lives of people with disability.
‘It would have made it so much easier and I may not have fallen into the drug and alcohol addiction that I had,’ Eric said.
‘If GPs can educate themselves on the actual Gateway itself … offer that information to the patient straight up and just say, “look, these are things you can access”, it will make a big difference.’
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