This story is about something incredibly important — hope.
Hope is something that is particularly close to my heart, because it saved my life and helped me get better.
But, of course, hope is important to all people — because without hope we are all lost.
Hope may be humanity’s most precious commodity. Difficult to capture, impossible to store, mercurial and often fleeting. Without it, all else loses value; but with it — we can achieve the impossible. With hope, we feel ready for any eventuality. Without hope, the world is grey and drear and life loses its meaning.
I have told the story of my escape from the clutches of death as a schoolboy hundreds – perhaps thousands – of times, but it is actually the subsequent surprising recovery that I find the most interesting part of the tale. That story is seldom told, or it is told merely as an adjunct to the main tale of mishap and subsequent return and rescue. But in my opinion, it is far more central to my whole life story than as a mere supporting act.
[Read – Survive - the story of David Donovan’s accident and survival.]
Mind you, the first part of the tale is crucial to what I am writing about here – hope – because after I went through the barbed-wire fence, for a while at least, I had lost all hope.
From the story, Survive:
I immediately noticed I was not getting enough air. I later learned that most of the oxygen gathered from my suddenly stertorous breathing was escaping uselessly into my chest, between the two broken pieces of my windpipe. My lungs began to collapse and I made hideous wrenching gulps for the merest trickle of oxygen.Yes, after the accident, I lay in the dust crying for a time, scared and waiting to die. I had lost all hope. Then something strange happened. At once a new feeling came over me. I decided to abandon despair, collect myself, to arise and to try my best to get home. I didn’t have much hope then, it's true — I was, in fact, certain I was going to die:
Panicking, I opened my mouth wide to scream for rescue, “Dad! Dad!” but all that issued was a tiny muted croak. A small sane voice told me no help would be arriving that day, since I was not expected home till dusk. I sat down in the dust as my very deep peril dawned in my consciousness.
I hung my head and sobbed for what seemed like a very long while.
Then I thought, “Well, if I’m going to die, I’m not going to die sitting in the dust bawling. When they find me, I want them to see that I was trying to get home”.I was sure that I would die, but I was still alive. And I wanted to live. I hoped, beyond hope, that I somehow just might. I clutched hold of that tiny sliver of hope like a cord thrown to me.
With that gloomy motivation, knowing the odds were stacked strongly against me, and without much hope, I pushed myself up out of the bull-dust and stumbled to the motorbike, stepping over the strand of barbed wire my neck had caught upon.
And, of course, somehow I did get home. I was saved. I lived. I live.
The hope I had then was so fragile and yet so vital. I shudder to think of what might have been had I not caught that slender thread.
I woke up in hospital in Brisbane the next morning in intensive care with the shocked faces of my family all around me. Indeed, I must have looked a pitiful sight. I had received 6 hours of surgery the night before. I was hooked up to a vast array of machines. I had a tube going down through my nose into my stomach through which I was being fed. I had a tracheotomy tube in my throat through which to breathe. Internally, I had a surgical brace over my voice-box. There was also a painful catheter and, most painfully of all, coming from big brown bottles on either side of the bed were tubes sticking into my torso under my arms that went going directly into my lungs. This was to drain air bubbles out of the lungs and reinflate them. Every minute or two, a bubble would escape causing me intense pain. I couldn’t talk, of course, and I was not able to move or roll over. I was, indeed, in far worse agony and discomfort than I'd been during any part of the previous ordeal.
Nevertheless, despite all this, I was happy. Incredibly happy, in fact. Happy to just be alive. Understand this: when you think that you are definitely, most certainly, going to die — and then somehow you live...well...that is a thrill unlike any other. A high much higher than any you will ever otherwise know, in my experience.
I was also relieved and – yes, I must admit – proud of what I had achieved. More than that, I had learned something about myself that I cherish to this day. After being tested beyond the limits of human endurance – beyond the bounds of anything I could have previously have imagined myself being able to withstand – I hadn't buckled, I had withstood and I had overcome. I had survived, but not only survived, but come out the other side changed — tempered and hardened. I had learnt something about what I was capable of — something that many, perhaps most, people never will. After all that, it seemed just then that anything was possible. I felt almost unbeatable. Despite my predicament, and uncertain future, the world at that moment was glorious. The colours I saw were brighter than ever.
Perhaps because of this positivity, or maybe just because I was a very fit 16 year-old, I was out of intensive care and into the ward later that day. And I was up and about the next after they had taken out those awful tubes from my lungs. I spent, I recall, the next day or so swanning around the ear, nose and throat ward, wheeling my drip, grinning brightly at the nurses and at the throat cancer patients in other rooms. I was popular with the nurses, maybe less so with the patients. I didn’t care, I was alive. Everything sparkled brightly.
But there was one prickle in the ointment. I still had the tracheotomy tube in my throat and I desperately wanted to get rid of it. For anyone who has never had one of those things — I hope you never do, trust me when I say that the experience is unpleasant in the extreme. It is a tube made of hardened plastic (or silver) that feeds directly through a hole in the lower neck into your trachea. It is used to breathe through when people can’t breathe through their mouth for whatever reason —usually because of some sort of blockage in the throat. A blockage was exactly what I had, in the form of a hardened cast over my shattered voice-box to heal it back into the correct shape.
Obviously, I didn’t want to be walking around with this tube – this unwanted unsightly neck appendage – for any longer than necessary. Few teenagers want to stand out and look like a freak. But, far more important than that consideration was the fact that the tube entered my neck through a hole in my throat — an open wound, in fact. Every night, this hole needed to be bathed and I would sleep without the tube in. Then, every morning, after the wound was cleaned with antiseptic, the tube would be forced back into my throat. Forced back, because the cartilage in the throat naturally closes up and heals partially during the night. It was horrible and painful.
So, on the third day after the accident, when the surgeon saw me on his regular ward visit, I wrote him a note, asking:
“How long will it be before I can get rid of this tube?”Dr Hodge immediately replied, in a matter-of-fact way, “oh, you’ll never get rid of the tube. You’ll have it for the rest of your life.”
I broke down. Hope disappeared in an instant. I was going to have this tube all my life. Every good feeling about myself and the world evaporated like morning dew, seared away by a few truthful words. Things went grey. I cried.
Luckily, standing next to Dr Hodge was a young doctor — the doctor in charge of the ward, I believe. He had heard what the surgeon had said and been grim-faced after hearing it. Once Dr Hodge had left the ward, he came back to speak to me privately. My family, who had been consoling me, left the room at his insistence.
“Are you OK?” he asked me.
“Is what Dr Hodge said true? Do I have any chance of getting rid of the tube?” I wrote.
“No, I think he was being way too pessimistic,” he replied. "I’d say you have a 50-50 chance of getting rid of the tube.”
Hope flared anew.
I don’t recall the name of the ward doctor, if I ever knew it, but I owe him a lot. What I didn’t know and wasn’t told until after Dr Hodge had surgically removed the brace from my voice-box 6 weeks later, was that no-one, as far as he knew, had ever gotten rid of the tube after this particular sort of accident.
The reason for that was anatomical, he later explained. Because the vocal cords are nerves that had been entirely severed in the accident, they would naturally relax into a position that would cover the airway and prevent normal breathing through the mouth. The only real chance for me to get rid of the tube was for these nerves to somehow reattach and begin to work again. There was, he said, as much chance of that happening as there was of someone who had snapped his spinal cord being able to walk again.
But I didn’t know those details to begin with, thank heavens. I just heard the young doctor's words and disregarded the surgeons entirely.
I was determined to get rid of that tube. It became an overwhelming, overriding, obsession. During my recovery, every morning, and hundreds of times during the day, I repeated a mantra to myself in my mind:
“I will get rid of this tube. I WILL get rid of this tube.”
And while I said this, I would imagine myself being able to breathe through my mouth without the tube in my throat.
I had hope. Sometimes it slipped marginally, but never too far, and I never let my predicament overcome me. Of course, I shouldn’t ignore the fact that I was helped immeasurably by a large group of supportive family and friends, all of whom rallied around me. Also crucial was the staff and students at my school, the Rockhampton Grammar School, who accepted my altered state and circumtances without reservation or rejection, helped me when I needed assistance and never made me feel any different to any other student.
I had an astonishing recovery. I was out of hospital after a week when the average stay for this sort of accident is about six. I went straight back to school. I couldn’t speak for the first six weeks, but I played cricket within two weeks of the accident, captaining the Firsts to a win over St Brendans and top-scoring with 70.
All the time I repeated the mantra — and hoped and prayed.
After six weeks, I went back to the surgeon to remove that brace over my voice-box that would allow me to speak again. After I woke from the surgery, I covered the tube and tried to breathe through my mouth. It was difficult, but I could feel a trickle of air down my throat.
It was enough. Hope was refreshed. The surgeon tried the same thing and was amazed. He then explained the physiology explained earlier.
After 6 months, the surgeon removed the tracheotomy tube from my throat and I have never had it since.
I made a total recovery. My vocal cords did reattach, somehow, and I speak with a real – though husky – voice. For some reason, it has all come good for me. I have been blessed.
Some medical studies have shown that positive thinking has no appreciable effect on a patient’s recovery. But I just can’t truly believe that after what I have been through. I think that single-minded determination to recover and never to fall into despair, coupled with visualisation and positivity definitely aided my recovery. But, if I am wrong, and maybe I am, I feel that my quality of life – because I was happy and positive the whole time – was infinitely preferable to the alternative of resignation, depression, or despair.
I know this, because the accident I had is remarkably common. Land-owners frequently tie wires between trees on bush tracks on acreage, or in the country, to stop trail-bike riders riding across their land. It stops them alright. At the surgeon’s request, I used to visit teenagers in hospital who’d had similar accidents to mine. By talking about my recovery, it was hoped that I could help them gain some inspiration. Did it work? Sadly, for most of them, no it didn’t. The truth is, many were in a worse way than I had been and the shock and despair of a lifetime of disability had turned out the light in their eyes. Nothing I seemed to be able to say could change that. After a while, I didn’t get asked in any more.
A few years after the accident, my Dad – my hero, the man who had saved me at Speculation – was diagnosed with stomach cancer and was given six months to live. I moved home and tried to make him believe he could beat the disease, but he was resigned to his fate from the very beginning. The spark left him and nothing I could do could change his outlook. He died in five months, not six. I miss him.
The surgeon told me that I would always have the tube because he didn’t want me to have “false hope”. The ward doctor knew that any hope is better than none. In truth, as I have demonstrated through my accident and my amazing recovery, there is no such thing as false hope. There is always hope until you have none. The key is — never give up. Never lose your precious hope, no matter how dark the hour. Anything is possible — and even if you don't succeed, it is far better to live in hope than to die in despair.
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Hear what David Donovan sounds like now:
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