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Penguin Bloom, Sam Bloom's unlikely saviour

Printed Mar 19, 2016 in The Australian

By Cam Bloom

I fell in love with Sam while eating a pie. She was wearing faded jeans, a white T-shirt and a royal blue apron dusted with flour; there was even a dab of flour on the tip of her nose. She was small, fearless, and cute as hell. Sam worked at her parents’ Newport Beach bakery in Sydney’s north on weekends and holidays while completing her nursing degree. She was raised to love hard work, abhor idleness, and laugh at pain. To her, a busy day is a good day and Panadol is for wimps.

Sam with her three boys, before the accident. Picture: Cameron Bloom

I can’t imagine what Sam’s father thought when he realised I had a crush on his daughter. I had no interest in university and left school as soon as I could. At 13 I’d picked up my dad’s old camera and, from that moment on, I knew what my calling was. Whether I was learning my trade in the studio, printing images in a darkroom or out on assignment, almost every day would begin and end on a surfboard. It was no coincidence that my favourite break was directly across the road from the Surfside Pie Shop whenever Sam was standing behind the front counter.

We were both 19 when we went on our first date. She was my first, last and only serious girlfriend – I knew I’d found the love of my life. Our wedding was simple: close friends and family squeezed into our backyard around a borrowed chuppah (canopy). Besides our love of the ocean, we shared a passion for travel. Whenever we could get away to explore the world and experience new cultures we would shrug on backpacks and set off for parts unknown. By the time we celebrated our 10th anniversary we’d trekked around the Mediterranean and beyond. The further we went, the more deeply we fell in love. We felt blessed to share these extraordinary experiences and hoped that our children who arrived over the years, Rueben, Noah and Oliver, might one day enjoy a similar opportunity. As birthday parties came and went, we became increasingly excited about the boys being old enough for us to share our love of adventure travel with them.

We decided our first major family adventure should be close to home, so off we went to Thailand, where we planned to travel from Phuket to Chiang Mai and beyond and seek out hill tribes in the mountainous borderlands of Myanmar and Laos. Bundled into a minivan we pulled into a small coastal village on the Gulf of Thailand. At first light the following day we woke up eager to explore. The water was calling us so we all dived in and spent the next three hours laughing and splashing about like happy fools.

Back at the hotel, a sweet, elderly lady at the open-air bar offered to make us fresh juice. It was just what we needed. While slurping contentedly, we looked across the courtyard and spotted a spiral stairway leading to a rooftop viewing deck, so we headed up to get our bearings. This elevated vantage, just over two storeys high, offered uninterrupted views in every direction. I spotted a Buddhist temple glinting and shimmering in the distance so I took a few photos and made a mental note of where we should explore on our bicycles later that day. And then I heard a horrendous crash of broken bells, a violent ringing of metal striking stone.

Sam had leant against the safety fence – parallel rows of steel poles bolted to concrete pillars via sturdy-looking timber posts that, unknown to us, were riddled with dry rot. Startled by the fence giving way, Sam was pulled off balance. She stood poised on the edge for a seemingly infinite sliver of time – leaning back over the void at an impossible angle, her slim arms waving wildly, fingers extended as if to find purchase in the air and take flight. And then she was gone.

She didn’t scream. I never heard her hit the ground. I dropped my juice and ran to the edge. Looking down was more terrible than I could have imagined. Sam lay twisted on the tiles 6m below. She was utterly still; unconscious but alive. Barely. Rushing down to kneel by her side I saw a hideous bony bulge in the middle of her back, an angry misshapen lump the size of my fist pushing through her T-shirt and I feared the worst. Sam had bitten through her tongue – her clenched teeth were stained red – and each ragged, gasping breath was a weak and bubbling spectral wheeze. Blood was seeping through her blonde hair everywhere I looked. Her head had been split open in two different directions.

I shouted for help. I shouted for an ambulance. I screamed for help again. I needed someone, anyone, to hold my boys back; I didn’t want them to see their mother like this. But when I looked up, all three were standing right next to me; silent, ashen-faced. Noah made no sound, but hot tears were streaming down his cheeks. The horror was too much for little Oli, who doubled over and vomited. Rueben, the eldest, did his best to be brave but, when he tried to speak, his voice came out a ghostly whisper: “Is Mummy going to die?”

Within 20 minutes, paramedics arrived and Sam was strapped to a long, orange spinal board. She would remain lashed to that orange plank for the next three days as she was rolled in and out of emergency rooms and then transferred by road to a far larger hospital closer to Bangkok where surgery would be performed and I would receive a full report. Sam’s skull was fractured in several places, and her brain was bleeding and badly bruised. Both lungs had ruptured and one had completely collapsed due to her chest cavity filling with blood. There wasn’t an organ in her body that hadn’t been battered, and her spine was shattered at T6 and T7, just below her shoulder blades. After resurfacing from the anaesthetic, Sam was able to breathe on her own, which was a huge relief, but she still couldn’t feel her legs.

When her condition was deemed stable for travel, she was flown back to a Sydney hospital where she waited patiently for better news. It never came. In my absence a callous doctor brusquely told Sam that it was obvious she’d never walk again. My brave wife was devastated.

It was seven months before Sam was released from the spinal ward. The boys and I were beside ourselves to have her home but, for all the bright smiles on show, each of us felt heartbroken and afraid. Sam did her best to seem upbeat for our sake, but we could see her struggling. Every day presented her with a battle she couldn’t win. No longer able to follow her heart or commit her restless energy to immediate purpose, she sat at the edge of family life, watching, wishing. Her smiles grew less radiant and less frequent. The time it took her to emerge from our bedroom each morning grew longer and longer. She didn’t want to wake up any more.

To be paralysed from the chest down means many things, none of which are good. Wheelchair-bound, with two metal rods screwed into her fractured spine, Sam felt immobilised to the point of suffocation. She couldn’t bend down and she couldn’t get up. Almost everything she wanted, everything she needed, was out of reach. It is a myth that spinal cord injury victims feel no pain at the site of their break – in Sam’s case, in line with her heart – or within their affected limbs. She suffered from unpredictable bursts of incredible agony: phantom pains dancing through her otherwise lifeless legs and feet, sudden rushes of bee-sting sensations along her break-line, and searing heat that spread throughout her lower back like tentacles of fire.

I could see she was withdrawing from this world. That such a fiercely free and passionate spirit could now be anchored beyond our love by pain and a steel chair was almost too much for us to bear. I sought advice and support wherever I could, but nothing seemed to help. I was slowly but surely losing the love of my life.

And then Penguin arrived.

Penguin was just a small, wobbly-headed magpie chick when Noah found her lying in the car park next to his grandmother’s house. Gusting winds had tossed her out of her nest and one wing was hanging limply by her side. The boys immediately named her Penguin, after her black-and-white plumage, and we made a simple nest out of an old cane laundry basket lined with soft cotton fabric to keep her warm. While getting Penguin to eat, drink and rest was a real victory, her recovery remained touch and go. Though her damaged wing turned out not to be broken, she was severely weakened and prone to illness. Some evenings, as we tucked her into bed, we wondered if she would survive the night. But over time, Penguin grew in stature and confidence.

Penguin could not have arrived at a better time, by which I mean a more terrible time. She was our fearless ambassador of love and chief motivational officer. Penguin and Sam soon became inseparable; one was always looking after the other. When Penguin was weak and sickly, Sam would lovingly nurse her back to health. And when Sam found it hard to get moving, Penguin would sing her energy levels up. If Sam was inside, doing paperwork or writing in her private journal, Penguin would be there. If Sam was outside, painting and enjoying the sunshine, Penguin would be there.

Sam, Noah and Penguin. Picture: Cameron Bloom
Sam, Noah and Penguin. Picture: Cameron Bloom

Penguin didn’t just stay around for the fun and novel activities. She was fiercely loyal to Sam and would provide a melodic chirp of encouragement whenever anything proved more challenging than might have been expected. As Sam slowly came to terms with her strange new world, Penguin did the same. When training and physical therapy were over for the day, or the pain got too much to bear, they would lie outside beneath the sky. I would often overhear the two of them having what sounded like long, in-depth conversations about what they were going through. Sometimes Sam would speak softly to Penguin, sometimes Penguin would sing to Sam, and sometimes neither would make a sound for hours at a time. I came to believe that each knew exactly what the other was feeling. Their beautiful relationship could be defined as unlikely best friends but it was deeper than that.

Caring for Penguin has changed our perspective on life, love and pretty much everything else. In the beginning we thought we were rescuing Penguin, but now we know this remarkable little bird has made us stronger, brought us closer as a family, given us countless reasons to smile and laugh during an extremely difficult time and, in doing so, helped us heal emotionally and physically. So, in a very real way, Penguin rescued us.

The Bloom family with Penguin. Picture: Cameron Bloom
The Bloom family with Penguin. Picture: Cameron Bloom

I may never accept that Sam’s accident was part of any divine plan; her suffering is too great for me to believe such things. But that she lived when so many others might have died, and that Penguin fell from the heavens when we needed her most – my heart tells me that if these were not miracles, then the Bloom family is still blessed beyond reason.

Postscript: Not long after coming home, Sam joined the Manly Warringah Kayak Club and teamed up with coach Gaye Hatfield. Soon she was participating in club events and within 12 months she was the fastest female KL1 paddler in Australia. In March 2015, Sam was named a member of the Australian Paracanoe Team and joined the elite squad headed to the Canoe Sprint World Championships in Milan later that year. Paddling with a fractured rib, she progressed to the semi-finals and finished 12th in the world. Penguin spends more and more time away from home but still drops in for a visit from time to time, bouncing into the house as if she owns the place.

Edited extract from Penguin Bloom by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive (ABC Books), $27.99

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