When Sam Bloom fell from a rickety balcony while holidaying in Thailand with her family in 2013, her world changed forever. Paralysed from the chest down, the active life she’d led before seemed lost, leaving her deeply depressed at the prospect of a bleak future.
But in her darkest days came hope – Penguin – a wobbly-headed magpie chick who’d tumbled out of her nest. When no veterinarian would take Penguin in, Sam and her family carefully gathered her up and carried her to their own home.
Suddenly Sam felt she had a purpose, driven by her instincts as a nurse and mother to bring the little bird back to health, and in doing so, finding the focus she needed to move forward in her own recovery.
Her story became a best-selling book – Penguin Bloom – and is soon to be made into a film starring and produced by Naomi Watts.
Here, Sam shares a ‘real and honest’ account of how the new realities she’s been forced to face following her accident have changed her, but how little by little, she’s rediscovering her sense of self and setting new sporting goals along the way.
I’ve never felt more vulnerable in my life as I did straight after the accident. I had no control over anything and had to put all my trust in those around me.
Visualisation helped me lot. When I was flown back to Australia I’d lost a lot of weight and I was on an air mattress because I had a pressure sore from lying on the spinal board for so long – something that shouldn’t have happened. The air mattress would make this swooshing sound so I’d close my eyes and picture myself back in India – this beautiful arid place – with no-one else around me.
In the hospital back home I would just cry when the nurses would wheel me into the shower. I was a complete basket case. But I’d sit under the water and imagine myself surfing again.
Being paralysed means a lot more than not being able to walk. It’s the loss of independence and control of your life and your body; the loss of spontaneity. We used to do what we wanted with no plan but we can’t do that now.
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My husband Cam went away last year for a job. I was lying in bed and I looked at an old profile pic of myself on Facebook and just started sobbing. It was like looking at someone you love, but they’ve died. It was really full-on and I felt like I was losing it. I often used to think the real me died in Thailand. I was grieving – I still am.
I was so bored for the first year after the accident. Before, I was active every day, independent and doing mum things. Boredom became my worst enemy, but when Penguin came into our lives it became her and me every day. Suddenly, I had something to do. She was with me all the time and was really good company. We would sing and chat to each other. Penguin listened to all of my complaints and she never accidentally said anything thoughtless in response to me.
Listen: Mia Freedman interviews Cameron and Sam Bloom about their remarkable story. Post continues after audio.
I was never really a stressed person before. If the kids were driving me nuts I’d go for a mountain bike, run, or surf, and I’d be cool afterwards, but I don’t have that escape like I used to.
I’m essentially surrounded by people all the time, so now when I need to be on my own, I get in the car and drive to Palm Beach and just look at the surf and chill out listening to music.
I used to do everything for my kids, but when I wasn’t home for seven months they had to learn to be really independent. They are so resilient though, and as a family it’s brought us closer together. I remember Noah (15) telling me he realises now how fragile life can be.
The boys are different now – more compassionate. They’re more aware of people suffering because they’ve been exposed to it.
I certainly don’t think I’m the same person I was before the accident. I struggle to feel good about my body because three quarters of it doesn’t work. I don’t wake up in the morning saying ‘awesome, what am I going to do today?’ and I’m not as happy or as easy-going as I used to be.
I guess I have a new identity now. I’ve always loved sport and exercise, so I kayak and surf and go to the gym – I can still do some of the things I love. I’ve grown up by the beach and always found it very calming.
I took up kayaking after the accident, which was so good for me mentally and physically. In 2015 I got on the Australian ParaCanoe team, but last year I lost out on the opportunity to go to the Olympics, which I was gutted about. I had a purpose and a goal, and after missing out I thought, what am I supposed to do now?
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5 years ago my life as I loved it changed forever. I was told it takes 2 years to ‘get over it’ whatever that means. By far the biggest challenges of living with a spinal cord injury is the mental anguish not the physical inability to move more than half your body. Feeling trapped and unable to do things for myself has been soul destroying. But with the ongoing love and support from my close family and friends I’ve been able to find some inner peace and still enjoy my love of the water. @blackmoresaustralia
I got a letter from Julian Wilson’s mum (he’s the number three surfer in the world!). She’s super cool and told me to get back out there and try surfing again, so I did.
I was in a competition a month ago to get onto the Australian adaptive team. My goal is to make the team, then get to the ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championship.
Something many people don’t know about being paralysed is that it can mean you’re in constant pain. It’s so cruel. You could be stabbing me in the leg and I wouldn’t know about it, but every day I wake up in pain, which gets worse throughout the day. My feet are on fire, my bum is on fire – it’s like I’ve been stung all over by blue bottles and the jellyfish are wrapped around me. At the break line around my chest it’s hyper-sensitive too, so I’m never comfortable.
The pain can make me grumpy and sad, but I try to keep it inside. Exercise helps, and I take medication – an anti-epilepsy drug – but it’s not that great for you. When I first started taking it I felt so out of it.
I recently started taking medicinal marijuana. It takes the edge off and you certainly sleep well, but it’s crazy how hard it is to get, even though it’s all legal. I was taking CBD but what I’m taking now contains THC. It’s in oil form and you squirt about half a millimetre in your mouth. You don’t experience a high from it because of the way the THC reacts with the CBD. I was really fortunate to find a GP that was approved to prescribe it for me as it’s made a big difference.
I’m also writing another book, due out next year. Bradley Trevor Greive (our Penguin Bloom co-author) is in LA and he’s helping me write it. We talk a lot on Skype and I tell him everything that’s going through my head.
Penguin Bloom: the bird that saved a family. Post continues after video.
I sent him my notes from after the accident. They were crazy – so full of hate and sadness – but they were kind of my journal. I was angry at missing my old life, missing me, and feeling jealous of watching people live a normal life.
It’s weird re-reading them now. I’m not as angry as I was back then. I used to cry a lot more – I just found it all so overwhelming. Now I’m just trying to focus on the future and what I can do, instead of what I can’t.
The aim of the book is to help people. It basically picks up where Penguin Bloom left off and will share my take on facing and overcoming adversity. I hope telling my story might be helpful to others, and show them they’re not alone. That would definitely be a positive out of all this.
We’re also incredibly excited to have our story told through a movie. Producers Naomi Watts, Bruna Papandrea and Emma Cooper are extraordinary women and I know they will do a fantastic job.
Interviewed by Dee Behan