Road trauma changes a family, not just a life
Chris Latimer has had all four of her children affected by severe road trauma, she's now caring full-time for her daughter Nicole who suffered a brain injury in 2009.PT5M6S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-38eji 620 349 May 16, 2014
When her fourth child was injured in a car crash, Chris Latimer cried until she had cysts on her eyes. Two of her children already had been killed in a road collision and a third had been left seriously injured in a separate incident. All were passengers in the crashes and were not at fault.
As Chris and her partner David recount the story in her Mill Park living room, she shows a family photo, one of the few professional shots she has of all four children together. It shows Wendy, Melissa, Grant and Nicky smiling happily a few years before tragedy first struck.
That was on New Year's Day 1997, when Wendy, 17, and Melissa, 16, were killed in a three-car collision. Grant had seen footage of a crash on the 6pm news and recognised one of the cars. It belonged to Wendy's boyfriend. After an agonising wait, police confirmed the family's worst fears.
Left to right Wendy, Nicole, Melissa and Grant Latimer.
Then in 2007, Grant, by now 26, was in a serious collision that claimed the life of the driver, his best friend. He has faced a painful recovery from the physical and mental damage. His arm was almost severed but the most persistent scars have been mental.
Grant is studying psychology at university, focusing on post-traumatic stress, and hopes to become a counsellor. Chris says he now feels ''almost obligated'' to achieve as his siblings were robbed of that opportunity.
In 2009 Chris' youngest daughter Nicky, then 21, was in a crash and now needs around-the-clock care as a result of her injuries.
Nicole Latimer was involved in a serious road accident and now requires 24 hour care, and her mother Christine Latimer looks after her as well. Photo: Eddie Jim
''All my kids were passengers - none of them were driving,'' Chris says. ''We've gone through so many things typical families never have to, right from when we had to bury two teenage daughters in white coffins.''
Chris and David also have had to deal with the continuing impact of serious road injuries - something that strikes more than 5000 people a year and which Transport Accident Commission chief executive Janet Dore calls the ''hidden road toll''.
For every person who dies on Victoria's roads 17 are seriously injured, and the effects can be devastating to the victim, their families and their friends.
'Serious injuries are probably the most important thing because they account for almost 80 per cent of the total trauma costs to society': Monash Accident Research Centre associate director Stuart Newstead.
Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Robert Hill says: ''A life-changing injury impacts upon the individual firstly - physically, emotionally and financially.
''Their career prospects are impacted. And then there is a ripple effect across families, friends and the broader community.
''That's the hidden road toll.''
While the number of deaths has plummeted almost 40 per cent since 2000-01, serious injuries have dropped by less than 10 per cent. And the ongoing costs to the community continue to rise.
In 1997 Wendy and Melissa were the first recorded road deaths for the year, one in which 377 people were killed. By 2013 the toll had dropped to 242, an all-time low.
Driver education, safer roads, reduced speed limits and improved car technology all have contributed to lowering the toll.
Grant also might easily have ended up a road death statistic. Chris believes the car's back-seat airbags saved his life.
But for Grant the road to recovery has been rocky. At times he has struggled to cope with the trauma. He is not alone. State trauma registry data shows that, two years after serious road injuries, 28 per cent have made a full recovery, 72 per cent have returned to work, 37 per cent have a moderate to severe disability and 20 per cent face lingering mental health issues.
Between 2000-01 and 2012-13 a total of 73,890 people were hospitalised with serious injuries.
The TAC data shows almost one in six of those injured in road crashes spent more than 14 days in hospital, sustaining injuries that are typically life-changing.
Monash Accident Research Centre associate director Stuart Newstead also fears some of the most significant costs to the community from the road toll are being neglected. ''Serious injuries are probably the most important thing because they account for almost 80 per cent of the total trauma costs to society,'' he says.
Chris' youngest daughter Nicky's crash happened when Nicky's partner tried to overtake another car and slammed into a roundabout. He had just dropped her then two-year-old son Blake off at childcare and was driving her to breakfast.
Nicky's injuries were all brain-related and she was placed into an induced coma. ''I knew this was going to change everything again,'' Chris says. ''And we had already gone through so much.''
Chris says she cried so much that she stopped wearing make-up and developed cysts on her eyes. ''I was really really broken. I'll never be the same,'' she says.
Nicky's brain swelled so badly and lost so much fluid that the top of her skull had to be temporarily removed to contain it. Once she was taken out of the coma she was in a vegetative state for three months. The family realised Nicky would need constant care for life.
After being discharged from The Alfred, Nicky spent eight months in rehabilitation before being transferred to a supported housing facility. ''That is when the real work started,'' Chris says. They started getting Nicky to participate in physiotherapy and occupational therapy.
For Chris, the task of caring for Nicky presents a completely different set of challenges. ''A death is infinite, there is no coming back from that. With a serious injury the battle is ongoing and there is ongoing trauma. You are are under a lot of stress, especially when dealing with your own trauma and then being asked to make decisions about quality of care for your child.''
It was nine months before Nicky reacted to her surroundings. She laughed. As she was being moved from her chair to a bed her leg shot out and kicked a male attendant. ''Right in the crown jewels,'' Chris says.
''Everyone else was crying, but Nicky was laughing. We were crying in pure joy because this was a huge step forward. My heart jumped. We'd gone on for months with very little response and for something like that was a real joy. We needed joy.''
After Nicky had been in care for three years, Chris and David decided to bring her home permanently so Nicky's son Blake could spend more time with his mother. They moved to Mill Park, where half their house is set up for Nicky. The decision has had a big impact on their lives.
''We've gone from having good jobs and being where we wanted to be and doing a lot of travelling,'' David says.
''Our whole lives have changed - we are on pensions now and neither of us are working in the fields we are used to.
''We expected to be at the end of our careers and travelling. Now we're parents again with a six-year-old.''
But Chris says Nicky's health has improved ''out of sight'' since she returned home and Blake, who has autism, is happier.
Nicky is cared for at home by a team of hand-picked carers on a 24-hour basis.
''I'd rather she has a good time for 10 years rather than a lonely, shitty time for 20,'' Chris says.
''We don't know how much time we have with her and that's the reality of it. Her lifespan has been shortened and we just don't know how long she has.''
Chris says it has cost $3 million to care for Nicky over the four years but ''everyone in the community would want their child to have that amount of care''.
It is estimated that road trauma costs Victoria almost $4 billion a year, and last year the TAC paid out almost $900 million in no-fault claims to 41,459 people.
The financial cost of road injuries through TAC claims also has been increasing. Since 2000-01 the amount the TAC pays out each year has more than doubled.
TAC road safety manager Samantha Cockfield says ongoing support for people who need lifetime care is one of the factors in the increase.
Ms Dore says the expected average lifetime costs for people with quadriplegia is $5.8 million, $2.2 million for acquired brain injuries and $1.5 million for paraplegia, injuries sustained by 105 people on the roads in the past six years. Some of the TAC's most severely injured clients such as Nicky may need up to $10-15 million in lifetime support.
Chris now volunteers her time for Road Trauma Support Services, telling her story to people in the hope they don't have to endure a fraction of what her family has gone through. ''Education is a big thing, to try to change the attitude of people on the roads, let them know that when they get into a car that it can be a deadly weapon.''
She says the state should aim for zero road deaths and serious injuries a year. ''We want zero fatalities and serious injuries. That's what our aim has to be. What sort of road toll is acceptable if it is your family at risk? It has got to be zero.''
For help or information, phone Road Trauma Support Services on 1300 367 797