The Families

Two crashes. Two phone calls. Two families changed forever

Carlie Stokes was driving on a Friday evening when she noticed a police car parked on the side of the road and had that modern moment of panic, checking that she had both hands on the wheel and wasn’t holding her mobile phone. Moments later, the phone rang and she answered to a voice that said: “Ms Stokes? This is the police.” Carlie briefly panicked, thinking: “I wasn’t on the phone!”

But the police weren’t calling about that.

At 5.30pm on a Wednesday, Alec Caldwell was at work in a warehouse when his son Cam’s girlfriend, Mollie, rang. The young couple had been having some issues but were going on a date that night. But Cam was late home. Mollie had rung his phone but another voice answered, saying it was the police and Cam had been in a road accident. She thought it was a joke and hung up. Then she rang back and the same voice told her it was serious, Cam was badly hurt and being airlifted to hospital. She rang Alec who said he still had half an hour to work. “I tend not to panic too much at the time,” Alec recalls. “I worry but tend not to panic. Unless you find out it’s really nasty, there’s no point worrying until you see it first hand. But then I told my work colleagues and they said, ‘You’re out of here. Now’.” So he went.

Carlie Stokes and Alec Caldwell tell us these stories from their new reality, bleary-eyed and exhausted, faces pale under the fluoro lights of a hospital’s emergency or intensive care unit. From their new, unforeseen and desperately difficult roles as the immediate family of road accident victims.

In Carlie’s case, it is her partner Carl Lewis whose work van has collided with a truck. He is now in Royal Melbourne Hospital, with a badly damaged pelvis and a hip that will almost certainly need to be replaced, as well as a nasty gash above the right eye and a fractured right knee. It is a miracle that his brain is OK after his forehead smashed into the windscreen on impact, but the family’s sole breadwinner almost certainly faces months off work and a long rehabilitation.

Car hits pole

Alec ’s 29-year-old son, Cam, fared worse, left in a deep coma at the Royal Melbourne Hospital after a bad accident in Montrose. For his family, the details are unclear, with different versions coming from the police and hospital, but it seems his Commodore VZ came around a notoriously slippery curve of Swansea Road, possibly too fast, and slid, spun, cleared the median strip, hit a car and then a pole. Or maybe a pole and then a car? Technically the accident is listed as “single car hit pole”, but Caldwell has heard of another driver, a pregnant woman with three kids in the car. They were OK, he’s heard, but he doesn’t really know. It’s hard not knowing exactly what the truth is.

The only truth for Alec Caldwell at this moment lies in the tubes keeping his non-responsive son alive in a hospital ward. In a family that has suffered a lot from road trauma – another son, Jamie, has lost his best mate and another friend in the past few months – this new situation has left him a little punchdrunk.

“At first I wasn’t coping,” he says. “The first day after, I fell right apart. I was trying to tell people what was going on and I couldn’t make sense of anything.”

For Carlie Stokes, the moment it all hit home came when she saw her husband’s van the day after the accident, the nervous adrenalin of a night in Emergency having long worn off. After being airlifted to the Royal Melbourne’s emergency trauma bay 1, the left side of his body shattered, his face a bloody mess, the pain high, Lewis was worried about how the Richmond footy club’s game was going (the Tigers went badly) and whether his iPad and fifty bucks were still in the van. The next day, having woken with a start because her soulmate wasn’t in their bed, and remembering why, Carlie went to the panelbeaters where the van had been taken. “I had a big cry,” she says of seeing the mangled van. There was blood all over what was left of the windscreen, explaining the tiny fragments of glass she’d noticed embedded in Lewis’ face the night before. “I can’t believe he’s alive,” she says flatly. Carlie found the money and the iPad, covered in her partner’s blood.

Getting on with it

Carlie and Carl have three kids, aged 14, 11 and 10. Five weeks after the accident, she is in “get on with it” mode, battling waves of feeling that it is all too hard as she drives the kids around, prepares meals, finds the time to get from Sunbury to the Brunswick Rehabilitation Hospital, for the family to visit their dad, wrangling three boys in the stifling beige environment of that hospital, and then trying to calm them down post-visit to get to bed, ready for school. It’s relentless but Carlie always worked long hours so she is used to running the household’s day-to-day on her own. On the night of the accident, Carlie admitted she was worried about the financial impact of the family’s sole breadwinner being out of action for the foreseeable future. Two or so years ago, Carl had broken his ankle and it was the worst kind of injury: he was working for himself, did it out of work hours and was behind on filing his taxes so he couldn’t even try to scrounge some Centrelink funding to help. The couple ended up having to dip heavily into their mortgage.

Carlie can’t help but see the scenario rolling out again but Carl, now a mature-aged apprentice electrician, is less worried this time. Recovering in a ward a few days after the crash, he says paperwork has already started on TAC and Workcover claims, and his boss, who also happens to be his cousin, is being understandably reasonable. “We’ll manage,” he says. “I’m not so concerned about getting paid this time … it’s more about the timing. How long that takes to kick in.”

Alec Caldwell is also swamped by official forms, with welcome assistance from a hospital social worker, after taking on “enduring power of attorney” for his son. It is another task for a father who is trying to hold everything together in a complex family with many strands.

Alec’s says Cam’s brother and sister are dealing with things in different ways, while Cam’s own young son is reportedly struggling to control anger and is crying at night. His mother, Cam’s former partner, is planning a visit in a couple of days, wondering how to direct and treat her son’s grief, as well as her own.

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He may not be what he was

From the night Cam is flown to the Royal Melbourne, accompanied by RoyalAuto, and in the days following the crash, Alec is trying to be everything to everyone. He is measured, ever-helpful to the hospital staff, attentive and calm. You almost feel like it can’t last, but Alec is made of strong stuff and over the next few weeks shifts clear-eyed and with grace into a new reality: that if Cam wakes up, he probably will not be what he was.

“I’ve come to grips with the fact there are problems there,” Alec admits. “It’s going to be a long road to recovery but we can only work on what we’ve got with him. Try to get him somewhere close to what he was before.”

A month after Cam’s crash, Alec has gone from talking confidently about his son waking up and being interviewed for RoyalAuto, to celebrating smaller victories, like his unconscious son managing basic functions such as swallowing, and then a major moment as Cam opens his eyes while being turned by nurses.

“It was the first time since the accident,” Alec says. “They looked around but didn’t stay open for very long. After that, things started to move oh so slowly. A swallow, a couple of yawns, he coughed on his own. They’re all good signs. The nurses were over the moon.”

Alec says he now understands that the most pertinent question is how much brain damage Cam will be left with, along with other potential damage. “I know half of his body isn’t working the same as the other half,” he says. “The doctors look into his eyes and at the movement of the eye, the amount and strength of movement, and his right side is a bit slower, his eye is not working the same. Rolling him from his right side to left, he seems to be in more pain on his right side. His expression suggests pain.”

A month into this journey, Alec has returned to work for a few gentle hours, trying to regain some normality and finding comfort in his workmates’ heartfelt questions about Cam’s condition and how he is coping himself. He finds talking is the best way to release the swirling thoughts and grief inside, even though he also understands that most people find the subject too difficult and can’t bring themselves to engage. He is preparing to return to full-time work soon, spending evenings by his comatose son’s bedside, trying to find sense in this new reality.

Having deadlines, to return to work and for the TAC paperwork, isn’t a bad thing, he says, as it forces him to focus and allows him to feel he is doing something to help. He says that the day before, while he was sitting by Cam’s bed, Cam moved his head, and Alec was certain his son was trying to find where the voice was coming from. He still believes, still hopes, that his son is coming out of this deep sleep. Some of him, at least. One day.

Written by Nick Place, Photos by Meredith O'Shea
October 01, 2016