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Finding hope through tai chi - Pete’s story

Finding hope through tai chi - Pete’s story

The long journey of rehabilitation after a traumatic brain injury is a hard-fought one. While there are huge life adjustments to be made, new life opportunities can arise.

Pete van den Heuvel understands this more than most, as his life took turns no one would envision.

Before his accident, Pete lived a comfortable life with his family on a lifestyle block in rural Canterbury. He worked as a sales rep, working with geosynthetic lining in large million-dollar horticulture projects across the South Island. He was fit, right into his mountain biking, and was deep into training for an oncoming corporate relay race.

“It was just as well my cardio was good, what happened next was a freak accident,” says Pete.

After doing some work on the family motorbike, Pete test drove it around his home. Suddenly, Pete found himself in contact with a concrete strainer post. The post hit him at speed in the chest, wrecking his shoulder and shattering his ribcage.

“It came down to a hair. I was able to phone home from the driveway. My breaths got shorter and shorter, I could hear the sirens from the ambulances and fire engines. The helicopter arrived and I just stopped breathing.”

Two paramedics kept Pete alive on the flight to the hospital, as his damaged lungs eventually stopped working, causing a cardiac arrest. The severe lack of oxygen supplied to the brain resulted in a hypoxic brain injury, and the cells in his frontal lobe were impaired.

Pete spent the next month in ICU, as well as a couple of weeks in the hospital ward, before some time in Burwood. It was a very challenging few months as he underwent surgeries all over his body. Six titanium ribs later, his shoulder and ribcage were rebuilt.

From major aspects such as his balance, down to the simple tasks like reading his watch, Pete was in a bad way.

“From the inside looking out, I thought I was alright. But you don't realise quite how bad it was. I was repeating myself all of the time, asking the same questions. But, with my rib cage and knee and everything, it was the brain injury that was the big one.”

After his time in hospital, Pete was admitted to us at the Laura Fergusson Brain Injury Trust. Pete said it was unnerving at first, as so much happened behind the scenes he was unaware of.

“At first I was like, what kind of place is this? But the staff are just gold, they're all so professional and just lovely. There is an army of amazing people out there behind the scenes who are there when you need them.”

After a few days, Pete settled into the process, as he came to see the areas that needed to work on. His balance was off, his vision was impaired, he had memory loss, and his cognition was off, leading to little control of tone, mood, anxiety and periods of fatigue.

Rehabilitation started with the basics - sticking to a daily routine, feeding himself, making it to appointments one by one. Sessions of physiotherapy and fatigue management, as well as sleep therapy, were especially helpful for Pete.

“Sleep therapy was really helpful, I learnt I had to tone things down. That was really good therapy, because man, you need to sleep! I was lucky they taught me the daily things.”

After three months away from home, Pete returned for what became the long journey of recovery. Essential to Pete’s Journey were Psychologist David Tie, and Occupational Therapist Lesley Bensley.

“They’ve spent years, looking after me. It was good because you go through such emotional highs and lows, especially like when you lose your career.”

“Pete always aspired to be the very best he could be and learning to do that within the constraints of his injury was his biggest challenge. He never gave up,” says David Tie, Psychologist.

In the five years since his accident, Pete has learned strategies to manage new, sometimes frightening aspects of life. Learning how to combat his fatigue, managing temper when he sees wrong, keeping a good diet to stay healthy - he slowly improved, managing life better each day that passed.

“Pete has always been committed to his rehabilitation,” says Lesley Bensley, Occupational Therapist. “He ensures strategies to manage his symptoms and initiates realistic and positive plans for moving forward.”

“A large part of the strategy is learning the confidence to say when you need a break,” says Pete. “There are times when I will say to my good friends that my anxiety is through the roof. Learning to speak up and take the time to relax in stressful environments. This is how I got into tai chi!”

After enjoying some pilates classes, Pete stumbled onto tai chi and found it was the perfect environment for him. There was a great social atmosphere, and the actions helped Pete synchronise his mind, brain, and balance.

“I thought, ‘wow, this is great,’ you’re always searching for something for you. What can I do?”

A master instructor for tai chi makes her way to Christchurch annually for grading. Pete was interested and decided to check it out. What he didn’t expect was to pass the grading, and it gave him immense confidence moving forward.

After visiting a tai chi class for the elderly, Pete was sparked with a passion for helping others. Before long, Pete set up a tai chi studio to begin practicing in his own home. His long-term goal is to teach tai chi to help with arthritis and fall prevention.

“Some of these elderly people had rough balance, but within six or so weeks you could see a real improvement. Just reminding them how good they’re doing, their confidence and walking always improve. Once you lose that mobility things are hard, so it is awesome to help people there.”

At the end of 2021, Pete sat the grading for arthritis and fall prevention tai chi and passed! He is currently working hard on getting his home studio up and running and is taking the steps to become ACC registered. As well as his goals for his home studio, Pete is also being voluntary work at Ashburton House to aid staff with stress release during breaks.

“It's great for me because it's a destination. It is something I'm gonna aim for. These days I am better at seeing those who are vulnerable. I know how horrible that feels. So I try my best to just make that person feel comfortable.”

It is this greater empathy that has truly changed Pete’s life, as he feels more aware of people’s challenges around him.

“We don’t have a bandage on our heads. Now I might see someone who looks a little out of the norm. In the past, I would have thought ‘what a rude person!’ But now it's like, ‘oh, hang on a minute'. There can be a lot behind a person.”

Pete’s life has changed dramatically since his accident. While there will forever be challenges, there are many exciting opportunities arising, and good life to look forward to. The future looks bright as he endeavours to help those around him. He encourages those in a similar situation to seek out something to hold on to.

“It’s a long tough road for people, for themselves, their loved ones, their caregivers. If you can just find one small thing to hold onto, for me it was tai chi, where you feel like you can do something with it. Grab that hope with both hands and hang in there.”