On September 30th 1999 I became the victim of a workplace accident.
That morning had started out routinely enough, I had kissed my wife goodbye and left to start what I thought would be “just another day on the job”, little did I know how tragically it would all unfold.
I had just arrived at work to begin my shift and as I changed into my work overalls I shared a joke or two with my fellow workmates.
“The job” as I called it, was a two man operation, one to drive the gantry crane and one to load the trucks from a control room. On this day it was my turn to load the trucks and my workmate’s to drive the gantry crane however, just before we began our shift he let me know that he wasn’t feeling well and so it was decided that we should swap our roles.
My partner proceeded to the control room and started up the conveyor belts and I climbed a ladder to make sure that they were running correctly. As I approached the conveyor belts I realised that they were slipping due to moisture so I applied a drying agent which was like a fine powder with a two (2) litre drink container that had been cut in half by hand. It was how we brought the belts back on line and it was a standard procedure we had been shown to do. While applying the drying agent there was a big bang like a fire cracker going off however, I thought nothing of it and continued to work. It was only when I reached out with my right arm and discovered it wasn’t there anymore that I realised what had happened. I was quick witted enough to climb down the ladder and call out to my workmate for help. The look in his eyes when he came to my rescue was and still is indescribable. I will never forget it. There was also a truck driver who had been in the loading bay at the time and upon hearing my screams rushed over to help. They both grabbed me and steered me towards the first aid room as quickly as they could while trying to stop the bleeding, which by this time was uncontrollable. Blood was everywhere!!!! Word of my condition spread like wild-fire throughout the site and before long I was transferred into an ambulance and taken to St Vincent’s hospital.
I spent one (1) month in St Vincent’s hospital where I endured a fourteen (14) hour operation to re-attach my right arm back onto my body, had four (4) more operations as complications set in and finally, to save my life, my arm was amputated. All this and it was only my first week in hospital.
After my amputation there was an endless amount of pain killers to take. It is no exaggeration when I tell you that I was taking at least 25 – 30 pills per day to cope with the most horrific pain I have ever experienced. Although the pills helped, they did not stop the pain, they simply masked it. There were twice daily dressings of my “stump” as it is called and when I was finally well enough to walk, some physiotherapy, all of which contributed to the already unbelievable pain I was going through.
Through it all my wife was there. She would arrive by 7am in the morning and not leave until 11pm that night.
As the days passed I came to realise that my life would never be the same again. I had lost my dominant right arm; there was nothing anyone could do to fix that. I would live with this for the rest of my life.
Eventually I did leave St Vincent’s hospital, although I was in no hurry to do so. While I was there I felt safe and secure from all that was going on in the real world. I was also very self conscious of my appearance and felt that people would stare at me and wonder what happened. With my wife’s support I found the courage to leave and begin my recuperation at home.
Being at home made me realise just how helpless I had become. Simple tasks like zipping up my jeans or doing up buttons on a shirt were very difficult for me. I could never wear shoes with shoe laces again as I would never be able to do them up. Showering became an issue and meal times were an entire theatrical performance as I struggled to keep the plate from slipping away off the table or the food from falling off the plate as I attempted to cut into it. All these tasks I now did with my left arm and it frustrated the hell out of me!!!!
Then of course there was the phantom pain. The doctors told me this was normal for someone who had just lost their arm. Not everyone in my position gets them but when you do you have them for life. Phantom pain means that your brain still registers your amputated limb as though it were attached to your body therefore if you think hard enough you are able to move that limb as though it were there. Unfortunately you also get to relive the accident from time to time and feel every stabbing pain that goes with that experience.
Eventually my emotions got the better of me, depression set in and things went from bad to worse. Add to that all the pain killers I was taking on a daily basis, which I became addicted to, and the picture is complete. I was totally at the lowest point in my life.
Of course at those times you always hurt the ones you love and my wife was no exception. For a while there things became very difficult between us however, as each day passed, little by little things got better.
I began physical therapy on my stump so that I was able to move it freely without so much pain and therapy on my left arm so that my brain recognised it as my dominant arm. These activities were very intense and physically and mentally draining but I kept at them because I wanted to get better.
After four years on pain killers I took myself down to St Vincent’s hospital and joined their Pain Management program. I didn’t want to be on pills anymore. Apart from their addictive nature there was also the problem of my weight. I had ballooned to 128kg!!! Out of all the rehabilitation I went through, this had to be the hardest of all. I had not realised how addictive the pills had become and trying to come off them took all the will power I had. It was a three (3) week course in which you relinquished several pills a day until you had no more pills to take. In the meantime I was shown alternative methods of pain management. Dribbling a ball, running up and down stairs, meditation, just about anything to help keep my mind off the horrific pain I was going through. But I did it all because I wanted to move on with my life not only for myself but more importantly for my wife.
The prosthetic arm was the next thing on the rehabilitation process. At first it was a metal hook which really was of no use to me and quite frankly embarrassing. However, once I was introduced to the bionic arm things really did pick up and today I am able to use this device as more of an aid along with my left arm.
I also returned to school studying ironically enough, Occupational Health and Safety. This was very difficult and frustrating at the time as my concentration wasn’t what it used to be and having to write with my left hand was very difficult. However after three (3) years of study I am happy to say that I am now a graduate of Victoria University in Occupational Health and Safety.
By chance I was asked to present my story to the Department of Justice Victoria at one of their seminars. I did this willingly and without hesitation and I found that this provided me with the opportunity to tell my side of the story from the point of view of a worker who has suffered a workplace accident. For me it was a cathartic experience, a moment in therapy. I realised then that I had a passion for this line of work and very quickly began to spread the word on the importance of “safety in the workplace”.
Today I run my own business called “Chat Safety” and I present to various companies throughout Victoria who like me are committed to achieving the highest safety in the workplace.
Some of those companies have included Thiess Pty Ltd, BP Australia, Safety In Action Conference Melbourne, Woodside Petroleum, BHP Billiton, Safety Institute of Australia (SIA) and The National Safety Council of Australia (NSCA).
It has been some years since this tragedy occurred some good some bad and while I still can’t tie my shoe laces and there are times, depending on the task, where frustration gets the better of me, I am still learning to deal with it all. It may take me longer to complete a task, but eventually I get it done.
I was a very angry man for years and spent many days and months trying to work out why this happened to me. I don’t do that anymore. I found that I have a wonderful support group in my wife, family, friends and medical personnel. And to all them I am very grateful.
My wife has been exceptional and for her I feel greatly. She has had to put up with a lot and still does, this hurts me most of all. Sometimes I wonder why she stays but thankfully for me she has.
There are days when I still mourn the loss of my right arm. I can’t imagine that ever leaving me. I think about the things I can no longer do. Like holding my wife with both arms, throwing my nephews up in the air and catching them as they come down, hand-balling a footy or even playing tennis at the highest level, something I did and miss very much.
I can’t say that I will ever fully accept the loss of my right arm instead I have learnt to live with a disability but a disability that I am willing to fight.
Alan Newey Conference Paper
On September 30th 1999 I became the victim of a workplace accident.