Hervey Bay photographer Mark Farrell.
Hervey Bay photographer Mark Farrell. Alistair Brightman

Hervey Bay quadriplegic is focussing on the good things

IT WAS a freak accident, some random event that could have happened to anyone at any time.

"We were just an ordinary family," Jeanette Farrell explains. "We lived in town (in Hervey Bay). We had a swimming pool in the backyard."

Mark Farrell was 14 when it happened. Jeanette can recall because he'd just gotten his first full-time job aboard a fishing charter boat, and he'd had to get special permission to leave school.

"I came home one afternoon and asked mum, 'How long 'til tea?'," Mark, now 33, says.

"She said, 'About 10 minutes'. So I went for a swim with my brother, who was already in there. I can remember patting the dog and walking to the side of the pool - that's it."

The rest Mark has pieced together by gathering information, by listening to doctors, by talking with family.

"I jumped in the pool feet first, a pencil dive," he continues.

The compaction of my heels hitting the bottom of the pool, my body coming down and my head hitting my shoulders, it snapped my neck in two places.

At that moment 18 years ago, Mark Farrell became a quadriplegic. He swallowed water, couldn't breathe, turned blue, his family had to resuscitate him, paramedics stopped the ambulance three times to bring him back to life on the way to Hervey Bay Hospital. In Brisbane, they said it would be better for him if he didn't make it, assuming he'd have brain damage.

He had just been going for a 10-minute swim before dinner. Instead, what transpired changed his life and those of his family members forever.

It could have been anyone.

In Queensland, there are about 90 spinal cord injuries every year sustained mostly by men who are under the age of 35, Princess Alexandra Hospital's Spinal Injuries Unit 2012 data reveals, while Access Economics, in 2009, estimated the lifetime cost per incidence of quadriplegia at $9.5 million.

Buzz…buzz. Buzz…buzz.

A 14-year-old can count only so many flies in a day when immobile for months on end in hospital; he can only be turned so many times to prevent him getting bed sores.

His mum can only do so much by moving down to Brisbane to be by his side; his dad can do only what a father must: to continue working in the photography shop to ensure they get by.

"I couldn't move anything," Mark recalls from his Sunshine Acres home.

Then over the first two years, I slowly got movement back in my arms.

The Farrells were told whatever bodily movement Mark had five years after his accident was all he'd likely ever get.

"Up to the five years, I had no movement or feeling from (my chest) down," he says.

"I had some movement in my arms ... I had no balance, so I had to be tied to my chair ..."

Doctors can advise on only that which is within the realms of science; they have no tools to measure the human spirit, or those events which challenge what we consider normal.

"Over the period of the 18 years I've got more and more movement: I've got 50% in my wrists, 30% in fingers on (my left) hand but no movement in (my right) hand. I've got biceps and can push up, but no triceps so can't push out and have to let my arms flop. I've got more balance ... sensation through my whole body."

Mark can sense a needle pierce his skin but cannot feel the pain associated with it. He owes his movement and sensation to a few hardy spinal cord strands which hung on for dear life when the rest buckled and snapped under the intense pressure the human body somehow generates.

The main causes of traumatic spinal cord injuries are road trauma, falls and water-related accidents (Princess Alexandra Hospital's Spinal Injuries Unit 2012). If 10% of carers were able to return to the workforce because their family member with a disability had appropriate personal support, there would be a $3 billion boost into the economy (National Disability Services 2010).

Mark's dad knew his son needed a reason to live. He knew it would be the difference between him moving on with his life or falling into the depths of depression after the accident.

"The way I saw it back then and still now, is there's two ways you can look at it: you can stay home in bed and do nothing, or you can get out and enjoy life," Mark says.

"I hate being inside, it drives me nuts; I love being outside, sitting out on the veranda, going fishing, going down to the paddock with my ponies. So when I'm in bed it's just so tough. It drives me to stay in bed to get better so I can get outside."

This is how a man without the proper use of four limbs takes a photo: (a) someone builds him a custom-designed tripod to fit his motorised wheelchair; (b) someone attaches the camera; (c) he connects a remote which helps him to rotate the camera left or right and take a photo; (d) someone attaches a special 28/300 lens he can pull in or push out with the small amount of movement he has in his bad hand and arm; (e) he reminds himself patience is a virtue and anything worthy in life takes time and effort.

More than 10,000 people in Australia have a spinal cord injury (Spinal Cord Injury Network 2011).

Mark's idea of an ideal life goes something like this: start a family, be independent, continue helping people and volunteer, take photos, fish with his friends, continue breeding his Ekka-winning ponies with his brother (currently they have 19).

"I'd love to have a vehicle I could drive myself," he says.

"There's vehicles you can get … but I'd never be able to afford it, not at this stage, but that's one of my main goals…

"One day, a wife and kids, too, that's another (goal). I've got friends who are married and have kids and things like that so one day, finding the right partner - which isn't easy when you're in a chair… most of the time girls go for the good-looking, able-bodied guys that can do everything - so one day I'd like to find the right one with the right heart.

"The other thing is to keep doing what I do: talking at schools, teaching kids … the photography, working a day a week as a support worker, being involved in the community."

Jeanette's hopes are just as simple: "I'd like for him to be as independent as he can be."

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