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Save the last dance for me


Every doctor knows there is nothing exact about medical science. Every injury is different and every patient unique. For nearly five years now country GP John Jarman has concentrated on one patient: his wife, Dr Heather Hunter, who was run down in an act of cold-blooded bastardry by a convicted sex offender.

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Dr Heather Hunter walks again

Almost five years after she was intentionally run over by a convicted sex offender, Dr Heather Hunter has taken her first steps.

When she was flown from the scene in a coma she was not expected to live, but she did. Then she was not expected to talk, but she did. And then she was not expected to walk.

Last week the two doctors were among six people elevated to hall of fame status by the Victorian Rock'n'Roll Dance Association. And Dr Hunter walked to the stage to receive it.

It may not be a miracle but it is bloody close enough (in reality it is a case of love and guts mixed with a healthy dash of determination).

The Sale doctors filled their lives with activities. They danced rock'n'roll under the show names of CJ and the Babe, winning the Victorian championship. During her painful rehabilitation, a picture of them dancing sat on her bedside table. Every Saturday they would ride a 60-kilometre road trip around Sale. As John was the quicker rider he would give her a 15-minute start so he would catch her for the last push home.


On October 10, 2009, as Heather was nearing Chinns Bridge, convicted sex offender Paul Allan Miller drove past in a stolen vehicle, did a U-turn and ran her off the road, breaking her back and causing brain and massive internal injuries.

Miller stopped, put her bike in the rear and tried to drag her into the Toyota LandCruiser in what police believe was a sexually motivated attempted abduction.

He would later claim she veered into him. Police experts who reconstructed the collision gave evidence that he was travelling at only 64km/h in a 100 zone, veered left towards her with wheels off the bitumen, hit her squarely with the front bull-bar and did not brake until after impact.

He fled when another motorist stopped and was later arrested at gunpoint. Anyone familiar with the case knows Miller used his car as a weapon. But knowing and proving can often be a bridge too far.

He was charged and eventually pleaded guilty to negligently causing serious injury, failure to render assistance and theft.

In January 2012 he was sentenced to a minimum of five years (although that was shaved back slightly on appeal), which means Miller, 26, will be eligible for parole in a few months.

At his sentencing, Judge Michael Tinney remarked, ''I have concluded that there was no remorse and that you have poor prospects for rehabilitation … There is a real need to protect the community from you.''

Even his own lawyers admitted Miller had ''increasingly worrying psychosexual problems''.

The Parole Board know Miller's results from a confidential psychosexual test proved ''off the scale'' - worse than any Victorian serial sex offender - and will be unlikely to take any risks.

They know he has reoffended soon after release. He abducted and sexually assaulted a Sale woman while on parole and was on the run over another sex crime when he injured Dr Hunter. While on bail for the hit-run he committed a further offence and was arrested after a police chase.

But as the Hunter crime was not defined as a sexually related offence he could not be sentenced as a serial sex offender. This means even if he is refused parole he will be released after completing his maximum term and the police who have dealt with him say it is not a matter of if but when he reoffends.

In a victim impact statement Heather said, ''I have so much pain in my head. Being like this is awful. I just want to die. I just want to go outside and drop dead.''

When she finally woke from her coma she only had the vaguest of memories. She has some childhood recollections and knew she was a doctor, but the rest was a fog.

Unable to remember the collision, she feared she had developed dementia or an aggressive cancer.

She worried her husband would eventually tire of the visits and she would be left alone, a prisoner in a rehabilitation centre where she couldn't even remember what she ate for breakfast that day.

John's medical training was both a benefit and a curse. He knew the best way to assist his wife but he couldn't shelter from the truth behind a layman's optimism. His ambitions for his wife were for incremental and modest improvements. But when she lay for months in a bed in the acquired brain injury unit of the Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre, it must have seemed as distant as a trip to the moon.

Their retirement plans included walking and riding through the world's most interesting locations. Now he just wished that eventually she could walk the few steps to the bathroom. ''I was hoping, really. I didn't think we would get there.''

More than two years after she was mown down, Heather Hunter began to bear weight and by the end of the year she could stand in a solid frame resting on her arms. Then there were the rehabilitation sessions - hundreds of them.

Frightened, confused, but always a competitor (she finished second in a female body building competition) she would begrudgingly take on the physical challenges. ''She would throw the physiotherapist a dirty look, but she would always try,'' John says.

There would be months of frustration and then little spurts of progress. Eventually standing inside a horizontal frame she could shuffle five metres until exhausted. And then she managed 10.

Last year she progressed to a normal frame and the distance increased.

Meanwhile Dr Jarman was having their home remodelled. The corridors were too narrow for a wheelchair and so a new room, designed for her needs, was built while external ramps were fitted for access.

About a year ago she made the permanent move to a house full of memories she could no longer share. Through a combination of the familiar surroundings, her husband's encouragement, expert medical help and her own work ethic, her rehabilitation gathered momentum.

Slowly key elements of her personality started to seep to the surface. She started cracking jokes, teasing carers that their work duties included singing her bedtime lullabies.

One of the more interesting observations came not from her friends, family or rehab staff, but a woman whose profession requires her to be an expert in many matters, Heather's hairdresser.

As she visited on a two-month cycle she could see the gradual improvement in more dramatic freeze-frame snapshots.

''She said she first saw Heather with a naughty kid's sense of humour, then an adolescent's sense and then saw her as a naughty adult,'' says John.

Heather now enjoys watching a movie at home and reads articles in The Age, although her short-term memory remains challenged.

Then the remarkable. Heather started to talk about the collision near Chinns Bridge. ''She says she can remember the pain and the man saying to her that he deliberately tried to injure her because he was pissed off she was out while his wife was caught at home. But he was not married,'' John says.

When we visited the couple at the foyer of the Westin Hotel, Heather was sitting quietly in her wheelchair with a coffee. She said she was a little nervous about the hall of fame presentation because ''I might make a mistake''.

What is quickly apparent is the chemistry between the couple, who met at university and have been married for 35 years.

John is constantly asking her questions designed to exercise her memory. His attitude is not one of a teacher or doctor but a loving partner. She answers although obviously uncomfortable to see a stranger sitting there taking notes.

Asked if she remembers this reporter she says, ''Yes, you visited in hospital - the bad one.''

When I say her improvement is remarkable she fires back, ''Well, I was cactus back then.''

The next night when they are called to accept the hall of fame awards she rises from her wheelchair and walks haltingly to the stage.

There is a standing ovation.

Heather has an ambition. She wants to ride her bike again and to travel overseas. ''We would like to try and see if she could balance on a tricycle by the end of the year,'' John says.

It remains a long shot, but who would be game to bet against the doctor who refuses to give up.