This article first appeared in Good Weekend. Click HERE to see the original.
By Jane Cadzow
Sam Bloom is happy. So happy. It is January 2013 and she is on holiday in southern Thailand with her husband, Cameron, and their three young sons. They are staying in a quiet coastal village, Ban Krut, and have spent most of the morning swimming beneath a cloudless sky. Sam has always considered herself a fortunate person, but never more so than on this perfect day. From the palm-fringed beach, she and her family stroll to the reception desk of their hotel, to ask about hiring bikes. They’re thinking of cycling into the countryside after lunch.
At an open-air bar beside the lobby, Sam and Cameron order papaya juice with crushed ice and a squeeze of kaffir lime. It is tangy and delicious. The cups are still in their hands as they and the boys cross the hotel courtyard and climb a spiral stairway to a rooftop deck. The view from here is panoramic, sweeping from the sea to the lush green hinterland. Cameron is gazing at a Buddhist temple in the distance when a crashing sound makes him swing around. He drops his juice.
Later, Sam will have no memory of leaning against the safety barrier. Nor will she recall the steel railings giving way and slamming onto concrete tiles six metres below. She won’t remember teetering on the edge of the deck. She won’t remember falling.
The Blooms live in a white-walled, light-filled bungalow on a hill overlooking the water in the northern Sydney suburb of Newport Beach. When I arrive on a recent Friday afternoon, a one-eyed currawong is flitting about the living room. The family has adopted a series of injured or abandoned birds over the past seven years. This is the latest. “Frankie!” Sam says in a reproachful tone as it lands on my shoulder and starts pecking at my hair.
I don’t mind, I tell her. But Frankie has overstepped the mark as far as Sam is concerned. She cuts a chunk of apple and lures the currawong outside. Then she pours two cups of tea and leads the way in her wheelchair to a long wooden table near a row of windows. We talk about the Blooms’ first feathered foundling, a female magpie they called Penguin and came to regard as a member of the family. Penguin arrived 10 months after Sam’s accident, and three months after she came home from hospital.
As she writes in her memoir, Sam Bloom: Heartache & Birdsong, to be released next week, Sam was so depressed that she was contemplating suicide. Caring for the scrawny black-and-white chick was the distraction she needed: “I thought I was saving her life, but she was saving mine.”
Cameron, a professional photographer, took pictures of Penguin interacting with Sam and the boys – perching on their heads, fooling around with them in the kitchen, cosying up to them in bed. He posted the captivating images on an Instagram page that eventually had more than 100,000 followers. This led to a bestselling 2016 book, Penguin Bloom, published in 13 languages. The book inspired a movie of the same name, starring Naomi Watts as Sam. It will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, which starts on September 10.
“Pretty strange,” says Sam, 49, when I ask how it feels to be portrayed on the big screen. Still, she is pleased with the movie: “They’ve kept it real. I didn’t want them to ‘Hollywood’ it, and they haven’t.” Cameron, also 49, who has joined us at the table, agrees: “It’s really close to everything that happened.”
For a moment, Cameron stood on the deck and stared in horror at his wife lying unconscious on the ground below. Then he raced down the stairs and tried desperately to staunch the blood that was seeping through her fair hair and pooling around her head. There was blood in her mouth, too: she had bitten through her tongue. A lump the size of an orange protruded from her back. Cameron shouted for help. His oldest son Rueben, then 10, ran to the front desk to call an ambulance.
Sam was taken first to the local medical centre, which wasn’t equipped to treat her catastrophic injuries. The ambulance headed north on a major highway, Rueben and his younger brothers, Noah and Oli, in front with the driver, and Cameron in the back with Sam. After four hours in stop-start traffic, they arrived at a large, modern hospital in Hua Hin, 200 kilometres south-west of the Thai capital, Bangkok.
Sam’s skull was found to be fractured in several places. She had bleeding on the brain. Both her lungs were ruptured and one had collapsed. Her spine was broken at vertebrae T6 and T7, just below her shoulder blades. The pain when she regained consciousness was almost unbearable, she says in her memoir, but the strongest sensation that washed over her was remorse. She wanted to apologise to her family for inflicting this drama on them and ruining their holiday: “I mean, what kind of idiot falls off a balcony?”
As a former nurse, Sam was acutely aware of the possible implications of a broken back. She says the Thai medical staff allowed her to hope that the paralysis affecting the lower two-thirds of her body was a temporary effect of spinal shock – that nerve signals would return when the swelling went down. When she was flown back to Australia a month later and admitted to Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital, a young doctor brusquely dismissed that notion. Her spinal cord was irreparably damaged, he said. She would never again walk, stand or sit up unaided.
While we drink our tea, we contemplate the vagaries of fate. Sam points out that when she and Cam decided their sons were ready for their first overseas trip, their original intention was to take them to two of her favourite countries, Egypt and Ethiopia. “Then there was all that political unrest in Cairo,” she says, “so we thought, ‘No, we don’t want to take the boys there. It could be dangerous.’ ” She smiles at the irony. “That’s why we chose Thailand. I said to Cam for years, ‘I wish we’d gone to bloody Cairo and I’d just got shot.’ ”
For so long, Sam’s life had seemed charmed. She grew up a stone’s throw from where she lives now, and spent a large part of her youth at the beach, soaking up the sun and catching waves. The ocean felt like her natural habitat. While studying nursing, she earned spending money by serving behind the counter at her parents’ Surfside Pie Shop in Newport. Cameron, who had already started working as a photographer, was a regular customer.
They fell in love, and travelled together to exotic places before marrying and having children. Though Sam enjoyed nursing, she gladly gave it up to focus full-time on motherhood. An exuberant, athletic person, she liked nothing better than being outdoors with her kids: swimming, bike riding, running, skateboarding. “I’ve always been a tomboy, so having three boys was kind of perfect,” she says.
“I’d say to Cam, ‘I want to move. I want to move to the desert, where there are no people and I don’t have to see the ocean.’ ”
After the accident, paralysed from the chest down, she couldn’t even roll over in bed. Her mobility wasn’t all she had lost. Her injuries had robbed her of her senses of taste and smell. Like many survivors of spinal injury, she suffered from acute neuropathic pain caused by abnormal communication between damaged nerves and the brain. It seemed to her a cruel joke that parts of her body that otherwise had no feeling could hurt so much: she often felt as if she were sitting in stinging nettles and had bluebottles wrapped around her feet.
Mired in misery, she cut herself off from friends: they reminded her of her old life, the one she could no longer lead. In her house on the hill, she turned her eyes away from the sea. “I would sit here and get so angry and sad,” she says. “I’d say to Cam, ‘I want to move. I want to move to the desert, where there are no people and I don’t have to see the ocean.’ ” In her diary, she calculated the optimal year to kill herself – when her sons were old enough to cope with the loss and Cameron was young enough to start afresh with someone new.
Cameron had been told while Sam was in hospital that more than half of couples break up after one partner sustains a spinal injury. The Blooms’ marriage held together – Cameron was determined it would – but Sam’s despair settled over the house like a shroud. “It was certainly hard for the boys,” she says. “They’d say, ‘If you’re sad, we’re sad.’ And that would make me feel worse. I’d be lying in bed crying and feeling so guilty.”
Kayaking coach Gaye Hatfield vividly remembers the day in August 2013 that Cameron introduced her to Sam. “Oh god, I’ve never met a sadder person in my life,” Hatfield says. Cameron had persuaded his wife that getting out on the water might lift her spirits. And so it proved. On Narrabeen Lagoon, a short drive south of Newport, she learnt to propel and balance a boat using only her arms and shoulders.
“Leaving the wheelchair, that was the main thing,” Hatfield says. “Leaving the world and going out into the middle of the lake.” On land, Sam was entirely reliant on others. “But she could kayak on her own.”
Taking up paddling was a turning point but it wasn’t the game-changer. That came on a windy day in October that year, when Sam’s middle son, Noah, found a baby bird.
Penguin had beady eyes, downy feathers and a damaged wing. Like Sam, she had survived a terrible fall – in her case, from a nest in a 20-metre Norfolk Island pine outside the house of Sam’s mother, Jan, at nearby Bilgola Beach. The Blooms’ decision, after consulting a vet, to take Penguin home and try to keep her alive gave Sam a sense of purpose.
“The moment they rescued the bird, she started to heal emotionally and become a more functional person again,” says Bradley Trevor Greive, the US-based Australian author – best known for his global mega-seller, The Blue Day Book – who collaborated in the writing of both Penguin Bloom and Sam’s memoir.
Greive has a theory that, just as nurturing Penguin was therapeutic for Sam and cheering for the boys, photographing the fledgling was good for Cameron. The burden on him had been immense. Besides being the sole breadwinner, he was caring for Sam, looking after their sons and running the household. “He was the heart and soul and the engine room of that family,” Greive says. “His moment of solace was to sit behind the lens and look for something beautiful at a time when everything was awful. I feel like that’s why his images are so remarkable.”
Not everyone was beguiled by Penguin, or convinced that raising a wild bird in a domestic setting was a good idea. “I actually thought it was bizarre, the whole Penguin thing,” says Bron Watts, Sam’s oldest and closest friend. “There was birdshit everywhere, all through their house. And Penguin was quite aggressive towards other people. She would peck my hair. I felt as though Penguin didn’t like me.”
Watts, who had gone to Thailand to be at Sam’s bedside, was slightly unnerved by her habit of chatting to Penguin. “I was like, ‘Oh god, she’s gone like the weird bird lady. Wow, she’s really tripped over the edge.’ ” Bron laughs. “Yeah, I was a bit worried.”
The mess was annoying, but – as Watts acknowledges – Penguin’s company comforted Sam, and watching the bird’s valiant efforts to learn to fly spurred her into improving her own strength and fitness. She worked so hard on her kayaking that she made the Australian paracanoe team for the 2015 world championships in Milan. Later she summoned the courage to return to the surf, having decided that riding waves lying on a board was better than not riding them at all. She was selected to compete in the adaptive surfing world championships in California in 2018 and again early this year, winning the gold medal in her division both times.
The publication of Penguin Bloom turned Sam into a minor celebrity. Overcoming a lifelong aversion to public speaking, she started giving talks everywhere from spinal rehab units to literary festivals and business breakfasts.
“Oddly, I kind of like it now,” she says. “I like the feedback – talking to people afterwards and hearing their stories.” The book prompted a flood of emails, many of them from people with spinal injuries who said reading about Sam’s experience had made them feel less alone. She still corresponds with some of them, offering what long-distance support she can. “And if I’m having a terrible day, I will reach out to them and have a whinge,” she says. “We whinge back and forth, and it’s really helpful.”
Meanwhile, Penguin’s fame grows. A three-minute video about the bond between the bird and the Blooms has been viewed 47 million times in the two years it has been online.
The upcoming movie – expected to screen in Australian cinemas early next year – was filmed in part in the Blooms’ house. The family moved out for almost three months, but at the request of Naomi Watts, who was both star and co-producer, Sam often watched filming from the wings. “It was pretty cool actually,” she says. “I’ve never seen a movie being made before. Naomi would ring and say, ‘What are you doing?’ I’m like, ‘Nothing.’ And she’d go, ‘Can you please come to the set?’ ” Watts wanted Sam to help her get details right. “For instance, if there was a scene where she was getting dressed, I’d say, ‘You need to slow down. Don’t switch on your tummy muscles.’ Things like that.”
One night, the Blooms invited Sam’s friend Bron Watts (no relation of Naomi) and her husband to join them at a cafe. “We thought it was just going to be Sam and Cam,” Bron tells me, “but half the cast was there. I’m talking to people whose children are acting as Sam and Cam’s kids, and they were just so excited to be part of it all. I suddenly went into a spin and burst into tears in front of everyone. Cam pulled me out and said, ‘What’s happened?’ I said, ‘I can’t believe they’re all here making money out of your misfortune. I can’t believe they’re so happy and Sam’s in a frickin’ wheelchair.’ ”
Naomi Watts then came over to talk to Bron. “She was so nice and normal,” Bron says. “I thought, ‘She’s the right person to be playing Sam’. I came to terms with it after that. I’m sure it will be a good thing for Sam and Cam.”
The role of Penguin went to not one but several trained magpies. “They were good at different things,” says Cameron, himself played by the English actor Andrew Lincoln. For Cameron, who visited the set less often than Sam, the first day of shooting was highly emotional. “We sat here in the lounge,” he says. “They were actually filming in Noah’s room but you have the headsets on and you watch a little iPad, so you see everything that’s happening and you hear the dialogue. They say, ‘Quiet on set. Action!’ All those things. Then you hear the voice of the little boy who played Noah.” Cameron pauses. “I just started crying.”
“I didn’t want to look at you because I don’t like crying in public,” Sam says to him. “Then Naomi comes out and she starts crying.” Sam found the entire crew empathetic. She remembers the director, Glendyn Ivin, saying, “Yeah, it’s okay for us. Once the film’s finished we all move on to the next job, but you’re still stuck like this.”
“I thought, ‘That’s really nice, that he acknowledged that.’ ”
Penguin was with the Blooms for two years. After making her maiden flight in the living room, she started to make forays around the neighbourhood. “She was always going down to the shops at Newport,” says Cameron, who got excited calls from the dry-cleaner, a lovely woman with a strong accent. “She would say, ‘Oh, you Penguin dad? The birdy go sing, sing, sing!’ Because Penguin had a really incredible song. And she was friendly.”
The young magpie grew more independent, venturing further afield and staying away longer. “She’d go for a week and then come back,” says Sam, who was also spending more time away from the house by that point, training for kayak races and going to the gym. Then Penguin spread her wings and left for good. Occasionally the Blooms thought they saw her in a tree or on a lawn, only to realise when they got closer that they were mistaken: “We’d be driving around,” Sam says, “and the boys would yell out, ‘There’s Peng! Peng? Nah, it’s not her.’ ”
Not that Sam sees this as a story with a happy ending. Some people come to accept their paralysis, she says. She is not one of them. “Sure, it gets a bit easier, but I’ll never be okay with it.” Each morning, when she opens her eyes and remembers what has happened to her, she is hit by a wave of grief. Her body is still racked by pain. Nevertheless, moments of joy can be found most days, and she has decided her life is worth living. Her sons are now 18, 17 and almost 15.
“I’m so glad I’m still here to see them grow up.”