There really is life after a very near-death experience

By Ash Witoslawski

AFTER a truck smash left Chris Williams with barely an unbroken bone in his body, returning to work as an arborist seemed to be a remote possibility.

Working with a team of people on his road to recovery, including Echuca-Moama’s Paul Thorpe, the 39-year-old was able to return to his position and earned WorkSafe’s 2018 Worker Return to Work Achievement award.

In May 2016, Mr Williams was driving a Greater Shepparton City Council cherry-picker truck when he collided with a council wood chipper vehicle.

The collision caused serious injuries including a broken ankle, tibia, fibula, foot and toes on his left side and a broken femur, tibia and fibula on his right side.

He also had broken ribs, a broken hip ball socket on his right side, blood clots in his lung, a lacerated liver and a lacerated spleen, plus damage to his pelvis.

Mr Williams reached Royal Melbourne Hospital in a critical condition and spent 17 days there.

He was then transferred to the Epworth Hospital in Hawthorn for three months, where he fondly remembers spending time playing poker with other patients, helping not only his own rehabilitation, but those of many.

After several operations and long hours of physical therapy, Mr Williams returned home in August 2016 when he began settling into a more sedentary lifestyle.

This was a challenging time for the previously active man, who found out his partner Ellie Brennan was pregnant with the couple’s first child days before the accident took place.

‘‘She has been my rock,’’ he said.

‘‘When I came home she taught me how to deal with home life.

‘‘She explained to me through persistence and patience and taught me to break tasks down.

‘‘She helped me move forward.’’

Mr Williams returned as an arboriculture service officer in 2017. He had a hip replacement in July 2018.

After spending his life working outdoors, moving indoors took some adjusting, but it was something he took in his stride.

‘‘I had to learn how to use my indoor voice rather than yelling over noisy chippers,’’ he said.

‘‘It’s a completely different world in here and I do miss the sunshine on my back.’’

It was with the help of a team of doctors, social workers and his employer that he was able to maintain a positive attitude and eventually return to work.

Playing a part in that was Kingfisher Counselling Service’s Paul Thorpe, a semi-retired social worker in Echuca.

Mr Thorpe worked with Chris to recognise his anxiety and learn how to better control his thought process.

‘‘It’s a fantastic story of recovery, and it’s thanks to the doctors, nurses and everyone that helped him along the way,’’ he said.

‘‘When I first saw him, he used to get out of a taxi, shuffle down the corridor on crutches and struggle to sit down. He was struggling physically and mentally.

‘‘But he was in the right frame of mind to want to get back to work. And he showed that given the right circumstances counselling does work for people.’’

Mr Thorpe said he was someone who played a more minor role than the doctors who performed the numerous operations and other medical staff and specialists who assisted Chris in his recovery.

And that it was Chris’ overarching ability to stay positive that aided his recovery mentally.

‘‘He could have lived his problem, but I wanted to show him how to see himself separate from his problem,’’ Mr Thorpe said.

The pair worked together at 14 appointments in 18 months to set goals and learn how to better analyse his thoughts and emotions.

‘‘He made that shift because of his positive mindset, that’s all about him and not something you can easily influence,’’ Mr Thorpe said.

In light of Mr Williams’ triumphs, he was nominated for and won the WorkSafe Victoria 2018 Worker Return to Work Achievement award.

Up against three other contenders from across the state, Ms Pellegrino believed it was Mr Williams’ tenacity and enthusiasm for work that landed him the top prize.

The awards night was held at Crown Palladium in Melbourne, and Mr Williams, along with his family and colleagues, travelled down for the event.

Mr Williams said he and his fellow co-workers even bought new suits for the occasion.

‘‘I couldn’t believe I won, but it had my name on it so it had to be real,’’ he said.

Optimistic about the future, he lives by the motto: ‘‘when you have an injury or hurdle in your life, you must think big and think beyond.’’

‘‘The gift of life and being able to walk is something I really appreciate,’’ he said.

Although the days of laborious physical work seem to be behind him, he hopes to continue with his rehabilitation in order to support his family — Patrick, 24 months, and Jonathan, six months.

‘‘I constantly think about how I’ve got to be strong for them.’’