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How a concussion ended up saving Shortland Street star Ben’s life

Why the actor and his mum are grateful for his freak accident
Pictures: Robert Trathen

Every Mother’s Day, Kiwi actor Ben Porter and his mum Louise find more and more to be grateful about. For Ben, it’s a classic case of slowly realising how much his mum did for him back when he was an oblivious youngster. For Louise, the gratitude goes deeper than that – she’ll never forget how close she came to losing her precious son.

When Ben was 15, he had a freak accident that seemed disastrous at first but ended up saving his life.

“Ben was doing a speed test in PE at his college,” Louise, 57, recalls. “He tripped and went straight into the wall, which knocked him out and gave him a concussion.”

Ben, 22, adds, “It was a brick wall and I was sprinting, so it was pretty serious.”

Ben started experiencing frequent migraines and blackouts. Up until then, he had kept Louise, a relief teacher, and dad Murray, who worked in aviation, busy trucking him between dance practice, football and school activities. Now they were back and forth to the hospital, seeking reassurance that these crippling symptoms would go away.

Looking back, Ben is in awe of his mum’s strength.

“I was quite an anxious kid. My emotion would come down to what Mum was feeling. If she had seemed worried, I would definitely have been worried. But she was just herself and happy, so I was happy.”

Despite living in Sydney, Ben talks to mum Louise every day. “She’s my favourite person in the world.”

Six months into the concussion saga, a junior doctor was examining Ben when she detected a slight heart murmur. “She told us, ‘It won’t be anything, but now that I’ve heard it, I’d like to get him checked out,”’ Louise recalls.

Ben had an echocardiogram, which picked up an atrial septal defect – a hole in his heart. He underwent surgery at Auckland’s Starship Children’s Hospital. Louise remains shaken by the surgeon’s words.

“They told us that if left undetected, Ben would have been one of those statistics of someone very fit and healthy on the outside who suddenly drops dead after a run, probably in his late thirties
or early forties.”

Ben recovered from surgery, his worrying post-concussion symptoms improved, and the experience strengthened his and Louise’s already-tight bond. “I’m so close with all my family, but I was definitely a mama’s boy,” he admits.

But that’s not to say he didn’t get into trouble, usually for some kind of prank, which would earn him an exasperated “Ben!” This was so common, he says, that Louise would often exclaim “Ben!” reflexively, even when she meant to scold his sister Nicole, now 23. (His siblings Brett, 36, and Tash, 34, had already left home.)

Causing mayhem on Shorty as Milo.

“Ben’s always been the one to jump out of a cupboard or from behind a door when you least expect it, or to hide my things so I thought I was going mad,” Louise says. “However, he’s also been the one to notice and just know when I’ve needed a hug.”

She’s watched with pride – and surprise – as Ben’s career has taken off. He hadn’t planned to become an actor. Four years ago, he was “a bit bored during lockdown”, filmed himself performing a monologue in his bedroom, and sent it off to a few email addresses he found online. As a result, he scored an agent within months and his first role.

“He creates opportunities for himself and chases his dreams,” Louise says. “His grit and determination are amazing.”

Giving credit where it’s due, Ben says, “Mum always taught me if you’re going to do something, just go for it. Put yourself out there.”

New Zealand got to know him as troubled teen Milo Cross on Shortland Street, where, last June, he horrified viewers by going on a fatal shooting rampage at the hospital. He also stars in the 10th season of The Brokenwood Mysteries and in the upcoming film Pike, about the Pike River tragedy, with Melanie Lynskey playing his mother.

Meanwhile, his real mum has had to say goodbye twice to her talented son, first in 2020, when he moved from Wellington to Auckland for work, and again this February, when he left for Sydney, where he’ll pursue acting jobs while continuing to work on Kiwi projects.

“It was very hard to let him go, but that’s from a selfish point of view,” she says. “The great thing about Ben is he checks in with us all and we talk every day. We’ve always been open and honest with each other, so he knows he’s never alone.”

As the adult responsibilities continue to multiply, Ben feels even more thankful for Louise.

“Now I have to get myself places, cook for myself and do my laundry, I’m like, ‘Oh, my God!’” he says, laughing. “It’s crazy! Mum did so much for me. I totally wouldn’t be doing anything that I’m doing if not for her.”

Now he feels ready for whatever adventures are in store, knowing Louise is always on the other end of the phone. “I speak to her about whatever’s on my mind. There’s never any judgment. When I’m homesick, I’ll call her. She’s my favourite person in the world.”

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