The editor caught up with the new chair of EFAC Vic/Tas Phil Meulman earlier in the year to chat about his experience of accident recovery. Here's an edited interview transcript:
Phil, tell our readers what happened to you…
Last August (2008) was an ordinary month for me as an Anglican Minister. A day with preparation and meetings in various places in the city of Knox and then a meeting at St. Paul's Cathedral. I was running late - how odd for an Anglican minister to be running late! Rushing to cross the road I stepped out and suddenly saw a motorcycle accelerating rapidly towards me.
In that split-second moment I'm not sure what I decided to do - retreat or run? Whichever it was, I slipped and fell. I tried to get up but it was too late. The bike hit me with full force in my pelvis and back. Face down on Flinders street, I thought I was winded but could get up. The reality was that I could not move an inch.
A series of thoughts then went through my mind:
1. Where is my new iPhone that I had just signed a 2-year contract on?
2. Is this the end of me?
3. How will I let my family know what has happened?
Very soon there were sirens, police, and paramedics attending and asking me all sorts of questions. A spine board was strapped to my back as I lay face down. I was rolled over and became aware of a sea of people looking at me in my helpless state. Soon I was in an ambulance blowing on a green stick.
I was rushed to the Alfred Hospital and examined by doctors asking all sorts of questions and checking out the injuries. Eventually my wife and other family members were able to visit me in the emergency room. The nature of my injuries was explained but it would be nearly 16 hours before surgery.
I had a pin screwed into my spine, and a frame (known as an ex-fix) across my belly with 2 pins attached to my pelvis to stabilize the compound fractures. It looked like a tea towel rack around the front of my waist. It was to be my friend for 12 weeks while the pelvis healed.
What were some of your thoughts and feelings in recovery?
As I lay in hospital and then rehab there were many foggy moments. I had great struggles coming to grips that this had actually happened to me.
I spent lots of time reliving that moment when I was hit and wondering how on earth I could have made such a mistake. I think I spent time trying to blame God for this happening to me. Not unlike Adam blaming Eve in Genesis 3!
There were times of euphoria in the recovery process due to a couple of reasons. The medication affected my rational thinking. The strong pain relief would make me quite euphoric at times. Euphoria was brought on by the realization that there were many people out there who loved and cared for me and were genuinely concerned about my well being. As one who lacks a lot of self-confidence this was a precious realisation during this time and it gave me a new confidence in God's grace and God's people.
Euphoria to depression was a daily experience. I am convinced the highs and lows during this time were increased due to the medication and when I got down it was sometimes for days. I wondered and prayed how on earth this would ever get any better. There were some days that I was terrified of people coming to visit me. During this phase of recovery I was trying to wait patiently on the Lord as the Psalmist says, but I felt that I was firmly planted in the “slimy pit… the mud and mire”.
Prayer seemed inconceivable because I just didn't know where to start or what to say. I actually found the Lord's Prayer the most helpful thing to pray in these dark times and am thankful for it and have been more reflective on that prayer ever since.
Perhaps the biggest impact during my time in the rehabilitation centre were the relationships and conversations developed with other inpatients. This did not develop until I was able to deal with my own struggles.
I found the lament psalms helpful with this. They taught me that it was OK to name my circumstances and feelings. So for example, David prayed to God for deliverance and lamented his own sin in Psalm 6:1-3
O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath. ….. O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish. How long O LORD, how long?
He also acknowledged God and believed God had heard him. Thus he concludes with the knowledge that he has heard and will answer his prayer - 6:9 The LORD has heard my cry for mercy; the LORD accepts my prayer.
As I took on verse 9, the cloud seemed to lift and helped me to re-engage with others. Many conversations were had with other inpatients - individually and in groups - where the level of sharing and permission to speak about the hope I have in Jesus came into the conversation.
It was allowed because God made it happen but also because there were no badges or roles with us. We were all inpatients on a level playing field. This resulted in genuine authenticity from people all round. Several great follow-up conversations ensued as a result of this level of sharing -so rarely seen in our churches these days.
So God clearly heard my cry and this is a reminder that in all things God can and will bring good things out of any situation. It also gave me a greater insight into God's grace poured out lavishly for us in Jesus.
What was it like to move back home and return to work?
The transition to home was gradual and painful. I'd been in hospital and rehab for nearly three months. My first half-day home visit was traumatic. Whilst I was excited to be there I was completely reliant upon everyone to assist me. That's ok in hospital, but quite a different story in your own castle. I found this to be confidence shattering. However, there was steady progress each week.
The next transition was to get back to church. . My first Sunday was fine. I was in a wheelchair and everyone who saw me was pleased to see me. They treated me just as I expected and no one approached me about church matters.
After my third week in attendance (still in a wheelchair), some treated me as if I was back to work duties. They put pastoral matters before me, as well as church matters, and I got the usual dynamics that all clergy have to deal with.
I wanted to hear what was going on but my body and head was clearly not in a state to deal with even the smallest matter. I was completely disabled and unable to make decisions and was unsure about how to stop these new pressures that were seemingly being forced upon me.
With some assistance I made the decision to pull out of any “work” related commitments. It was hard to do and I felt terribly guilty about letting people down, but it was the right thing to do.
The rehabilitation regime was increased to get me out of the wheelchair permanently. Focussing on this was incredibly helpful to my recovery and my own mental state. Throughout this time I was conscious of the prayers and support of many. I was also aware of the presence of God in many ways: through reading and reflection on Scripture, and the love and support of immediate and extended family as well as friends and colleagues.
There were times when I wondered where God was and why this had happened. I kept going back to the Psalms and praying as David did, “The LORD has heard my cry for mercy”, and choosing to believe he had. All the while I was re-learning how God has wired me as his servant. I have endeavored to build upon that in a positive manner. As I learnt to walk again I think God showed me afresh again his love, grace and purpose.
We start with grace and we end with grace. We all have down times. I have had some big down times these past 12 months. But it's by grace we are saved. God has taught me that no matter how tough it gets and how ugly it looks you can get back up because you are saved by grace. That's the most incredible thing! As you start with grace you end with grace. It never finishes. Get back up on the horse and start again with Jesus because he really does love us.
Where are you at today?
I returned to work part-time from February and with the help of a return to work officer from the Traffic Accident Commission (TAC), put in place some measures to prevent me from overworking in those first few weeks. My return to work turned full-time at Easter.
What are some key things that the Lord has shown you?
If I can sum all this up it goes something like this:
• Jesus Christ makes suffering redemptive. My injuries and mental state during confinement and since is physical and personal. But Christ's suffering and death is cosmic and available for all who turn to him in faith. How incredible to think that Jesus willingly gave himself to die on a cross and put aside his own human desires in order that we might have life. This does not mean that my or anyone's suffering is insignificant. On reflection my own suffering has helped me to appreciate more fully God's amazing love in sending Jesus Christ to bring us salvation and purpose in this world and give us an eternity to look forward to where there are no motorbikes to knock us over.
• Tell God what's going on in your head and let God's Holy Spirit remind you afresh through the reading of Scripture about the plans he has for you and the promises he has made to you.
• Believe and act on these promises.
Psalm 139 is familiar to many of us. The psalmist reminds us how God knows us - in every way.
“When I sit down, when I rise up; he is acquainted with all our ways and knows all our thoughts. There is no-where that we can go to escape from God. “If I ascend to the heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol you are there!”
These words have never been more real to me since August 27, 2008.
When I lay in agony on Flinders St - he was there.
When I was operated on he was there.
When I was recovering in hospital he was there.
When I was in despair he was there.
At no time could I flee from his presence.
All the time he was in control even though I wanted to take control.
And finally, when I let go and let God - that was when the real recovery from this accident began for me.
Phil Meulman has been Senior Minister in the Anglican Parish of Ferntree Gully and Rowville (RAFT Anglican Church) since 2001. He is the new chair of EFAC Victoria / Tasmania and is married with three children.