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How a significant brain injury brought Mark Toomey closer to his son.

More than 10 years after our marriage had ended, a phone call from the mother of my children was an unusual event.

The unexpected call, late on May 4 2015, was particularly dramatic: our 35-year-old son had suffered a massive brain haemorrhage, resulting in seven hours of emergency brain surgery at Royal Melbourne Hospital.

His condition was extremely serious. A grade four bleed has a survival rate of 20%. Grade five is unsurvivable. Geoff’s was between the two.

He would remain in a coma for 13 days and in ICU for 23 days. It was more than three months before he was strong enough to transfer to the Acquired Brain Injury rehabilitation unit at Caulfield Hospital.

"Geoff had long lived an alternate lifestyle – one in which he and I did not see eye to eye." (Image: Supplied)

I was working in Sydney when the news came through. There was no point going home immediately; Geoff was in the best of hands, and wouldn't know if I was there. He was surrounded by his mother and her many sisters, and did not lack words of encouragement. It seemed my task was to communicate with and engage his support network.

That evening I wrote the first of many extensive Facebook posts. By tagging people who were connected to Geoff and marking my posts as public, I was able to quickly engage a community of hundreds who were interested to know what happened to him.

Geoff had long lived an alternate lifestyle, one on which he and I did not see eye to eye. Our relationship had been difficult, though whenever he had fallen completely off his horse, I was there to help put Humpty Dumpty back together again. This time, the process would be very different.

Mark Toomey speaks on tonight's episode of Insight on SBS. (Image: Supplied)
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While interacting with many people who knew him via Facebook, I came to understand the diversity of his alternative crowd. Some, like Geoff, live far outside society’s conservative norms. But many have real jobs, families and responsibilities that they take very seriously. Geoff’s brain explosion happened at a “bush doof” – a festival of music and entertainment held deep in the bush, well separated from more staid communities.

I met the woman who saw Geoff fall and who, through years of neuro-surgery nursing experience, recognised that he was not drunk or high, but was experiencing a significant brain event. I learned as she sprinted to help, she tagged another “doofer” who happened to be an experienced emergency doctor.

While Geoff was still in a coma, I met the young metal-clad young entrepreneur who owns and organises the event, and who insisted on organising a fundraiser to help with the costs of Geoff’s recovery.

I learned a great deal about my son – things that had escaped me through the tension in our relationship. I learned about his kindness – how he helped anybody and everybody, whenever he could, just because he could. I learned about his community’s respect for his wise counsel and teaching.

"I learned that I had been too concerned about the negatives and had lost connection with the positives in his life." (Image: Supplied)
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While I had experienced him twirling his fire sticks, I had not realised how highly his talents were valued by those who saw him in full flight — and was completely unaware of his role in freely passing on these skills to others. I learned that I had been too concerned about the negatives and had lost connection with the positives in his life.

Today, Geoff is near the end of his time in the rehabilitation unit. We have experienced the immense talents of very special therapists – especially Gemma and Lauren – who have the patience to persist in pursuit of small gains which accumulate to great achievements. They work with people whose brain injury reduces their cognitive and physical function, resulting in issues like verbal abuse, sloppy eating, drooling and incontinence, that would drive away lesser beings.

From a 46kg shadow of his former self, Geoff is now a slightly portly 70kg man who loves a laugh, relentlessly pursues development of his new skills playing harmonica (taught by the legendary Justin Brady), who achieves mobility using his custom wheelchair, and has strong aspirations for his future.

Mark Toomey Insight
"Today, Geoff is near the end of his time in the rehabilitation unit." (Image: Supplied)

Geoff’s imminent transition from rehab to a life outside hospital has its own challenges. There are significant gaps between the old state disability system which is winding down, and the new world of NDIS. Again, we are discovering wonderful people and organisations like Belonging Matters, the Summer Foundation and Young People in Nursing Homes.

They are helping us navigate the complexities so Geoff can move into a dignified, active and worthwhile future, continue his long-term recovery, and realise his aspiration of being a positive influence for young people faced with challenging life choices.

Mark is a guest on tonight’s episode of Insight at 8.30pm on SBS, which hears the emotional stories of Australian families dealing with life after an acquired brain injury. #InsightSBS