Alive and blooming

Hope and healing comes in unlikely forms. When a fall left Sydney mum Sam Bloom paraplegic it was a magpie that saved her and her family.

Words Lindy Davis. Photography Cameron Bloom.

Three days into a family holiday in Thailand, Sam Bloom woke early to climb a spiral stairwell to the rooftop viewing deck of their hotel in Bangsaphan, a small coastal village on the Gulf of Thailand. Clutching a fresh papaya juice, the young mum from Sydney leant against the metal railing to scope the beach for a possible surf break. Seconds later, the railing gave way and she fell 20 feet to land on the ground below, her body broken.

Her memory of that morning is sketchy and she recalls nothing about the fall. But the accident will be permanently etched on her family’s psyche. Says husband Cameron, “My mind went blank in that instant. I dropped my juice and ran to the edge. Looking down was more terrible than I could have imagined.”

Paramedics took Sam to the nearest medical centre where doctors attempted to stabilise her and stitch her gaping head wound. The ‘safety fence’ she had leaned against was made with steel poles bolted to solid timber posts, but the posts were riddled with dry rot.

Sam spent the next few days strapped to a spinal board with multiple fractures, including the T6 and T7  vertebrae. She was transported to a hospital near Bangkok for further tests and then as soon as she was physically able, the family travelled back to Australia. As a registered nurse, Sam understood the gravity of her condition, but held hope for a positive outcome.

After three months in Sydney’s Royal North Shore hospital with multiple surgeries to repair fractured bones and a collapsed lung, in addition to time spent in Ryde spinal rehab unit, Sam was given the heartbreaking news. She was paraplegic.

Sam likens being paralysed to waking up from a coma to find you are 120 years old. She couldn’t bend down from her chair or get up. To over-extend was to risk falling and being injured. “Everything you do is very slow and very painful and so much of what you enjoyed most, the things that made you feel alive, are now quite impossible.”

Their home was transformed to accommodate her needs, with a lowered kitchen bench and a bathroom that could accommodate her wheelchair. The practical adjustments were straightforward, but the psychological ones were far more difficult. There were many dark days where she contemplated giving up altogether. It was quite simply the love of her family that spurred her on. “There was a long spell when I nursed an irrational hatred for almost everyone and everything related to my paralysis. Pain, grief and frustration can make you really crazy.” She describes how difficult it was for her to watch her children run into the water and not be able to join them. She felt jealous of girls heading to the beach with surfboards. She found solace in being alone.

At a time when Sam felt she had reached an all-time low, she encountered a magpie chick that had fallen from its nest. It had damaged its wing and lay helpless and abandoned on the ground. Although it looked unlikely to survive, the family rescued it and Sam began handraising the baby bird, who the kids named Penguin Bloom.

The bird became a fully fledged member of the family and stuck by Sam’s side for the next two years. It followed her everywhere, either perched on her shoulder or on the arm of her wheelchair. Says Sam, “It made me feel so much better to look after something. Penguin made me smile and I hadn’t laughed or felt so happy in a long time. Whenever we returned home after being out for the day, Penguin would be waiting for us and flap her wings furiously in excitement.”

Cameron captured their unusual friendship on camera and posted the images on social media. The bird became a sensation with 100,000 Instagram followers. Cameron’s recently published book Penguin Bloom, which tells their story of love and healing, has touched millions.

The opportunity to care for Penguin gave Sam a new lease on life and she began looking for ways to channel her unleashed energy. One cold, wintry day Sam visited the Manly Warringah Kayak Club and introduced herself to New Zealand kayak coach Gaye Hatfield. “All I could see was this sad little person fresh from rehab and desperate to get out of that wheelchair. I didn’t have anything set up for her and I sensed she was very fragile,” recalls Hatfield.

Hatfield promised that she would have something ready for the next time Sam visited and, true to her word, the following week she lifted Sam into a para-canoe. Sam began to paddle and despite falling out a few times, was soon hooked.

Sam started kayaking with the aim of keeping fit and happy but soon moved to training twice a week and set herself a goal to compete in her first regional competition. “Sam slowly transformed from being depressed and suicidal to a happy and joyous person. She doesn’t feel pain when she’s in the kayak – it gives her a feeling of exhilaration and purpose,” says Hatfield, who has based herself in Australia since 1980.

After a successful event at Nationals, Sam was selected for the Australian Para-canoe Sprint team to compete in Milan, Italy. Although the race didn’t go as well as she’d hoped, it gave Sam the feeling that anything is possible if you set your mind to it.

Now she has her sights set on the next Paralympics. Meanwhile, the family is preparing for its next round of excitement. Cameron’s book is being transformed into a major feature film, produced by Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea,  with Naomi Watts confirmed for the lead role.

Penguin Bloom by Cameron Boom and Bradley Trevor Greive, Harper Collins Australia, $33.

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