The theme of this year’s 19th Annual Bruce Woodcock Memorial Lecture is ‘Sharing stories, changing lives’. Each week, as we count down to the event in October, we’ll be featuring blogs from talented storytellers in our community. They’ll be sharing with you their moments of transformation—reflections about overcoming barriers and gaining strength, support and knowledge. The third in our series is ‘Broken Neck’ by Bill Dodd, who reflects on what he gained after a tragic accident when he was a teenager.

My name is Bill Dodd and I’m a proud indigenous person from the Gungarri tribe.

Three days before I turned 18, my mates and I decided to go for a swim in the local river, the Maranoa, Queensland. We swam in this river many times and that day seemed no different.

In full flood, we watched from a distance the mighty Maranoa River perform its magic—the fast flowing river swept away giant logs and debris downstream. Unfortunately, on this hot day, we had decided to go for a swim, as the river were so inviting. I ran up and dived head first into the river. My head struck the bottom and I must have been knocked out. My mates felt I had been under the water too long so they pulled me out of the water and as they laid me on the bank. I was unconscious.

I came to, only to find my friends were confused and worried so someone went up to the flats and managed to get my cousin. He took one look at me and decided to run up and get the ambulance. When they arrived back to the river they lifted me from the bank and placed me on a stretcher. The ambulance bloke was a nice old fella who decided to take me up to the hospital as a precautionary move.

At the hospital, the doctor decided to put a tube down my throat. I began too loose feeling in my arms and the doctor decided to send me to the Princess Alexandria hospital in Brisbane, some 700 kilometres away. I would be transported by ambulance—a long, rough trip. 

On the way to Brisbane I felt ok but, as we travelled, I noticed the trees were beginning to fade and I was having trouble breathing. My breaths were just short sharp gasps for air. I looked at the nursing sister but she just stared at me and said nothing. This was the last memory for me. 

The ambulance driver fulfilled his job and delivered me to the spinal unit in Brisbane. It was 3am when we arrived. I was unconscious as the doctors and nurses rushed me inside the hospital so they could work on me. 

For the next three days, I was still unconscious. The doctor phoned my mother and told her that if she wanted to see her son then she should come down to Brisbane as quickly as possible. My sister, Robin, and my mum caught the bus to Brisbane and spent a couple of days by my bedside but, as they talked to me, I couldn’t hear them. 

On 27 September—my 18th birthday—I opened my eyes and Robin and my mother where the first two people I saw. I had a mask over my face to help me breathe. I saw a couple of nurse and for me it became a waiting game. At least I was still alive.

Just when I felt I was recovering, a couple of doctors did their rounds and I noticed a few nurses standing by. I could feel the tension as I has a set of tongs drilled into the side of my head. The doctors came over and one of them said: “I’m sorry, but I’ve got some bad news for you son. When you dived in the river you broke your neck in two places and damaged your spinal cord. Any movement or feeling you get back will come back in the first six weeks, and when you leave us it will be in a wheelchair.” I saw people go past my room in a wheelchair and they looked so young. 

I never thought I would end up in a wheelchair.

When you are told something like this you seem to think the worst. My first thought was that I would never play footy again or ride my beloved horses. I felt ok until the nurse beside me said don’t hold this against us as you have been so good up until now. I stared up at the ceiling and the tears fell from my dark, brown eyes and ran down my cheeks. I felt like I was living in a body that was dead. I was 700 kilometres away from home but I had over six months of rehabilitation and tough times ahead.

After being in bed for 13 weeks, I had plenty to think about. I was turned from side to side by the orderlies every two hours. It was good to be turned. I was sponged during this time but the dead skin still fell from my eyebrows and eyelashes. I was still too shy to ask one of the orderlies and nurses to scratch these parts of my face as they were so itchy. I couldn’t wait to have a shower. Finally, I saw the sister in charge and a nurse come up to my bed to release the tongs that were screwed into each side of my skull. The tongs had a 5kg weight on the bottom that were connected by a thin piece of rope. I watched the sister in charge as she told me it was time to take the tongs out. She had a special little tool and, as she started to take them out, it felt as I thought she was twisting the tongs tighter into my skull. I panicked and said to her: “Stop! You are going the wrong way!”. She replied: “Billy look at these” and she was holding the tongs and the 5kg weight in her hands. Gee, I felt a fool.

Things began to happen and eventually I would commence physio and occupational therapy. I had to be set up in a wheelchair and, when I was strong enough, I had to learn how to feed myself, write, use a typewriter and do all the jobs that were once so simple to do. After seven-and-a-half months of being rehabilitated, I was ready to go home. I had no feeling or movement from the chest down. 

I can’t move my hands or feel my fingers or the bottom of my arms, but that’s life. Now, 34 years later, I have written a book called ‘Broken Dreams’ and I talk to children at schools warning them of the dangers of diving into a river or creek. The thing that changed me was when I got married to my wife, Tracy Brock, on ANZAC Day 2015. She already had three children—Kayla, Declan and Jamie-Lee. After being single for 29-and-a-half years, I finally found love.

That’s life!

Watch Bill and Tracy's story here.

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