It was late, well past the time when visitors to Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital were due to leave. But Kerri-Anne Kennerley wasn’t going anywhere. She sat in the same chair she had occupied for much of the past few weeks, caring for her husband, John, who now lay critically injured and fighting for life in the bed beside her with a catastrophic injury to his spinal column.
“It had been a long day for both of us,” recalls Kerri-Anne, who is in her mid-60s. “John had been through an operation to help him breathe properly, through an intubation tube in his throat, but at that stage we didn’t know if he would be able to breathe on his own without the tube and a machine.
“As I sat there with him, my head resting on my arm on the bed beside him, I saw him blinking and obviously trying to tell me something. I stood up and leaned over. He couldn’t speak but he could still mouth words and I could understand what he wanted to say. I watched as he slowly mouthed the words, ‘How hard do you want me to try?’”
For Kerri-Anne, it was as heart-breaking a moment as she has ever experienced, a moment that even now, three-years later, brings tears to her eyes.
“It was such a difficult thing to hear someone you love say,” she recalls. “John was always such a tower of strength – quietly spoken but with a deep intellect and a great strength of character. For him to ask that question showed that he understood just how badly injured he really was, just how hard he was going to have to fight. It was a shattering moment. I cried and cried, harder than I have ever cried in my entire life and I begged him to fight. I said: ‘You fight as long and hard as you can because I don’t want to lose you.’”
Yet even a man as strong and determined as John Kennerley has his limits. John died on February 27 this year, in an intensive care hospital bed at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital with his son Simon, 52, and Kerri-Anne at his side.
It was the final act in a devastating tragedy that had played out over the previous three years after John’s life changed irrevocably when he toppled from a balcony at a golf resort in Coffs Harbour in March 2016, shortly after agreeing to a photograph for a fan.
John’s death, after so much struggle and so much pain, has left Kerri-Anne, his wife of 35 years, embittered and angry in a way that she has never felt before. “I feel cheated not just for myself and my loss but also for John and the life that he should have continued to live. He was always such a vital, energetic man and he loved life. His father lived to be 100 years old, so there was no reason that John shouldn’t have lived on for many, many more years.
“So anger, as a word, doesn’t even begin to cover what I feel. I have lost the person who underpinned everything I have done and achieved in my life. Everything. I would not be the person I am without John. But he is gone. And I am angry at how unfair it is. John had so much love, so much energy and spirit that was taken away from him before his time.
“But the truth is that his injuries were raw, devastating and inhuman. He spent three years trying so desperately to recover even the smallest parts of his former life but it was a struggle that his body simply couldn’t keep up, a struggle that in the end went beyond his body’s capacity to resist.”
John faced a difficult battle right from the start. Initially, his injuries were so severe that his doctors did not believe that he would survive. Vertebrae at the critical mid-cervical C3-C4 position on John’s spinal column – at the base of his neck – were shattered. Injury in this area of the spinal cord directly affects a person’s respiration and ability to breathe.
“Everything from the neck down was affected,” recalls Kerri-Anne. “The truth is that he would have died on the night of the accident if we had been more than an hour away from the hospital. Luckily, we got him to the hospital in Coffs Harbour within 20 minutes but the swelling from the injuries was so severe that his lungs just weren’t working. That’s when they had to intubate him so he could breathe. Even then he was still having difficulty breathing so they put him into an induced coma and transported him to Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney for surgery. It was such a terrifying time.”
But John, with Kerri-Anne’s love and devotion to support him, managed to achieve a succession of minor miracles during the next phase of his recovery.
Despite the odds, John managed to breathe when the tube in his throat was removed. He also managed to swallow, which meant he could consume food, as long as it was reasonably soft and small, rather than being fed by tube directly to his stomach.
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