BUTLER resident Neil Hart still finds it difficult talking about the car crash in Saudi Arabia two decades ago that left him with permanent spinal damage.
This is particularly the case when Indian-born Mr Hart (47), who arrived in Australia in 2009, tells his story to high school children.
“It is difficult when I’m speaking to kids because I get very sentimental… I can’t have children because of this,” he said.
“And if I had kids they would (now) be that age – Year 10 and Year 12 – so I get very emotional, I choke up sometimes.
“But I still carry on giving my presentations because I like it to be as natural as it comes.”
Mr Hart was a 26-year-old van driver delivering fish from the coast to the inland of the Middle Eastern nation in the mid ’90s when he had his accident.
On the night of the crash, he was throttling his Mitsubishi to its limits – a maximum speed of 160km/h.
“There were no rules and regulations as such – just to slow down when you see a police car,” he said.
“I was doing things my way with no regards to rules.
“It’s wide roads and straight roads (in Saudi Arabia), so basically I was thinking nothing could go wrong.”
Hurtling towards his destination in a fashion he described as “pedal to the metal” in the middle of the night, there was little margin for error.
Then, 100km from his final stop, a rear tyre burst.
With 160km/h of speed behind it, the van rolled, throwing Mr Hart from the cab.
His memory of the moment remains clear despite the head trauma that followed.
“I remember going for a somersault, then the sound went low and my eyes just closed,” he said.
He woke up some hours later, alone and unable to move.
“I had never felt this before. It was like someone had put a big tonne of weight over me.
“I couldn’t even move a muscle below my chest.
“I yelled out for help to some passers-by and requested they carry me to the roadside – big mistake.”
Unaware of the dangers of moving a crash victim with potential spinal injuries, his rescuers carried him by his arms and legs.
The forces exerted at either end of his body caused the bones of his spine to come apart.
“I heard something like a knuckle-breaking sound… which was a complete dislocation of my spine,” he said.
“The first incident (before the helpers arrived) is the spinal cord injury, which was why I was unable to get up.
“The second one was the dislocation of the spine.”
Surgeons could do little to repair the damage to his spinal cord, other than to remove bone fragments.
They took bone from his pelvis to graft his vertebrae back together.
Mr Hart, who was training to become an air force pilot, found it incredibly difficult to adjust to life without use of his lower body.
He was forced to return to his parents’ home in India, where he said they had to care for him “like a newborn baby”.
“In Saudi Arabia after the accident, I was good for nothing,” he said.
“No one wanted me so they packed me and sent me home.
“I couldn’t face my friends because it was so embarrassing to sit with a urine bag and things like that.
“I felt very lonely.”
Since those dark days, Mr Hart now recounts his experience as a warning to others in his adopted home, saying he’s “in the right place” in Australia working as a speaker for the Paraplegic Benefit Fund.
He highlighted lesser known consequences of spinal injuries such as type 2 diabetes and blood pressure issues, both which he had acquired since his paralysis.
“People like me don’t live long so the little life I have left I would like to make best use of it by giving them something to think about before they do something stupid like I did,” he said.
Having experienced the pressure his recovery put on not only himself, but also those closest to him, Mr Hart is backing the WA Insurance Commission’s new car crash injury scheme, which will be introduced on July 1.
While motorists will pay up to $99 extra a year for their vehicle registration, it means they will be financially covered for life if catastrophically injured in a crash that is their fault or in which no other driver is found at fault.
The current compulsory insurance scheme only covers medical costs for victims injured by a person driving a vehicle, not the drivers themselves.