Back from the brink
Tanya Disher remembers the date instantly. “December 21,” she says. “The day my grandson, Tyler, was born.”
As if that wasn’t a date worth celebrating already, it was the same day that Tanya heard that her brother, Cameron, had opened his mouth and spoken.
This was no small thing. RoyalAuto has followed Cam’s story, and his family’s efforts to support him, from the moment he was involved in a horrific car crash on 22 June 2016. When we met Cam, he was a ragdoll being cut out of his car, which had apparently lost control and careened into oncoming traffic on Swansea Road, Montrose.
There were suggestions he’d been speeding. There was confusion over whether he’d hit a pole or an oncoming car or even two cars. It wasn’t his first car crash. As his family admitted, he had some form for driving hard and fast and sometimes coming unstuck.
‘He won’t make it through’
All his father Alec knew when he got the call from Royal Melbourne Hospital was that Cam was “very, very unwell” (which is hospital speak for: “quite possibly not going to live”) and he admits now, 11 months later, that when he walked in on that first horrible night and saw Cam’s lifeless body, full of tubes and hooked up to machines, a part of him said, “He’s gone. He won’t make it through.”
Cam’s sister, Tanya, went the other way. Having made the most dreaded of phone calls, to Chloe, the mother of Cam’s son, Blake, she approached her brother’s intensive care bed and felt the heaviness lift. Somehow, despite all the medical evidence, she knew he was going to come back.
Fast forward to May 2017, and Cam is carefully trying to sip coffee, some of which spills down his chin and onto a bib. He’s in a wheelchair at the Caulfield Hospital’s shiny rehabilitation centre, off Kooyong Road. Cam is kind of hunched, and moves slowly. He’s gradually regaining the use of his limbs, his speech is slurry and his memory is all over the place. Mostly, his family notices that he seems to think it’s five years ago. He’s still not all there but he’s definitely coming back to them, and Alec and Tanya are lighter, even if they’re only halfway along this long and difficult road.
The lights are on
For Alec, who is by Cam’s bedside at every turn, the last almost-year has been full of legalistic TAC paperwork that makes his head spin, arguments with police about unrelated speeding charges Cam had racked up pre-crash, fights with Cam’s then girlfriend, and ongoing concern about other members of the family who have been struggling with the accident and other issues in their lives. “I’m buggered,” Alec admits, as he sits to eat a sandwich and drink coffee in the hospital cafe. “We got dealt a really, really bad hand.”
But Alec and Tanya remind each other often that it could have been worse. Cam is alive, and awake and “the lights are on”, which is more than a lot of the medical staff who have nursed him since last June dared to hope for.
Always the prankster
Cam has a cheeky nature and an earthy sense of humour. He was always the prankster, from doing donuts on the perfect back lawn of his mother’s house on a motorbike, to carving her name into the grass while mowing the lawn, to pulling off perfect backflips from a standing start. Even now, he surprises his father with a sneaky head-butt while having his pyjamas straightened and he’s forever looking for other ways to cause trouble. It’s how his family knows the old Cam is still in there somewhere.
His eyes light up as he looks at the birthday card he got earlier in the week from Tiger star Dusty Martin and he happily indulges in “You’re a dickhead!” banter with his dad. His biggest dream, he says, and it’s noted on a list of goals drawn up with Liz, the social worker, is to see Blake, his now 10-year-old, play basketball one day.
‘Don’t be an idiot’
But that’s a while away. Blake has found the change to his father’s health confronting, and apparently was sure his dad was dead when he first saw him connected to all those tubes. Cam, for his part, struggling to recapture his brain, looks me in the eye, his face serious, and says yes, he understands he’s being interviewed. What he wants to say is that he never wants his son to go through what he’s going through. Struggling with the words, Cam slurs, “Be careful about driving. Don’t be an idiot.”
Alec says Cam took longer than usual to come out of the post-crash coma. He still appeared unconscious when he started to answer doctor questions with a wave or thumbs up, back in December, and memorably a middle-finger salute. When he finally opened his eyes and then talked, Alec’s long vigil was rewarded and he enthuses that Cam’s progress has been ahead of doctors’ expectations over the past few months. Cam is already trying to walk, half an hour of exhausting struggle along parallel bars with physiotherapists, while also having therapy on his arms and hands, and communication sessions, where he tries to interact with other acquired brain injury patients.
A new reality
This is his world now, after a greasy road and a heavy foot on the accelerator. Alec is rearranging his life to be Cam’s full-time carer. Tanya is juggling a bunch of kids and hospital visits. Chloe and Blake are travelling an hour or more twice a week to keep the connection with this broken, struggling man. It is one year after a car crash. This is Cameron Caldwell’s new reality.
Asked what she’s learned, Tanya chooses her words carefully. “When you drive,” she says, “you need to realise you are getting behind the wheel of a loaded gun”.