After the crash

Chris Welch, left, and her partner Lisa Charman. Photos: Ryan Wood.

Chickens, geese, cats, dogs, goats, horses and a one-year-old pig named Pickles… all manner of animals can be found at the home of Chris Welch and Lisa Charman.

“Most of them are rescue animals,” says Chris, before rattling off a list of bios for some of them – the goat that was stuck in a tree for two weeks while its owners were away, the goat that was starved so badly it weighed only 14 kilograms when it was finally saved, or the horses left to starve in a paddock that was too small.

When The Weekend Sun visits, Chris is sitting in the small living room of the Aongatete homestead she and partner Lisa moved into more than five years ago. Next to her is Pickles, snoozing quietly on her own little bed. Chris gives her an affectionate scratch and looks out the window, at what would normally be an idyllic pastoral scene.

But her expression is tinged with sadness. She’s still thinking about the crash that, almost two years ago, changed her life forever.

One fatal mistake

Chris, a motorcycle instructor, was coming home from work on September 24, 2016 when the accident occurred – a date she’s not likely to forget.

“It was the day before daylight savings,” she says, “so it was still dark at around 6pm when it happened.”

She was travelling north on the notorious ‘Apata bends’ – an area of curving highway known to locals for its high crash rate – when a vehicle coming the other way crossed the centre line and collided with her van at around 120km/h.

“The driver was a 69-year-old man, coming back from Auckland, after getting off a 48-hour flight from Scotland,” says Chris.

“He fell asleep at the wheel.”

While the driver received some injuries, it was Chris who bore the brunt of the crash. She suffered multiple fractures including a broken nose, concussion, fractured sternum, ribs, right femur fracture, a compound fracture of the right ankle, tears in her right hip joint, and fractured vertebrae.

Due to the extent of the damage to her body, five months after the accident she had her right leg amputated below the knee. Her remaining leg will also have to be amputated in the same way at some point in the future, due to the severity of the damage to her left foot.

No apology

On the day Chris went into surgery to have her right leg amputated, the man responsible was entering his plea in court.

He was convicted, losing his licence, and was ordered to pay reparations to Chris, some of which has been used to pay for materials to build a deck around her home so she can be more mobile in her wheelchair.

But there has never been an apology.

“I said to Lisa ‘we can’t fill ourselves with hate’, and that’s what we said to friends and family too. It was just a horrible human error,” says Chris.

“His son came and saw me in hospital – he’s a local police officer, and a lovely, caring man. We told him we didn’t hate his dad.”

Eventually, the man’s wife also came and saw Chris in hospital.

“She’d been having a hard time with it, so I bought her a card as well,” says Lisa.

But the man responsible never made any similar effort – even when he was staying in the same ward as Chris.

“We met him later at a restorative justice meeting, and there he admitted he hadn’t thought about Chris much at all,” says Lisa.

It’s something that still bothers Chris.

“He gets to go on as normal, but we’re 19 months down the track and our life is still in turmoil. I’m still going to surgeries, and we haven’t had a bathroom for 15 weeks.”

The lasting impact

After her initial surgery, Chris was unable to use the shower by herself. So far she has had three falls trying to get out of the shower - twice ending up in the emergency department as a result with injuries.

ACC eventually sent builders to renovate the bathroom into a ‘wet room’ so that Chris could shower independently, but had to halt construction after discovering evidence of borer damage to the wood, which Chris and Lisa had known nothing about.

Now, after each new surgery, they must stay at a motel or a flat down the road.

“It’s been hard,” says Lisa, who works as a paramedic. “Twice a day I would have to go home to feed all the animals, before and after work.

“I work 12 hour shifts and then go back to the flat to look after and prepare meals for Chris. As a result of not living at the farm, all sorts of basic jobs have got way out of hand as I haven’t had the time to complete them.”

When they are at home, the couple must use a chemical toilet, and drive five minutes down the road to have a shower.

“Coming into winter we still have no advancement on our bathroom, and it looks like we are responsible to fix the structural damage before ACC will progress with building, which we can’t afford,” says Lisa.

They say ACC won’t help with fixing the structural damage, which will cost around $25,000. However, Chris says ACC has already forked out around $8000 on accommodation while she has recovered from surgeries, and may be spending more to have a portable bathroom unit placed on the property.

That unit is 12 weeks away though, which means another 12 weeks of accommodation payments just so Chris and Lisa can shower – something Lisa says is ‘ridiculous’.

“It would probably be cheaper for them to just help us rebuild the bathroom, but we feel like we’ve been swept under the carpet. We just wish ACC would show some discretion.”

Taking responsibility

Lisa says people might see the headlines about a nasty crash and serious injuries, ‘but a week later it’s forgotten’.

“We have some incredible friends and we have had some fantastic help along the way, but people don’t see the stress, anxiety and depression behind closed doors.”

She and Chris want to encourage people not to blame roads for crashes, but to take more care on them.

“Stop blaming the road, and stop blaming police. All we can do to build the road better is to put up median barriers to stop people from crossing the centre line,” says Chris.

“Nothing else will prevent crashes when people fall asleep at the wheel or are distracted by their phone. People need to start taking responsibility.”

She and Lisa are hoping to stay at the farm for as long as possible, as it’s a place they love, and their animals need them. But it’s an uncertain future.

“There are some days when we just want to curl up and cry and give up, but on those days we lift each other up and are just thankful Chris survived.”

A Givealittle page has been set up to help towards the cost of rebuilding Chris and Lisa’s bathroom. To contribute, visit: www.givealittle.co.nz/cause/warrior-women-who-now-need-their-warrior-community