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Relationships

The enduring love story of a tetraplegic and his caregiver that will melt your heart

''She sees the person before she sees any disability, and thankfully she saw something in me.''

By Julie Jacobson
Like any couple, Palmerston North's Patrick Bronte and Julie Puttock have date nights, they go out for dinner, watch movies together and walk their dogs.
Both have challenging but immensely satisfying jobs. He is on a mission to preserve the experiences of New Zealand's servicemen and women, while she's the regional manager of a care agency.
They've been together for 18 years.
So far, unsurprising, yet theirs is a love story that transcends norms.
Patrick is tetraplegic, paralysed from the shoulders down after breaking his neck in an horrific diving accident when he was 16.
He spent six months in the Burwood Spinal Unit – in an induced coma for three weeks early on.
While the now 39-year-old has some movement in his right hand – allowing him to operate his motorised wheelchair – he requires 24-hour care.
"I'm fully dependent," tells Patrick. "I can get around in the chair, but I can't do all the simple, everyday tasks."
Julie was his caregiver for just over a year.
At the time they met, he was doing media studies and had just started his veteran's project; she was studying rehabilitation.
A mum-of-four, Julie says their feelings for each other developed over time. And then Patrick asked her out on a date.
"He asked me if I wanted to go out for dinner! We became best friends and then we progressively fell in love."
She moved in with him when her youngest daughter left home at 18, and she became a registered nurse "so I had the skills to care for him better".
They celebrated their love in a commitment ceremony in front of family and friends in their backyard.
Says Patrick, "We wrote our own silly little vows that no-one but us would get."
The pair have gone through some extremely dark times, triggered by the death of Patrick's much-loved dad Roger in 2009, and two terrifying cardiac arrests within days of each other, brought on by complications of pneumonia.
At one stage, Patrick's heart stopped for three minutes.
"I woke up to people doing compressions on my chest, and that same night I had to listen to a woman in the ward dying of emphysema. That really screwed me up," Patrick reveals.
Through it all, Julie was at his side, sometimes, he says, putting him before her own family.
"She's been there when I've needed her. She has been there for every issue, every problem; she has had to do mouth to mouth on me. Nothing has deterred her."
Julie and Patrick declared her love for one another in an emotional commitment ceremony in 2015.
The brave couple feature in an upcoming episode of TVNZ's I Am, a local documentary series that explores the experiences of New Zealanders living with adversity.
"The show is supposed to be about me," shares Patrick,
"but really nothing could have been about me if it hadn't been for Julie. Without her, I wouldn't have been able to get through those times; the times I've just felt like giving up, not bothering. She has literally saved my life."
Julie's family has embraced Patrick – "they absolutely adore him" – and the couple now have four grandchildren to enjoy.
They are planning a European trip next year, having already been to Hawaii and New York.
"We're just a normal couple," enthuses Julie. "We have loads in common. We travel, we hang out together at the weekend."
It was Patrick's intelligence and determination that initially attracted her to him.
"He's very driven and he was more able than any other person I had met, plus he has a great sense of humour.
"Patrick doesn't let anything hold him back. He is such a kind man. He's an amazing human being, and that's not being biased, he truly is.
"Yes, the relationship comes with difficulties, but so does every relationship. I am very lucky I have met my soulmate."
Patrick, who calls Julie his wife, despite not being legally married, echoes her words.
"It's not easy being the wife or partner of a high-level tetraplegic, but she is so caring," he concludes.
"Nothing fazes her.
"She sees the person before she sees any disability, and thankfully she saw something in me. She is Wonder Woman to me. I wouldn't be here today without her."

Can you help?

Patrick is keen to track down relatives of the veterans, some of whom he didn't get contact details for, so he can share their video interviews.
Contact can be made via his website ngatoa.co.nz.
He has also set up a Givealittle page to help fund his project.

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