The road to recovery

Since becoming quadriplegic in a motocross accident in 2007, this daredevil ex-builder has been building own his road to recovery.

At age 37, Rhys Tappendon was a self-employed builder before he was flung headfirst off his bike at 80 kilometres an hour during a motocross race. The crushing impact caused permanent spinal injuries.

Determined to walk again, his achievements are testament to the power of believing in yourself after serious injury. Rhys talked to Balance about how insurance gave him the means and assistance to work on his recovery while training in a new profession for a second chance at life.

What was your life like before the accident?

Life was good all round. I’d been married for a few years to my wife Amanda and I had a successful bricklaying business in Sydney with 10 contractors. We were planning to start a family in a few years.

In my spare time I’d discovered motocross. I was looking for a new hobby to challenge the daredevil in me, and I loved the energy rush riding gave me.                      

How are things different now?

In February 2007, I was struck in the back of my head during a serious motocross accident. Being injured like that was the weirdest feeling. I couldn’t feel my legs and only had proper feeling in one arm. I had excruciating pain shooting out from my neck and running down my arms like a fire, but didn’t have feeling in any other part of my body.

I was diagnosed with a spinal condition called ‘C6 incomplete tetraplegia’, meaning I had very limited movement in one arm, but no movement or feeling in my legs. I spent the next five months in hospital and became completely dependent on my wife. 

Two years later, I discovered a radical rehabilitation program in Brisbane run by Spinal Cord Injuries Australia called ‘Walk On’. It allowed me to work on rebuilding my nervous system through intensive repetitive activities, and had such a transformative effect on my recovery that it prompted a move from Sydney to Brisbane for a seachange.

How did you find dealing with Asteron Life throughout the whole process?

I’m very grateful to Asteron Life for the support of their claims and rehabilitation team, and their assistance in helping me return to work.

My case manager and rehab advisor have been incredibly understanding in helping me through the process of my claim and my entire recovery after the accident. They gave me advice on vocational direction, and helped me come to the conclusion that I should work towards retraining to be a computer draftsperson.

They also engaged a rehab provider to support me closely, and funded some retraining courses and computer purchases. I felt so motivated and took part in all aspects of their rehab program. 

My claim also helped fund some modifications to my home, like ramps for easier access and converting the garage into a home office. Asteron Life organised a suitably qualified Occupational Therapist who did the home assessment for me and worked in collaboration with me as builder to complete the home mods.  

What has your ‘road to recovery’ been like?

Rehab is hard work, so you need the right people and support network around you. I’ve been fortunate enough to have this through my family, Asteron Life, medical professionals, and also through people I’ve formed friendships with in the community by being involved in different forms of rehab.

We also need to recognise the brave role that carers play in their partner’s recovery. It's not only you going through your own struggle, but also your partner.

It’s taken me seven years to repair a damaged nervous system, but the hard slog has been worth it. I’ve shocked myself by how fit and strong I’ve become, and I feel in a good place with my family and my work. Adversity has made me realise the potential to change your life if you believe in yourself. 

How was the change moving from physical work to drafting and consulting?

Following my course completion and work experience, I identified some work leads with a few interested employers, but the main barrier I faced was getting disabled access to a workplace.

Fortunately, the occupational therapist who’d done my home assessment kindly directed me towards some suitable part-time work in drafting. I’m now working part-time for the Certis Group as an Access Consultant.

The hard part of adjusting to a disability is that it can take an hour and a half to get ready in the morning, which is tiring in the scheme of a work day. This made me consider self-employment as a draftsman, as it gives me the choice to work from home. Ultimately, I want to set up a business in that field.

Going from being a builder to living with a spinal injury with less feeling and physical strength, I’ve had to dedicate hours of training each week to repair my nervous system. But, the effort has paid off and I have 80 per cent feeling in my feet, calf muscles and bottom, which has made my ability to work easier, and I can now drive to and from work without my wife’s supervision. 

What’s the best part of your new work in disability access consulting?

I get a lot of satisfaction out of being able to provide advice about building design for disability access to clients knowing I’m making a difference in employees’ and customers’ lives. I certainly know how hard it is to have to get around in all sorts of buildings and spaces with a wheelchair, and how it can limit your mobility in the workplace. 

Such a big change must have given you a different perspective on life. How do you celebrate life now?

This experience has made me live life with more purpose now. I’m determined to be the best I can be physically, and as a father and husband. I have a four-year-old daughter, Olivia, who seems Life is more about making my family feel proud of me, and ensuring I can continue doing something that I like, even though it's something different now. This experience has also brought my family and I closer together. It’s taught me to be patient and more considerate towards them.

Based on your experience, would you recommend life insurance to your friends and family?

Absolutely, it’s a no-brainer! After my accident, 90 per cent of my friends went and got their insurances checked out and made sure they had the right cover in place. 

What has having life insurance meant to you?

I feel very fortunate that my income protection has meant that my wife can work part-time now while also enjoying the things a normal couple with a child does, like being a mum and a wife, and having more quality time with her family. 

Speak to your financial adviser or call the Asteron Life team on 1800 221 727 to make sure you have the right cover to meet your needs.

This case study is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended to apply to all circumstances. Please note that availability of insurance cover and payment of a benefit under it is subject to policy terms.