Lee Taniwha was barely a teenager when his life took on an entirely different shape.
He was 13, and dove into a friend’s swimming pool. Instead of gliding back up to the surface, he crashed onto the pool floor and broke his neck.
Now 28, Taniwha (Waikato Tainui, Ngāti Maniapoto) dedicates his days to helping other people with paralysis at the beginning of their journeys with their spinal cord injuries just like he was, 15 years ago.
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He remembers screws being put into his head, then waking up out of an induced coma two weeks later, on a ventilator and paralysed from the shoulders down.
His family helped him come to terms with the extent of the damage, and he stayed in the south Auckland Spinal Rehabilitation Unit on Bairds Road for five months.
"Especially at that age, you're not a whole person yet so having everyone around me was huge for me," Taniwha said.
He went back to high school in his powered wheelchair, and had to learn everything from scratch – both physical things, but also how to be himself.
"It was nice to be treated nicely, everyone was worried about stepping on my toes, but relationships with friends, girls, that was a different thing. It was a really big shift in life."
These days, Taniwha is back at Bairds Road, but not as a patient. He is a mentor with Spinal Support NZ, where he helps patients at the beginning of their rehabilitation journey with the questions and dilemas he went through too.
He said he tries to treat people the way he believes his tūpuna would have treated people, thinking his working through in te reo Māori.
"When we talk about manaaki , the English translation is hospitality," he explained.
"But in Māori , mana and aki, we translate it as to encourage or stir up someone’s sense of self, or sense of pride, which is totally different to hospitality.
"I always try and think, how did my ancestors treat people, how would they have treated people in this situation? Would my grandfather have done it this way? I think about that quite a bit."
Taniwha said while doctors have the expertise, other spinal cord injury victims have the experience patients need to hear early on in their recovery.
"To hear it from someone who has actually lain in the bed, with the catheters, the tedious parts, being in a wheelchair, that stuff is a lot more valuable to the person going through it."
That's why he is so excited about an unprecedented funding boost from ACC of $1.3 million to fund 30 new Peer Support workers in 18 more regions around the country; work that is usually paid for by fundraising.
Today there are just two spinal units: one in Auckland and one in Burwood Hospital in Christchurch, operated by their respective DHBs and with support services run by Spinal Support New Zealand and the New Zealand Spinal Trust.
Taniwha said the days after his five-month stint in the spinal unit were hard, even though his family tried their best. Leaving the comfort of the rehabilitation clinic, along with others like him, was frightening.
"When you leave and go home, you have no set timetable, and you are the only one in a wheelchair. When you change that environment, it's really, really scary."
New Zealand Spinal Trust (Te Taratihi Manaaki Tuanui) chief executive officer Hans Wouters said the funding is a boon for the spinal injury community.
Every year, between 220 and 240 people have spinal cord injuries, either as a result of an accident or from a medical event, Wouters explained. When they leave rehab, they need someone they can talk to waiting for them.
At least 5000 people across New Zealand are living with spinal cord injuries today, although the exact number is harder to ascertain, he said.
He expects ACC will renew its commitment after the two-year funding period is up, once NZST and SSNZ have proven the concept.
"We've been hugely encouraged by their willingness to embrace the fact that we haven't got all the t’s crossed and the i's dotted. There is going to be a building up, and recruiting and training.
"We have been given the best opportunity to make this work, and we have amazing people putting a lot of effort and energy into it."
ACC Minister Carmel Sepuloni said investing in Peer and Whānau Support across the country was "long overdue."
"ACC's investment will make a huge difference to the hundreds of New Zealanders who suffer a serious spinal injury each year," she said.
"I'm looking forward to seeing the difference it will make to the people whose lives are turned upside down by spinal cord injuries."
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