It was a sunny Saturday afternoon when Tony Wright headed out along Cathie Road for a bike ride. The route was a regular trip for him – a part of his weekly fitness schedule.
Fast forward to three months later, and Tony found himself gripping on to life in John Hunter ICU, with no recollection of the catastrophic event that happened to him that afternoon.
Tony is an active part of the Port Macquarie community and holds many credits to his name. He has been a surf lifesaver and Port Macquarie Surf Club member of 22 years, lifeguard for 16 years, and has been the Swim Director of the Ironman Series Port Macquarie for ten years – he’s a passionate surfie who loves the salt water, fresh air and contributing to our area.
When Tony wasn’t at the beach, he was a local bus driver for Busways, and for 15 years his small business was the “Man With A Ute”. He is a father of two and loving husband to Leanne … Tony is well known as an all round good guy, who is constantly lending a hand to his community.
On March 4th 2017, Tony was hit by a car while riding his bike, causing injuries that left him fighting for his life.
It has been a gruelling and intense 18 months for Tony and his family as he tries to recover, and by any definition he has truly beaten many of the odds that were stacked against him. For those who have supported, heard about, or know Tony and his wife, Leanne, this is their story.
“A typical day for me was an early swim at Flynns Beach, then a workout in the clubhouse gym, before heading home to make a cup of tea for my wife, Leanne. Then, off to work I would go – I drove the Port to Kempsey bus for Busways and had been there for 15 years.
“Afternoons and weekends were always taken up with surf club or Ironman activities, or my own training.
“When I was out on the bike, I would always carry an old licence in my gear, and my phone; it’s got my Strava app on it for tracking my distance and ride time, and it logs my activity.
“That afternoon, I headed out on the bike as I normally would,” says Tony.
“I had a call from the hospital to say Tony had been hit by a car on his bike,” said Leanne. “I asked if he was OK, and the operator told me that ‘The police at the scene had some concerns, and could I come up to the Base Hospital?’ I thought perhaps I would get there and he would have some sort of cast on his leg or arm.
“So, I finished my tea, changed into my casual trousers, got a book, water and an apple, before I headed up there.
“When I arrived, they showed me to the ‘Family Room’, and it was there that I was met by staff, including Simon, a friend we know from the surf club.
“They told me that Tony was going in for surgery, and asked if I wanted to see him before he went in. I asked if he was conscious, and they said, ‘No’ – so I said I would wait ‘til he came out.
“It was then that they told me how serious it was, and that I might not get that chance to see him ever again.”
“To be honest, all of that is such a blur from then on.”
The next few weeks are indefinable for Leanne, and Tony recalls nothing of the accident or the first three months after.
Tony was given life saving surgery at Port Base and then flown by the Westpac Rescue Helicopter to John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle.
It was a gruelling few weeks that ensued for the family, waiting to see if Tony would survive.
His injuries numbered in the dozens – fractured bones, lacerations, broken 11th rib, dislocations, the right side of his facial skin was disconnected, there was a gaping wound to the rear of his skull … to name a few.
The list of injuries is two pages long.
He spent 285 days in hospitals and is now up to 13 operations – and counting.
“What kept me going was my mind. I can’t die,“ said Tony.
“Tone” was in John Hunter Hospital ICU for four weeks, the trauma ward for eight weeks, transferred to Rankin Park Rehabilitation next door in May and released to Port Macquarie Private Hospital on September 25th, 2017.
“We had so much support from our family, friends and the community. People would come to Newcastle and visit all the time.
“One day Gayle turned up with two huge buckets of saltwater that she had collected from Flynns Beach, and drove to Newcastle so they could wash my feet. Plewsy (David Plews) did the same,” said Tony.
That’s just one of a few stories of encouragement that Tony got to push on.
The Gofundme page, surf club fundraiser, Golf Day were some of the shows of strength for Tony and Leanne.
In December 2017, Tony was released from Port Macquarie Private Hospital and celebrated Christmas in his own home with family.
Days are much different now for Tone. A slower pace, as he focuses on rehabilitation – currently he is four weeks post surgery on his elbow – a operation to help regain movement in his left arm. The stitches are out now, and he’s looking forward to using it again.
For Tony, to walk again is a miracle.
To be here today is a miracle.
“At one point they wheeled me into theatre to remove my left leg from above the knee. It wasn’t in a good way.
“I was on the table, four surgeons ready to amputate it. One of the doctors took another final look at it and decided that maybe there was enough good tissue left and they would give it a chance.
“For that, I am thankful, as I can now walk and have both legs. It’s not a pretty leg; but it’s there.
“I’ve had 12+ operations, with several more to come. Hopefully, it will free up my elbows, but I’m worried how my hands will end up, as I still have trouble opening jars and even a fresh 2 L milk.
“My knees are dodgy. My lower legs, buggered. It seems never ending.
“And I don’t go anywhere without having a carer, or someone to keep an eye on me.
“Right now, my week is full of physio, hydro, hand therapy, gym work, leg therapy and doctors’ appointments.
“But on the upside, it takes my mind off my current predicament – because there’s been way too much time to think.
“It’s not until I start trying to do the stuff I would normally be doing easily, that it hits home the position I’m in … right down to buttering bread. And yes; even going to the toilet.
“I had such an active lifestyle, that it’s weird not being able to do stuff.
“Going for that training ride was 30 – 40 km, and I did that every week or so. I would run 8+ km twice a week and go to the pool to do 20 – 40 laps. Going to the beach meant some sort of training.
“And, I’m angry I can’t do any of that stuff anymore.
“Even housework! I used to vacuum and mop, make beds, do the laundry, clean the pool, mow the lawn.
“It’s all changed.”
It’s hard to comprehend just everything this family has been through while I am sitting in their warm Shelly Beach abode; the fire is lit and Tony gets up every 20 minutes to pop another log on.
Their new family member, Holly, snuggles up on the couch with Leanne – a Shi Tzu cross they rescued from an animal shelter out the back of Lansdowne just recently.
Here are two people, faced with unthinkable health challenges, and they rescue a nine year old Shih Tzu dog!
There’s more love and kindness packed into this house than I can grasp. I am in awe of the people I am sitting with; but what fills this home the most is the overwhelming sense of gratitude and positivity.
Tony and Leanne laugh and smile at each other, as they recount the story of the last 18 months.
No doubt it has been incredibly challenging for them and their two adult children, Tayla and Joe, but they are still finding the good in every day.
“This is the new normal,” says Leanne. “And this is new Tone. Life is so different now than before.”
When I called Leanne and Tony and said, “Let’s tell the story of how you are recovering – we are all so in awe of your progress”, they openly welcomed me, as they had so much to tell and so many people to thank.
When I arrived at their home in mid July, I wasn’t expecting to learn that Leanne’s breast cancer had returned; she was in her first rounds of Chemotherapy and will progress to radiation.
Sitting on her couch, adjusting her beanie, she says, “Tone was hit seven weeks after I finished radiotherapy for my initial breast cancer in 2016/2017. He actually can’t remember my operation or treatment the first time round. Part of his memory loss from the accident includes many incidents in the last part of 2016, and he initially thought his accident happened before Christmas, as he has no memory of December 2016 or January, February 2017.
“Tone was already at home when I found the lump under my arm in April 2018, but he was having his elbow operation at John Hunter Hospital in the days after my first round of chemo.
“I was helping an artist friend at the ArtWalk in Port Macquarie, and my doctor called to give me the result that the cancer had returned. I had a cry, told our daughter, who was also helping, then we continued our chalk mandala.”
I asked Leanne and Tony, “Who’s looking after whom?”
“We both are,” they say, smiling at each other.
And so the fight continues for them, but there is no doubt they are surrounded by love and support.
Tony and Leanne would like to thank the many people who have helped them and continue to help them – their respective employers, Busways, Port Macquarie-Hastings Council, friends of the surf club, sporting groups, family, associates and the wider community.
Photos, in order from hero to gallery:
1. Tony at Flynns Beach, July 22nd 2018.
2. Tony at a surf carnival pre-accident.
3. Tony at Rankin Rehabilitation Centre.
4. Tony with his family and loved ones.
5. (bottom) Leanne, Tayla, Joe and Tony at home.
Story by Louise Beaumont.