One step at a time
An attitude of not dwelling on the past or sweating the small stuff has helped Able Seaman Boatswains Mate Cooper Blackwood walk again after a paralysing accident.
Able Seaman Blackwood’s life changed in an instant while he was on holiday in Bali early last year.
The former lifeguard and representative swimmer for Toowoomba Grammar School in Queensland sustained the paralysing injury when he dived into a swimming pool.
A year later, he is out of his wheelchair and on his feet.
Accompanied by his parents Karen and Darren Blackwood, Able Seaman Blackwood recently walked into HMAS Moreton to visit his previous personnel support unit divisional officer, Chief Petty Officer Matthew Jarvis, who supported him in his recovery.
Able Seaman Blackwood said he remembers diving into the pool, then all he could feel was a strange sensation of vibrations and tingling from his chest down.
He was paralysed, with minimal movement in his arms, but managed to surface to take a breath and call for help.
His friends reacted quickly, keeping Able Seaman Blackwood’s head and body stable and their constant words of support kept him focused during the hour-long wait for the ambulance.
Able Seaman Blackwood had suffered a cervical fracture, dislocating the C5-C6 vertebrae, which meant immediate surgery was imperative.
Surgeons successfully fused the C5-C6 vertebrae and installed a plate and four screws in the front of his spine.
Two rods and a further four screws were inserted in the back of the spine and a wedge replaced a ruptured disc.
An interspinous ligament also required suturing.
The enormity of the accident hit home when Able Seaman Blackwood woke from surgery to find a tube was helping him breathe.
The ADF worked quickly to have Able Seaman Blackwood’s parents flown to Bali to be by their son’s side.
The next hurdle was getting him and his family back to Australia, which was made more difficult because of the bushfires raging at the time.
With the help of Air Ambulance Australasia, they were flown to Brisbane and Able Seaman Blackwood began his recovery at the Princess Alexandra Hospital’s spinal unit.
Able Seaman Blackwood said he had no idea what life without movement would be like.
“My mum moved down from Rockhampton and was here with me every day and had to learn how to use the hoist to be able to lift me,” he said.
“I couldn’t move, I couldn’t brush my teeth or go to the toilet. I needed help with absolutely everything.
“When I finally gained use of my arms, I got an electric toothbrush and could use it with both hands.
When Able Seaman Blackwood was able to go outside in his wheelchair to get some sunshine, he said it was a painful process.
“It was nice to get out, but my head felt so heavy and the pain from my surgery meant I could only do 30 minutes at a time,” Able Seaman Blackwood said.
Intensive physiotherapy was a daily routine and it was a month before he could finally see an encouraging wobble in his knee.
He said he believed he wouldn’t be where he was today without the support he received from the time he was injured through to his recovery.
“The help I have had throughout has been amazing, including things I didn’t even know were available, such as ‘keeping watch’ and the mental health support available,” he said.
“Even just things like paperwork. Chief Petty Officer Jarvis took care of everything for me.
“He wanted me to just focus on my recovery and I was able to do that with his support.
“My recovery would not be where it is now if it wasn’t for all of this.”
Able Seaman Blackwood’s parents agreed.
They said the help received from the ADF and Navy was brilliant and they could not thank them enough.
“I am so grateful Cooper had the foresight to get holiday insurance, otherwise this could look very different financially for our family,” Darren Blackwood said.
Able Seaman Blackwood’s main focus now is his recovery and maintaining a forward-looking attitude.
As the saying goes, you have to learn to walk before you can run.
That is something Able Seaman Blackwood can attest to as he took one focused step at a time and has now achieved his goal of running again.
“I just keep looking ahead and what is the best outcome for the rest of my life.
“I am at the gym most days and still doing rehab.
“I still have people I don’t know reaching out to me and encouraging me. It’s great.
“I am very lucky.
“Being in the spinal unit at the Princess Alexandra, you see a lot and it has made me realise how lucky I am.”