In August 2000, most people in Sydney were in high anticipation of the Olympic Games to start the following month.
It was much the same for 23-year-old Clare Sultmann. She was “living the dream”. A Law graduate from the University of Queensland, she had landed a great job with KPMG and was planning to work in Sydney for a few years before trying the expat experience in London.
“Life was wonderful and, yes, anticipation of the Olympic Games was a time of great excitement,” she says.
But she missed it.
On a cold, grey, bleak morning, she looked out the window of the Bondi Beach apartment she shared with a friend, tossing-up whether to go for her regular 10km morning run. She went to the bathroom, washed her face, stared at herself in the mirror – willed herself to get going – and set off.
What happened next is a real-life story of horror mixed with all that can be great about the human condition: dedication, courage, determination, hope and love.
Clare was on the pedestrian crossing when she was run over by a garbage truck.
“The worst thing is I was conscious the whole time,” she tells me. “I saw the destruction. I was in horrific, excruciating pain and I was screaming ‘please take this off my legs’.”
Clare needed the police rescue squad to untangle her legs and her from under the garbage truck – in the process needing enough morphine to “kill a horse” according to doctors - and was rushed to St Vincent’s Hospital. She stayed there for six months enduring 16 operations.
When Clare’s mother got the 'phone call at her primary school in Milmerran (near Toowomba), to say her only daughter was gravely injured, she dropped everything and rushed to her side.
“Mum basically walked out of the classroom that day and never returned. She dedicated her life to me for the next six years.”
Clare says her mother never, ever gave up.
“When she arrived at St Vincent’s later in the day and I was hooked-up in the ICU, they told her I’d either lose my legs or never walk again. But Mum refused to accept that. ‘We will walk out of here together’ she told me.”
Clare and her mother stayed in Sydney for the next five years to remain close to the team of doctors and allied health professionals who looked after her rehabilitation.
“Leaving hospital was one of the toughest times. I had been there for six months and had become reliant on the daily routine and on the care and attention. I was focussed only on myself and getting a little better each day.
“It was very, very hard emotionally. It also put a lot of financial pressure on the family. Dad stayed in Queensland working because that’s where his work was; Mum was living with me in Sydney.
“I was still heavily bandaged. I started off walking with two crutches, then two canes and by about the middle of 2002, I could walk with one cane.”
At the same time, she was also in the middle of a legal case with Waverley Council that became a see-saw.
“I’d go to a doctor’s appointment and we’d talk about what I could do and how we could keep trying to improve. I’d go to an appointment with my legal firm and, by necessity, they had to focus on what I couldn’t do anymore.”
By 2003, and not able to work full-time despite KPMG holding a job for her, Clare wanted to “do something” so she enrolled in a Masters of Law course at Sydney University.
“My mum even did that for me!” she laughs. “I had been in hospital for a follow-up operation and got an infection. So lectures started and I was lying in a hospital bed again. Mum went along to the lectures and, being a school teacher of her generation, took excellent notes sitting down the front of the lecture hall all by herself.”
By the end of 2005, and graduated from her Masters course, Clare and her mother travelled to London.
“The funny thing is the timing probably wasn’t that much different from what it might have been beforehand, but under very different circumstances.”
The main purpose of the trip was to visit a specialist orthopaedic clinic in Dorset.
On return from overseas, the pair returned to Queensland.
“It was time for mum to be back with my dad and I felt as if I wanted to re-connect with my home town again,” she says. “As well as family, my lifelong friends were there.”
But finding a job was the big challenge.
“Most HR people ran a mile when they saw me,” she says. “I was well-qualified, but I obviously had a physical disability, I wanted only part-time work and I needed to know that I could have time off for my ongoing operations and rehabilitation.”
A chance meeting with “a friend’s husband’s cousin” changed things. He was starting up a non-profit organisation called Youngcare, with the aim of providing accommodation for young people with high care needs.
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,” Clare says. “And that’s what I did. It was just wonderful getting into some really valuable and worthwhile work to help young people in nursing homes into more age-appropriate accommodation. It was also a wonderful way to help me re-connect with Brisbane.”
It also led her to the love of her life.
“I met my husband-to-be at the after party for the opening of the first Youngcare apartments. He didn’t know me beforehand. He just knew me how I am now. He is a rock,” she says.
“With his encouragement, I finished my study for the Bar and was admitted as a barrister in Queensland. About the same time, the insurance case was settled – after 7 years, 7 months and four days. We became engaged in 2009; married in 2010; and had our first son, Will,12 months later.”
Their second son, Joseph, was born at the end of last year.
Clare has written about her experience - something she says that was really tough.
“There would be days when I would sit at the computer and tears would stream down my face.
“But it was also cathartic. I realised that my life is not much different from what I had hoped it would be. Does that sound strange?” she asks.
“I fell in love with the man I would have fallen in love with. I have two beautiful children who are healthy and well. We’re hoping to have a third. I have gone to the Bar and I plan to return to work. I live in one of the most gorgeous places on earth (Noosa). I actually love my life,” she says.
“Yes, I have had 37 operations. I still have a lot of pain. I wear trousers all the time and can’t wear Jimmy Choo shoes. One knee can’t go past 60 degrees. But none of that defines my life. It’s not who I am.”
Clare says she hopes the book encourages others who are facing tough times.
“As mum said to me many years ago in the hospital room – it’s not the accident that defines me. It’s what I’ve done since and where I go from here that will.”
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All profits from Clare’s book, Standing On My Own Two Feet, will go to Youngcare. You can purchase a copy at retail stores or online here.